Cee Cee Parker, Robbin Mallett, Ron Weeks, Suzanne Mottin and Susan Fortenberry.
Birding is one of the fastest-growing hobbies in North America with one recent estimate that there are 45.1 million birdwatchers in the U.S. Even greater numbers of people across the globe are passionate about birding and backyard bird feeding. It’s a multi-million dollar industry and one of the strongest draws for ecotourism. It’s a hobby that’s great for all ages. It will get you outdoors, it’s environmentally friendly, and it doesn’t require a big investment in instruction or equipment.
If you are interested in birds, but not sure how to get started, here are Five Tips for Beginning Birders. These are tips recommended by the National Audubon Society, but with a local spin on them.
Birding can be a low-cost hobby. All you really have to do to enjoy birds is walk outside and find some to observe. But to get more out of birding, the two essentials are a pair of binoculars and a field guide or an easy-to-use birding app. If you want to get into bird photography, that can lead to a larger investment. Bird photographers generally use a longer lens – 300 mm or more – to get good photos of birds from a distance.
Birding can be an adventure, but it should never be reckless. Study the American Birding Association's guidelines at https://www.aba.org/aba-code-of-birding-ethics/ to help you minimize your impact on birds and other wildlife when you're in the field. Be sure you know how to keep yourself safe as well with these tips: www.audubon.org/news/safety-tips-better-birding
Developing a quick pre-birding routine can save you a lot of pain in the long run: Check the weather and consider the season before you head out. Being in the Gulf Coast region, be careful to dress for the weather, and if you’re going somewhere off the beaten path, let someone know. Besides your binoculars and/or camera, remember to take sunscreen, insect spray, a hat, a water bottle and a charged cell phone.
You don’t have to stray far from home to go birding: Any green space or open water source will do. Fort Bend County is blessed with a lot of great birding hotspots including Brazos Bend State Park. Of course, Cullinan Park is one of the best places in the region to bird with more than 252 species of birds spotted in the park. You can find other hotspots around Houston or anywhere you travel using eBird by Cornell Lab, which is free to download on the App Store.
Finding birds is much easier said than done. Scoping them out requires a bit of skill and practice, and once you’ve got your eyes on the prize, you’ll want to figure out what exactly it is that you’re looking at. To spot birds, try these four steps to hone your powers of observation.
If you're in a car, park and get out. If you're with other people, finish chatting and stand still. Spotting birds requires attention, so take a moment to clear your mind and engage your senses.
The trick is to scan the area and check the types of places birds frequent. Don’t forget to look up for flyover hawks, eagles and other birds. Check for perches like tree limbs, power lines, fence posts & treetops and investigate any interesting shapes or silhouettes. Spend a little time. Birds often blend in with their surroundings. They can be in full view one second and totally hidden by leaves or foliage the next. Be alert for movement and for anything that seems out of place. It’s a good idea to work up the optical scale: Look with unaided eyes before using your binoculars. Try binoculars before going for a spotting scope. If you see a bird and think you know what it is, don’t immediately pass it off—study it closer to be sure it isn’t something unusual.
Your ears can help as much as your eyes, especially while birding in dense forests. Good birders spend up to 90 percent of their time just listening. The drumming of a woodpecker is unmistakable, and vocalizations—like the cry of a red-shouldered hawk—are as distinctive as visual field marks. It's challenging at first, but once you begin to recognize the calls of the common birds in your area, you’ll know when you hear an unfamiliar bird and you can try to locate it. Sometimes it might not end up being a bird. It’s easy to be fooled by squirrels, frogs and insects.
After you've thoroughly studied an area, it’s time to move on. In general, you’ll see more birds by covering additional territory than sitting in one spot. Walk at a meandering pace, and scan the sky and listen to bird sounds as you wander. When you see a bird, or when you arrive at a promising vantage point, stop, look & listen—again and again.
Identifying birds can be challenging. Males, females and juveniles of the same species can look dramatically different, and some birds look different in breeding plumage than they do the rest of the year. Beginning birders often notice color first, but color isn't a reliable field mark. It can be misleading. Some of the keys to IDing birds are shape, size, behavior, habitat, the season and any vocalizations a bird makes.
When you see a bird you can’t immediately identify, try to get a good photo. This will allow you to ID the bird later using a field guide, the Merlin Bird ID app, or for really tricky IDs, you can post the photo on the What’s This Bird Facebook page where experts will chime in with their opinions.
Connect with other birders. If you live in Fort Bend County or nearby, check out the websites of area birding organizations including the Houston Audubon Society, Ornithology Group of Houston or Texas Master Naturalist Coastal Prairie Chapter. You can learn a lot from going on guided bird hikes, attending birding events and just going out with more experienced birders.
Fort Bend has a very active birding community, and if you show up at Cullinan Park early in the morning, you’re very likely to run into a birder who will be happy to chat with you about their favorite subject! Just look for the binoculars and ask if they’ve seen anything interesting. Spending time in nature is good for the soul. Happy Birding!