Most of humanity lives in urban centers. Unbelievably, over 20% of the world’s different bird species (approximately 10,500) also reside in our towns and cities. Even more fascinating–90% of all bird species found in the US have at some point wound up in a city. This means that practically anything can turn up anywhere at any time, like Snowy Owls in New York City or Black-and-white Warblers in Los Angeles during the middle of winter when they should be sunning themselves in Central America and further south. All you need to do to start watching birds is to get on nature’s wavelength. Have an open heart and open mind to become aware of the birds around you. Keep your eyes open and don’t forget to look up.
I’m David Lindo, also known as The Urban Birder. I connect urbanites with the incredible world of birds, starting with the ones at their doorstep. Born in London, my interest in birds started at a very early age. It seemed to come from nowhere, as none of my family members or friends were interested in natural history. With no real mentor to guide me into the world of birding, I taught myself and became a veritable expert by the age of eight.
“Birding should be a holistic experience. It is a great way to relax and to allow the worries and stresses of your normal life to ooze from your body and mind.”
Almost every time I go birding it is a memorable experience. I remember being in Queens, NY, 25 years ago. I had heard about the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge and was desperate to visit this famous birding hotspot at the edge of the city. The site is a sanctuary covering some 27,000 acres consisting of small islands, marshes, dunes, woodlands, and fields.
My visit there started before dawn to take advantage of the birds’ morning activity. Upon arriving at the refuge from the A train, within moments, I was hearing the airborne cackling of geese. I looked up to see a skein of hundreds of Snow Geese drift overhead with an almost eerie azure, causing the geese to appear like flickering ghosts. It was an amazing sight especially as it was the first time that I had ever seen these geese so close to a city.
In the half-light of dawn, the sky showed a promise of the day ahead. Closer to earth I could hear Northern Mockingbirds issuing their signature loud contact calls. Not being from the States, I’m not as familiar with the birds of the region, but I could immediately recognize the unique meowing cries of a couple of Gray Catbirds that were hidden in the dense undergrowth of the woods I was slowly walking through. I was just enjoying the solitude and the thrill of being somewhere completely new with birds that I was largely unfamiliar with.
In the search for more bird species, I arrived at an area of open marsh and wetland. In the distance were hoards of Mallard, Northern Shoveler, and Gadwall– all duck species that are very common back home in the UK. It was also wonderful to see native birds like American Black Duck and American Wigeon, catch up with shorebirds like Killdeer, and study the plentiful Ring-billed Gulls.
Spectacular birds of prey were in no short supply. With a superb view of a foraging Red-tailed Hawk and a marauding Peregrine Falcon whose presence scattered all of the smaller waterfowl residing in the bay. The most memorable moment of the morning was watching a large, magnificent Northern Goshawk sweep through the vista. A proficient predator, this powerful hawk is an impressive and normally secretive raptor that is native to the woodland realm. It truly is the Lord of the Woods.
“In your next excursion, you may feel a new sense of wonder when you discover a bird species you’ve never seen before.”
Birding should be a holistic experience. It is a great way to relax and to allow the worries and stresses of your normal life to ooze from your body and mind. I find it completely grounding. A session of birding can lift your spirit, readying you for the day ahead. It allows you to lose yourself in a world that is filled with only you and the nature that surrounds you. This feeling of wonder was how I felt the day I explored Jamaica Bay.
You too can experience this feeling of being an explorer in search of wonder, even in an area that you already know well. It can be in your city, your neighborhood, or even your backyard. Simply start by emptying your mind. Try to imagine seeing the environment that you are in like a bird would. Urban environments will become scattered woodlands with lakes and valleys, and buildings become cliffs. Investigate the places where there should be birds dwelling and ponder the places you wouldn’t usually think to explore. I guarantee that you will surprise yourself. Birds are everywhere!
From the comfort of your windowsill, your next stroll through the park, or a hike through a nature refuge, make sure to come with a few things. Be sure to grab your favorite pair of shoes, an informative bird guidebook, and a reliable pair of binoculars. On your next excursion, you may find a new sense of wonder when you discover a bird species you’ve never seen before.
Here are 5 basic steps for anyone to start becoming a birder:
STEP 1: FEED THE BIRDS
Backyards are great training grounds for the apprentice birder. If you put out food for the local birds, your yard may become a veritable fast food restaurant attracting lots of birds for you to enjoy. Just put out a couple of nut containers or seed feeders and wait for them to be discovered.
In these early days don’t worry too much about identifying species; just enjoy them.
STEP 2: GRAB A BIRD BOOK
Eventually, it will be time to start trying to decipher the different species. A small bird guidebook should be quite sufficient, as we are not talking about high-browed ornithology here. Keep it by your window and refer to it when you start seeing anything. Take it with you on your next walk or hike to quickly reference while outdoors. You will be an expert before you know it.
STEP 3: BUY BINOCULARS
Not all the birds that you may see in your garden will conveniently pose in front of your nose as some can be exceptionally shy and only offer the observer distant fleeting views. You now need “bins”. When buying binoculars, test them out first. The popular choice amongst birders is 8x magnification for woodland birding or 10x for scanning reservoirs and skylines Make sure that they feel comfortable in your hands and importantly, that you can see through them clearly!
STEP 4: MEET OTHER BIRDERS
Try to hang out with other more experienced birders. Join a local Audubon chapter or visit a local nature preserve and don’t be shy to ask questions. Most birders will be only too pleased to share their knowledge with you.
STEP 5: REMEMBER TO LOOK UP
Look up and enjoy! There’s a big sky up there and it’s an amazing arena.