The Helping HandTeaching Birding

Unless you began birding at a very young age, you probably remember the frustration and, perhaps, even the embarrassment that all too often accompanies learning to bird. Fortunately, it need not be that way.

In July1970, I made my first trip to the Rocky Mountains and, with the help of various park rangers and visitor center displays, identified White-tailed Ptarmigan, Stellar’s Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Clark’s Nutcracker, and American Dipper. Although I knew nothing about birding, I discovered I enjoyed finding and identifying birds. During the next couple years, I spent many a frustrating day trying to bird using truly abysmal 20x50 binoculars and an out-of-date field guide. Finally, in May 1972 I chanced upon a group from the Montclair Bird Club, and was invited to bird with them. I was amazed at how effortlessly they identified birds, often without seeing them! They lent me a decent pair of binoculars and explained how they were identifying birds. Thus began my birding career, which might have ended in frustration but for their efforts.

In 1990, I met then non-birder woman. On September 15, we went to Cape May’s Higbee Beach, which was awash with birds and birders. Almost immediately virtually everyone was identifying birds she had never heard of, and her eyes quickly glazed over. I guided her to a small copse of trees a short distance away where, essentially alone, I helped her find birds, use her bins (local slang for binoculars), and identify one bird at a time. (Never have I so appreciated an abundance of American Restarts and Black-and-white Warblers!)

Both situations easily could have been disasters if the more experienced birder had not understood and catered to the needs of the new birder. While teaching birding may not appeal to everyone, it introduces people to birds and nature which, in turn, gives them a better understanding of the importance of our natural world. It also has substantially increased my birding enjoyment and skills. For example, I recall a trip I was leading for the Cape May Bird Observatory (CMBO) around Lily Lake on a day with few birds. About 30 feet away, a Green Heron, perched on a branch just above the water, caught a small fish. We took turns using my scope to watch it catch and eat one fish after another. Before long, nobody cared about the general lack of birds because of this very cooperative heron. It was the best look I had ever had of a Green Heron, and I really enjoyed sharing it with the group, none of whom had seen a heron catch a fish except on TV! 

At CMBO, where I am an Associate Naturalist, programs typically begin with asking if everyone has bins. We loan pairs to those without (thanks to manufacturers who have donated binoculars to CMBO recognizing this as excellent advertising), and look at the bins of the other participants to see if they might benefit from a loaner. We also demonstrate how to adjust them. (Start by finding and focusing on a sign, license plate, etc., using the central focus wheel while covering the big lense opposite the independent ocular, the one that can be focused separately. Once the item is in focus, uncover that lense, cover the other big one, and re-focus using the independent ocular’s mechanism. Finally, confirm the item remains in focus, and note the setting in case it gets moved.) 

The importance of providing good optics and explaining how to use them was demonstrated during a February 1999 workshop when a new birder brought 2x opera glasses. She initially declined a loaner. However, once afield, she soon realized she was having trouble seeing birds everyone else could see. When she accepted a loaner and we showed her how to use it, she instantly understood everyone’s excitement. (The Peregrine perched nearby may have been a contributing factor.)

Another advantage of showing new birders how to use bins arises from their typically feeling they are the only ones who do not know what is happening. A few minutes spent explaining how to use binoculars often gives them an immediate sense of accomplishment which, in turn, makes the rest of their day that much more enjoyable.

Once in the field, I like to emphasize how to find and identify birds. First, clearly explain where a bird is. If in a tree, establish which one by type, size, shape, direction, and/or any other reasonably apparent characteristic. Then explain where in the tree using the “clock” method (12:00 is at the top; 6:00 at the bottom; etc.), or distance and direction from a prominent feature, such as a “Y” shaped branch. I encourage those having difficulty finding the bird to stand in front of me (or directly behind if they are taller), and to look for movement before raising their bins. I also suggest pre-focusing their binoculars. For example, if birds are in a particular tree, have the group pre-focus on its middle so their focus will be approximately accurate when they raise their bins (giving them a better chance of seeing the bird before it flies away).

Occasionally someone simply cannot find a bird using binoculars. Suggest they form circles with their thumbs and forefingers, and view a prominent object through them. (I have yet to find someone who cannot do this.) Next have them do the same with a pair of toilet tissue tubes taped together. With a little practice virtually everyone can do this, too. Then have them resume using their binoculars. This is not a fool-proof approach, but it can be helpful.

In teaching how to identify birds, I like to start with a common species, and emphasize a feature newer birders may not realize is there (such as an American Robin’s white tail corners). Another technique is to separate a family into species. In Cape May we have basically three spring-time gulls (Laughing, Herring, and Great Black-backed), and the adults are easily identified. (I suggest leaving the immatures for another day.) The objective is to demonstrate what to look for to identify species, how to use a field guide; and to start learning individual birds. (I repeatedly emphasize that birds are learned one at a time, and no one can realistically remember everything they see during a day.) The former technique encourages newer birders to really look at birds, while the latter helps their confidence by demonstrating that they, too, can identify birds.

Starting new birders on waterfowl can be helpful since they are large, relatively cooperative, and can be as spectacular as warblers. (Breeding plumage Mallards in good light are as beautiful as they are easy to identify, and novice birders love them for both reasons.) We regularly schedule waterfowl programs for November and March as there are usually good numbers around, most males are in breeding plumage, and the weather is rarely severe. Also, waterfowl often can be viewed with a spotting scope, which makes finding and seeing them easy. Emphasize the males, suggesting they leave the females for later. Again, do not overwhelm newer birders with more than they can comfortably handle. (And always remember the object is to teach them, not to demonstrate how good you are.)

Experienced birders know a good way to spook birds is to make it obvious you know they are present, such as by walking directly at them. Teach an alternative by approaching birds obliquely. Likewise, demonstrate birding etiquette by being considerate of birders and non-birders alike. These are easy lessons with the dual advantage of developing good habits and (again) giving newer birders a sense of having learned something concrete.

Be careful with nomenclature. In Cape May we have three “yellow warblers”: female Yellow Warblers, female Hooded Warblers, and female Wilson’s Warblers. Calling them “yellow warblers” is confusing as it is unclear whether the reference is to the species or group. Try calling them yellowish warblers. (This is also why I advocate capitalizing species names, as per Kenn Kaufmann’s lucid explanation in his introduction to Kingbird Highway.)

I also advocate combining indoor with outdoor instruction, and modern technology makes this easy. When I began teaching birding in the 1970s, I used slides. This was awkward and limited presentations to birds I had photographed. Today, I connect my laptop to a TV monitor and use instructional software covering all our birds. (I have discussed this use of these copyrighted materials with their manufacturers, and have universally been encouraged to do so as they view it as advertising.) 

My favorite teaching format is monthly indoor/outdoor programs emphasizing a particular group. For example, in January we cover raptors, in February gulls, in March Waterfowl, etc. When afield, we look for these groups, but obviously enjoy and discuss whatever we find. In the warmer months we start outdoors, and do the indoor portion with lunch. Thus, we are afield for the morning chorus and/or migrant dropouts, and inside during the hottest part of the day. In the cooler weather we begin mid-morning indoors, and spend the afternoon outside. This avoids the coldest part of the day while allowing us to catch the change from diurnal to nocturnal birds. 

Most people know to dress for cold weather, but it is often not that simple. Birding can involve long walks on various surfaces; making footwear critical. So are gloves or mittens, but they must permit focusing binoculars. Likewise, layers of clothes are better than a single heavy coat as walking often generates perspiration which can become very cold when we stop or the sun goes behind a cloud.

The arrival last Autumn of the new Kaufmann and Sibley guides, has made field guide selection more complicated. I do not like to tell birders which guide to choose; rather, I encourage them to consider what they want from a guide. For example, the Sibley guide is a wonderful reference work, but some may find it too large and detailed for field use. The Kaufmann guide is good for basic field work, so long as the user recognizes it does not contain all plumages. The National Geographic guide is popular in Cape May because it covers out-of-range birds. Often we have each with us, so participants can “field test” them before buying. (None of the instructional software are currently useful in the field as they cannot be used on palm-sized computers.)

As newer birders gain experience, encourage them to bird alone and with others. This  gives them a better idea of their strengths and weaknesses (and can boost their confidence as they soon encounter birders who know less than they do).

Finally, although this often meets with initial resistance, encourage birders (new and old alike) to sketch birds. (This excellent idea is “borrowed” from Cape May’s Richard Crossley.) The purpose is not to make birders artists. Rather, it is to encourage birders to look more closely at birds.  Richard makes this point with a Blue Jay. Birders invariably think they know what a Blue Jay looks like, and then experience a near existential moment as they realize they cannot describe in detail or sketch one from memory. 

These are obviously but one person’s thoughts, and are not offered as “the way” to teach birding. But they are based on a quarter century experience, generally have been received as “user-friendly”, have provided me with a great deal of satisfaction, and have helped others better enjoy and understand birds and birding. (It has also increased my birding pleasure, and made me a better birder because I have to address both my birding shortfalls and those of many others.) Give it a try; you having nothing to lose but your boredom.

Mike Hannisian