On our recent bird walk at the Botanical Garden, we briefly discussed the various ways to love nature and explore our interest in birds. We pursue these interests in individual and different ways.
The classic example when it comes to birds is the difference between a bird watcher and a birder. A bird watcher is a person who likes to look at and notice birds. A birder is a person who likes to look at and notice birds and also seeks them out – there’s action involved in searching, hunting, looking for specific types of birds.
The majority of people who read this article will be the classic bird watchers. You know about birds (or you’re learning) – their identification, their habits and their ways. Birders, on the other hand, are the nutty ones, who will travel all around their local area, hunting down and listing as many species as they can find in a day, month or year. They will travel the world searching for new species.
If you’re looking for resources on how to sharpen your bird knowledge, listed below is every resource I’ve used and why it’s important. Take a scan through and if you still have more questions, please email me.
I like books, real books
Sibley’s and National Geographic are the standard print field guides. On most walks on the Coast, the guide will carry the National Geographic guide, but I love both for different reasons. If you are starting out, I recommend picking up the NG guide and leafing through it to look up species that are typical to the Coast, thus learning how to navigate the guide and use the range maps. It really helps to know what you’re looking for before you’re in the field and totally overwhelmed.
There’s an app for this, too
If you’re keen and want a solid volume in your phone, I recommend Sibley’s app. That’s the app I typically use, but there are many others to choose from. If you’re just starting to learn about birds, I recommend Merlin. It is free – from Cornell University – and has a helpful guide to narrow down your choices for identification by size, colour, habitat, etc.
I do better with pictures
The drawings in guides can be troublesome to some new birders. If you want a photographic guide to Sunshine Coast birds, look no further than Penny Hall’s Flickr Album. Penny is a local birder and incredible photographer. If you’ve seen a bird and aren’t sure what it was, scan through Penny’s pictures to find a match. Harbour Publishing also has a brochure style guide with Penny’s photos and Tony Greenfield’s narration available at local bookstores.
Can one document tell me everything?
Well, almost. The Checklist is a bird lover’s best friend. This online version from eBird (discussed in detail later) will lead you in the right direction. This is called a bar-chart. By species and by month, this chart lets you know how likely it is to see a variety of birds throughout the year. The thicker the bar, the more likely you will find the particular bird. There is some bias to this chart (only a handful of users supplying data), but it’s readily available and generally a good indicator of what you will find. If you can get a copy of Tony Greenfield’s Sunshine Coast Checklist (paper copies are hard to come by), that’s a great print resource.
I want to join the club
The Sunshine Coast Natural History Society is the bird club. The meetings run October to May with annual speakers on every form of nature imaginable. The SCNHS also offers monthly bird walks through most of the year. These walks are the necessary field work required to become knowledgeable and a great way to meet other nature lovers and connect and learn. Contact Marcia to join the club and John to learn about field trips. For more information, see their website.
Where’s the secret club house?
It’s not a secret. We’ll tell anyone who’s keen: see our website. This is home base for all serious bird lovers on the Coast. Here we post our sightings, questions, experiences, upcoming events, casual get-togethers, etc. Keep in mind, all posts should include your full name and location.
I want to learn their songs
If you’ve joined a bird walk, you know it’s more bird listening than bird watching. It can be overwhelming! Luckily, there’s a great resource from John Neville, a B.C. birder who has created a series of CDs (now downloads, too) to help people learn to identify birds by ear. Listening to his Bird Songs of Canada’s West Coast was key to my learning to bird by ear. I would put the CD on for an hour on the weekend when I was cleaning and gradually I started to soak it in. I still do this in spring to tune my ears. This CD is wonderful to listen to and highly recommended.
They made a movie about us
In 2011, Fox Pictures released a major motion picture about hard core birders called The Big Year staring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. The characters compete to be the one to see the most species in the U.S. in one calendar year. It’s loosely based on an actual competition, and as a dear friend of mine said, “It represents your people accurately.” I recommend renting it for a comedic introduction to what a “big year” is.
Just give me one website
Cornell University has become the prime web destination for all bird lovers. Their site, All About Birds, is a wonderful, free online resource for anyone interested. To find any species you’re searching for, I recommend using the Bird Guide. Try looking up the common nighthawk, a bird most people would never know about unless they knew when, where and how to look!
One website is not enough: I need to know everything
eBird is by far the world’s most impressive bird database. Also run by Cornell University, eBird is a site where citizen scientists (that’s us!) can help biologists to study, save and protect birds. eBird offers a free database where you can upload all your bird sightings and also search for information about regions or specific species.
Try using their Explore Data tab: Under Explore Region, type in Sunshine Coast. Hot Spots are favourite birding locations (the Botanical Garden is one); Recent Visits shows checklists uploaded by local birders. This is a great way to see where people are finding birds and what species they are seeing. Find a recent checklist from the Sechelt Marsh, look up the species in your field guide, and then head out trying to find them.
If you ever contemplate keeping a list of birds seen, this is a great resource to do so, by far the most powerful available and an excellent companion to your favourite field guide.
Beyond the birder
Beyond the bird watcher and the birder is the biologist or the fanatical birder. If that describes you, you need Wild Research, a non-profit society based in Vancouver, that runs the Iona Island Bird Observatory. The Observatory is located near the Vancouver airport and has wonderful programs for people wanting to learn about birds. They offer an annual pelagic birding trip out of Ucluelet. The day-trips go off the West Coast to open ocean looking for pelagic birds. This is the trip for passing from a casual birder to an “I’m willing to become seriously seasick for new species” birder. Tips for seasickness are provided – use them – they work! Don’t get too excited – this year’s trip is already sold out, but I highly recommend joining in next year’s trip. In the meantime, try using some of the resources I’ve mentioned here to look up black-footed albatross, parasitic jaeger or south polar skua.
My best advice
If you’re interested to learn more, I recommending doing the following two things: Buy a field guide and leaf through it on a regular basis, cross referencing with a checklist to know what birds are around the Coast.
Join the Natural History Society and participate in their bird walk program starting in October. There is no substitute for field time with people who know their birds. I always recommend people get keen about birds in the fall. Our over- wintering duck population is varied and interesting. They are large and generally sit still, and we can identify them by sight not by song. Gain some confidence over the winter learning our local species before all the chaos of spring.
I hope all this advice is helpful. If you feel totally overwhelmed, you’re on the right track. Bird watching is just like any other hobby: you learn piece by piece until you realize you know more than you thought. I look forward to seeing you in the field.
– Alexis Harrington