What Is Birding?

If you had asked me a decade ago about birding, I would have said, “What is birding?”

Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Pair Yellow-crowned Night Herons at the Valley Nature Center, Weslaco, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

I knew about some of the more common birds including chickadees, robins, finches, and blue jays, but had no idea birding was an activity people did together in an organized fashion.

Birding has become one of the fastest-growing and most popular activities in the US and around the world. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year.

Bird watching is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.

It doesn’t take much to get started in bird watching. You don’t need special hiking boots or clothing and you don’t require special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although a pair of binoculars makes the experience more enjoyable.

Using one or more field guides is also recommended. The choice of a field guide for birding can be a very personal thing. Partly it depends on what you want from your field guide; partly on how you process information.

Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Scrub Jay at Catalina State Park near Tucson, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

The Sibley Guide to Birds is THE North American bird book if you’re a serious birder. The volume covers all the birds, and most of the plumages of all the birds you can find in the US and Canada.

Kaufmann Field Guide to Birds of North America is also THE guide to own. The text is clear and the illustrations are very well done.

According to a US Fish & Wildlife Service study on the demographics and economic impact of birding, birdwatchers contribute over 36 billion dollars annually to the nation’s economy. One in five Americans has an active interest in birding. Some 47 million bird watchers, ages 16 and older, spend nearly $107 billion on travel and equipment related to bird watching.

In Washington State alone, wildlife viewing and photography adds more than $5 billion each year to the state and local economy.

Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Roseate Spoonbill feeding at South Padre Island World Birding Center, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

About 88 percent focus mainly on backyard birding. But some extreme listers travel extensively in search of rare birds for their life lists.

The legendary birder Phoebe Snetsinger became obsessed with bird watching when she learned she had only one year to live—she was diagnosed with terminal melanoma in 1981. Living another 18 years, she fervently observed birds across the globe setting a world record of 8,398 bird species before her death in a 1999 car accident in Madagascar.

Others, like master birder Connie Sidles, find endless joy in daily visits to one favorite spot. She has written two books describing the natural beauty and wonder she finds at the Montlake Fill (Union Bay Natural Area), a premier birding oasis in Seattle. The “fill” is a former landfill located in the heart of northeast Seattle on the banks of Lake Washington.

People give different answers when asked what drew them to bird watching. For most, it starts with the simple aesthetic pleasure of enjoying the grace and beauty of birds and sharing the experience with family and friends.

Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Wood Stork at Long Point Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved.

Wildlife viewing is among the most popular forms of outdoor recreation, and birds are the most visible and accessible form of wildlife, especially in urban and residential areas. You can even enjoy them from the comfort of your own home.

Birds also symbolize freedom for many because they fly with such ease. For some, it has spiritual qualities and evokes feelings of peace and tranquility. It’s healthful and restful and no doubt good for your blood pressure and general well-being.

Their exquisite plumage and vivacious songs enliven our sense of the magnificence and beauty of the world we share. Our love affair with birds connects us with the simple bliss of being alive and feeling at home in the natural world.

Like many pursuits, birding embraces a whole subculture, with many levels of expertise and intensity. For some, it is highly competitive. For others, bird watching involves serious study of physiology, behavior, and the role of birds in the ecosystem.

For many, like us, it’s a pathway into the natural world by combining photography and RV travel with birding.

As a birder, I want to find and enjoy new birds, observe their behavior, and document what I see. As a photographer, I want to photograph birds in good light and a pleasing background, and above all return to my motorhome with quality photos.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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