Published June 8, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Go Birding! Mastering bird-watching basics will enhance your time in the outdoors.”
2014 Update: Binoculars continue to improve and new field guides keep coming out. Both the Casper and Cheyenne Audubon chapters continue to offer bird classes, field trips and programs.
By Barb Gorges
Bird watching is an all-inclusive hobby that has grown immensely in popularity in recent years.
From young children to the elderly or disabled, almost anyone can pick up a pair of binoculars and a field guide and begin to enjoy watching and learning about birds.
Southeast Wyoming lies along the migratory paths of a wide array of bird species and is the year-round home to many birds that are as beautiful as they are fascinating.
From identifying birds at the backyard feeder to becoming a full-blown amateur ornithologist, bird watching can be as simple or as all-consuming as you choose to make it.
So what steps do experienced birders recommend to the casual backyard observer who wants to fan that initial spark of interest in birds into a bigger flame?
“I would suggest you take a class” said Gloria Lawrence. “Or go birding with a group. Go birding every chance you can with people who know birds or fumble through the field guide.”
Lawrence, who lives near Casper, keeps the Wyoming Birding Hotline up to date. Her interest in birds was sparked by a northern mockingbird that spent a summer singing from the yard light pole when she was a child growing up on a ranch near Chugwater.
She and her husband, Jim, began feeding backyard birds, and they learned to identify them, along with those they saw on outdoor trips.
“The spark turned into a roaring fire when Jim and I took a class from Oliver Scott in 1984,” Lawrence said. “The fire is burning out of control. I realize in a lifetime I’ll barely scratch the surface of what there is to know about birds.”
Cheyenne birder Jane Dorn got the tinder for her “spark”—as birders refer to the beginning passion for birds—as a small child growing up near Rawlins, part-time on a ranch, with a family that hunted and fished.
Dorn could identify game birds and the songbirds her mother fed before she was old enough to go to school.
“I’ve always watched birds; it’s something I grew up doing. I wasn’t intensely interested until after taking a college ornithology class,” she said.
Jane and her husband, Robert, are co-authors of “Wyoming Birds,” a book documenting the occurrence of bird species throughout the state.
“The more you do, the better you get,” she said. “Taking a class or going out with a birder is a huge boost to your bird-watching knowledge and shows you what’s what locally.”
Can one be too old or too young to take up bird watching?
No, said Lawrence, Gloria, who helps teach the annual 12-week bird class offered by the Murie Audubon Society at Casper College.
“Many students are middle-aged or older, and many are retired,” she said.
“It’s a hobby you can pursue for a lifetime,” said Dorn, who helped teach a birding class at Laramie County Community College this year.
Birding is ideal for the disabled, and it’s easy to add to other outdoor family activities.
One example Lawrence gave of the spark flaming at a young age is Joe Scott, whose grandfather, Oliver Scott, wrote the American Birding Association’s “A Birder’s Guide to Wyoming.” The young Scott, now in high school, and his father, Stacey, like to make the trek from Casper for the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society chapter’s annual spring bird count.
Scott recently received a grant from the Governor’s Youth Initiative for Wildlife. It and other funds he raised will help him build a new flight cage for Casper bird rehabilitators Lois and Frank Layton.
There are just two pieces of equipment needed to enjoy bird watching: A pair of binoculars and a field guide.
“Get the very best equipment you can afford,” Lawrence suggested. “I started out with 7 x 35 Tasco binoculars. When I got my Bausch and Lombs, it opened up a whole new world. Good optics just make birding more enjoyable.”
Dorn recommends a minimum power of 7. Go with 8 or 9 if you can afford it. (See the accompanying article on binoculars for a discussion of magnification.)
“Ideally you want to try as many kinds of binoculars as you can,” Dorn said.
Choosing binoculars that fit your style of bird watching is as important as fitting them to your hands and eyes.
“If you’ll be doing little walking, you can afford heavier binocs with a wider field of view,” Dorn said.
She estimated that $200 would buy an acceptable pair of birding binoculars.
Top birders spend as much as $1000. With improvements in quality in recent years, such as lens coatings that improve the brightness of the image, you can get more capability for the same money now.
As a hobby, bird watching doesn’t have to be expensive. “You don’t need as much (equipment) as golf,” Lawrence said.
And, said Dorn, bigger is not always better. “More magnification is not necessarily better. Anything above a 10 you cannot hold steady enough. You buy a scope with a tripod when you get serious about shorebirds and waterfowl.”
The most important thing about binoculars is to use them, Lawrence said. “Once you get binoculars, use them and use them,” until focusing is fast and automatic. And learn how to use the individual eye focus to adjust for differences between your eyes.
Dorn advises testing binoculars for alignment as well. If the two barrels aren’t lined up, you may have a headache by the end of a day of birding.
Field guides are a less expensive tool, running from $15 to $25 apiece
But, said Dorn, “You’ll find you’ll want to own more than one.”
Lawrence will attest to that. “Jim and I have six bookcases. One is entirely filled with bird reference books, floor to ceiling, probably 250 books,” she said.
Both women recommend the newest edition of the National Geographic guide because it’s the most up to date and it covers bird species for the whole United States as well exotic species that may show up accidently.
“Peterson’s (guides) are still excellent, but you need both the Eastern and the Western guides,” said Dorn. “The old Golden (guide) is good but the nomenclature is sort of out of date.”
After the initial investment in binoculars and field guides, you can enjoy bird watching from home.
“You don’t have to live any place special to bird watch,” Dorn said.
You may enhance home bird watching by making your yard attractive to birds, providing food, water and shelter. On a day too rainy to go out last month, just before the peak of spring migration, Lawrence and her husband counted 38 species from their window.
It is possible to spend a lot of money on the hobby. Birding magazines advertise birding eco-tours to all kinds of international, bird-rich destinations. And the number of bird festivals around the country, usually celebrating particular species, continues to grow.
There’s always more to learn about birds, even when you’re the teacher. “I learned as much as the students,” Lawrence said of her experience. “When you try to describe (an ordinary bird) for someone else, you become more aware of what really looks unique about it.”
And there’s no limit to how much time some people put into bird watching. Lawrence, who goes birding all the time, related a typical story. “It’s a habit. I was coming up the stairs with a load of laundry when I saw a painted bunting.”
This type of bunting shows up accidentally in Wyoming, with only three documented sightings listed in the Dorns’ book. After documenting it with photographs, Lawrence added it to the bird hot line report.
[The bird hot line has given way to the Wyobirds elist. See information for Wyobirds, local bird classes and field trips at Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society’s website: http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/.%5D
Bird Watching Stats (circa 2000)
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., the number of birders in the United States is now estimated at 60 million. No one seems to have kept track of the statistics over the decades, but it’s generally accepted that number has grown exponentially in recent years.
According to the lab:
–Bird watching is the fastest-growing form of outdoor recreation in America, second in overall popularity only to gardening.
–By 2050, birding is the only major outdoor recreation that will have grown faster than the national population: It’s expected to increase in participation by 53.9 percent.