The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 39: Birdwatching 101

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

The wildlife you're most likely to see on any wilderness outing are birds, and they're certainly more interesting if you can tell them apart. This week on The WildeBeat; Birdwatching One-oh-one.

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News from the WildeBeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number thirty nine.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: Birds are everywhere. Some kind of bird has managed to adapt to life in every kind of habitat on the globe. But it seems like a disproportionate variety have adapted to the northern-most coast of California. The town of Arctata, is a self-proclaimed bird-watching capitol of California. For the past ten years, the town has sponsored the Godwit Days spring migration bird festival.

SHANA STEARN: You never do know what you might possibly find. I can always be a surprise. Something around the corner can always be a little bit different. You can stumble on a bird that may be out of place. You can stumble on a bird that is migrating through that maybe has lost its way, or just stopped-in. And to me it's always exciting when I see a bird I haven't seen in a long time. Yesterday I was thrilled when I looked through the spotting scope, and saw a pair of wood ducks. And I hadn't see wood ducks in about a year. So I was just so excited about being able to see the wood ducks again. It's something that you can get very enthusiastic about. You never quite know what you might find, and yet, you can also see lots of old friends over and over again so you can feel comfortable with birds that you are starting to get to know.

STEVE: That's Shana {Shay-na} Stearn. She taught the introductory session for first-time bird watchers. She says that birding develops your attention to detail, and your awareness of the environment. She teaches bird identification using her system of seven S's.

SHANA STEARN: The seven S's are, the first one is, you're looking at the shade, or the color, which is often the most obvious thing. And you want to look for seeing whether it has a ring around its eye, if it has some lines, or what's known as wing bars on its shoulder, if it maybe has a patch of yellow or another color on the rump of the bird. So you look for the different color patterns. The second S is shape. And it's kind of the three-D overall shape of the bird; whether it's got a nice robin's round breast, or whether it's got a kingfisher punk hairdo, or whether the shape of it is maybe nice and it's a very thin kind of a bird. The third S is more two-D shape. You're looking at the silhouette. And normally that is what you would see of a bird on the wire. Something you see on a fence post with the sun behind it or something on the telephone line. The fourth S is signs. Signs of birds are around everywhere. You've probably seen some of them in terms of white droppings. Maybe when you've been out in the woods you've found little gray pellets. Those are known as "owl pellets". The fifth S is sounds and song. Not just during breeding season when the birds will sing beautiful, beautiful, very distinctive songs. You will also hear little chips and chirps and other warning notes and clicking notes that will tell you what bird you might be listening to. The sixth S is sweep, which you want to look at flight pattern. A woodpecker will flaps its wing and then pause for a minute, and you'll see it dip. The it does a flap and a pause, a flap and a pause. The finches on the other hand are very distinctive in a different way. They fly very fast, rapid wing pattern and go up and down, up and down, up and down. The seventh S is looking at the surroundings. Surroundings have to do with identifying the general kind of habitat you're finding the bird. An as you may be aware already with being in the outdoors, there are different kinds of plants and mammals and and birds in this case that will be in specific habitats, such as re-winged blackbird in a wetland habitat, or the herons that might be near ponds and lakes and even by the sea shore, and when you get into deep woods you're going to find, in the northwest you're going to find a varied thrush. In other woodland areas you might find some of the other thrushes. And as out in the fields you might see robins or a bright bird that maybe you've seen before with a black V on its chest, and that's a western meadowlark out here in California. So you can take all of these clues that you can gather, the seven S's. Just for review, they're shade, shape, silhouette, signs, sounds and song, sweep, and surroundings.

STEVE: You're looking for these things, but then how do you know what to do with the information? How do I know what to do with the information about shading? Ok, I see a bird that's gray on top and white on the bottom -- that's a pretty vague statement.

SHANA STEARN: You look for gathering the information on what you're observing. And then you look for a good field guide. Look for one is not national, and preferably not even western or eastern United States. You want to try and find one that is either regional for your area or relatively local. The reason I say that is that you don't want to be looking at birds that are across the United States or in parts of the country that you're not anywhere near. So by having a relatively local or regional bird book it's going to be a lot easier. And so you can very quickly start learning how birds are grouped into different families. So what I tell folks is, don't even worry initially about identifying the species. Work at getting your characteristics down, getting your observation skills sharpened, and start learning to put the birds into different families. And once you can start getting the birds grouped into families, and part of that's going to have to do with surroundings, you're going to be finding shore birds around shores, you won't look for them when you're in deep woods, you can then start looking at getting more details, and with the clues that you've gathered from the seven S's, you can then look and maybe determine which specific woodpecker you saw. Or, the same with owls, or the same with some of the larger herons. I also recommend when you're beginning, is to start with the larger birds, because you'll -- be easier to see, and they'll be easier to recognize the different identification parts on them. So just start developing your observation skills, and start getting your clues together.

STEVE: She says that you don't need a lot of gear to get into bird watching.

SHANA STEARN: Tools would be, having a nice pair of binoculars that you're comfortable with and know how to focus, and having a good field book to look at. Always take water and your other outdoor gear that you would take with you. There are some great lightweight binoculars out there, and the technology is always advancing so even the larger-looking binoculars have become much lighter than they used to be. There's some smaller binoculars that are excellent for backpacking. I had a small pair that I carried for years.

STEVE: So you don't need a lot of gear, but it doesn't hurt to get some help.

SHANA STEARN: Just getting started in it can be a little bit overwhelming, because there's so many varieties of different birds that are out there. Birding is not just an isolated activity. You can go by yourself, but you can also go with groups of people and that's a great way to learn. And it's a great way to ask, "What's that!" It helps if you check locally, maybe your local Audubon or bird club offers bird walks. Start going on bird walks with other bird watchers. Ask lots of questions, explore, use your curiosity, develop your sense of observation, and have lots of fun!

STEVE: We'll hear about outings from the Godwit Days festival in a future edition. You can find links to Shana's web site "The Birder Babes", and other birdwatching resources, on our web site.

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Next time -- feet.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number thirty nine. Thank you for listening.

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