Birding for beginners

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Get in with a good flock, and you could be birding the world before you know it

Years ago I lived in South Minneapolis near the urban “chain of lakes.” As I was walking around Lake Calhoun one day, I came across a horde of people standing near a scope, blocking the sidewalk. I made some comment about it and heard pretty quickly that a rare bird had been spotted and that these several dozen people had gathered to “watch” it. I was totally baffled.

Today, I get it. Bird watching is second only to gardening as the most popular hobby in America, and the passion of birders may outshine those of almost any other activity. But birding, as it turns out, isn’t just watching birds, it’s a reason to travel the world, spend time in the wilderness, champion conservation and meet others who are doing the same. I like it.

Everyday, people are discovering birding for the first time. But, as it turns out, beginner birders often find themselves on a crash course.

In 1997, some friends took Vancouver resident Eric Bjorkman and his wife Tammy to a little house in central Vancouver to look at a western tanager, “a beautiful bird with a red head, yellow body and black wings.” This is the moment Bjorkman started birding.

“I had never seen that, and if I’ve missed that, what else have I missed?” he said. “At that point, my wife and I were both 37 years old. We fell in love with it right off the bat.”

Birding the world

The Bjorkmans started going on birding trips with Vancouver Audubon and its founder Wilson Cady, a local conservationist and bird expert. Today Eric Bjorkman is the president of Vancouver Audubon while Tammy is the secretary.

“We went in head over heels,” he said. “We have traveled all over the world looking for birds.” The Bjorkmans have been on birding trips to Ecuador, Costa Rica, and the African countries of Zimbabwe, Botswana and Uganda. Last November, they went in together on a tour of India with four other local birders. The group spotted about 220 species of birds, which is “a pretty low amount for two weeks of hard birding,” said Bjorkman, referring to the dwindling wilderness in the country. By contrast, Bjorkman and I spotted 30 to 40 species of birds in one hour of birding at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Before birding, Bjorkman said, “We would go up and down the I-5 corridor; shopping is what our vacations consisted of. Now we spend our vacations out in the wilderness, and I think our lives are much richer for it.”

The website helps connect birders with guides and lodgings all over the world.

Bob Hansen, former Marion County, Ore., director of public works, is now retired and living near Lyle in Klickitat County. By his account, he has been birding all his life, and it has meshed well with his travels as a mountain climber.

“I could point back to the fourth grade when I saw my first bird book and didn’t realize there were different kinds of hummingbirds,” he said. Other pivotal birding moments were watching dancing sandhill cranes in Malheur, Ore., and during a difficult climb in Peru, when he sketched a picture of a bird he noticed and described it in his journal, even though he could not identify it.

Getting in deep

Both Hansen and Bjorkman say that taking trips with a local Audubon Society or with birding friends or family is a great way to get started. Birding can appeal to solitary types, but soaking up information from someone with more knowledge can be exciting. Of course, some can take it quite far.

“I have many friends who are Tweeters addicts,” said Hansen, referring to a website for Washington State birding lists, sightings and resources. And, he said, it can wreak havoc on relationships when one spouse is in too deep. “I met this guy in England whose first marriage dissolved because of birding and second was because of birding.”

While birding tends to attract retirees, Hansen found ways to get his young son involved in the hobby that means so much to him. “I always encouraged him but didn’t want to over-encourage,” he said. Hansen would pay his son 25 cents for every bird he saw at their feeder, an additional quarter if he could identify it and another 50 cents if it was the first one of the day. For Hansen’s son, bird watching literally paid off.

Their habitat, our habitat

Helen and Mike Hackett are new to bird watching. When they retired to Ocean Park ten years ago, “I had no idea how beautiful the area was, “said Helen Hackett.

Today they are co-presidents of Shoalwater Birders, an organization that was formed in 1999 for bird watching and conservation on Washington’s southern coast.

When friends and family would come to visit, she said, the couple would take them to Fort Canby and other nearby tourist attractions.

“Then I’d say, what are we going to do now? Now I have beautiful places I can take people to that are just down the road.”

Helen is most impressed with what birding has taught her about her environment. “Their habitat becomes our habitat and we learn from them.”

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