10 Ways to See more Birds

These aren’t backed by any guarantee, just what has held true from my experience. In no particular order I present you with 10 ways to see more birds.

Walk slower. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people walk past birds because they aren’t walking slow enough, giving the birds more time to move and become visible. There is always the urge to walk fast and cover more ground, but I have found that it is when I am moving the least that I see the most.

Spend more time outside. This one is obvious, there aren’t many birds that you can see from your house unless you have a spectacular feeder setup. Not everyone gets to spend two months outdoors counting hawks in the spring, but any chance you have to bird could be the time you find something really special.

Start earlier. Birds are most active in the first couple hours of the day, particularly during migration when they are landing at first light after a long night of flying. Being there when they are most active means there will be more to see. I spent many mornings at Garret Mtn Reservation in northern NJ this spring, and I always felt bad for the people who had just showed up at 8:30am, after I had already seen 17 or so species of warbler. By the time they showed up the warblers were not as active and their chances of seeing even 10 species was getting small.

Know the habitat. Birds can turn up anywhere. Birds can and will show up in backyards, waste water treatment plants and pretty much any other place that might not seem enticing. But this is more the exception than the rule. Spending time in high quality habitat that the birds are more likely to navigate towards will often allow you great observations of foraging behavior.

Learn to interpret radar. An excellent way to get an idea if new migrants will be arriving is to check the radar every night. My favorite sources are the National Weather Service and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Woodcreeper.com is a great website that posts nightly about migration conditions in New Jersey. Reading the past posts can be a great way to learn about how this tool can be used to predict where birds will be.

Look at the weather. Great birding days can come when the weather stalls the migration during the night, leaving lots of little birds to forage while they wait for better weather. Checking out some good locations during a light rain or after a rainstorm can be very productive.

Understand migration timing. For instance, in mid-May, you will want to head to spot to catch migrating warblers, in January find an unfrozen lake that might hold ducks and in August look for flooded fields or mudflats to see shorebirds migrating south. September can bring large Broad-winged Hawk flights, while November will be dominated by the Red-tailed Hawk. Knowing what to look for will point you towards the correct type of habitats to bird.

Learn birds calls, flight calls, chip notes, contact calls, noises their wings make, and anything else that gives their presence away. Birds communicate with their voices and it is the easiest way to find them. A well hidden bird can still be heard, giving you clues to its location as well as its identity. Chips and flight calls can help you identify the bird even if you only have a brief look at it. Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs is an excellent resource for the birds songs while Flight Calls of Migratory Birds is great for learning the flight calls. Any sounds you add to your repertoire will increase you skill and enjoyment of birding.

Bird with friends. Take a buddy or two along, even if they aren’t experts. An extra set of attentive eyes can go a long way in finding birds. I would have missed my life Boreal Chickadee if my interested but inexperienced friend hadn’t asked me, “Hey, whats that one? It looks different.” And if they are experience birders, there is always the opportunity of learning new information or tricks to identify difficult birds.

Find migrant traps. There are certain places that, because of weather, topography or location, attract ridiculous concentrations of bird during migration. Point Pelee, High Island, Garret Mountain and Sandy Hook all come to mind. Some of these spots are bottlenecks, where the birds are all forced into a small area as they avoid flying across water until the last moment. Others, such as High Island and Point Pelee are the first places that birds reach after a long water crossing and so they land en masse, covering the trees as they desperately try to recover and find food. Visit a migrant trap like these and you could see flocks of warblers, tanagers, flycatchers and anything else that is flying.

I hope that these ten ideas help you to see more birds and if you have more helpful ideas, please leave them in the comments.

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I and the Bird 49: the Wordchaser

For a poem, and the 49th edition of the birding carnival, hop on over to Via Negativa for a good time and interesting read as you peruse the latest, greatest bird posts in the blogosphere.

Clay-colored Sparrow

I saw my 2nd state bird in as many days yesterday. Although its not very common in PA, Clay-colored Sparrows are findable in several parts of the state. They breed in some limited areas in the western part of the state and are sometimes seen in migration elsewhere.

This bird is coming to a feeder in Lancaster County and is the same bird the presumably frequented the same yard last summer. When I arrived I was greeted by the buzzy bzz bzz bzz bzz that is so characteristic of the Clay-colored Sparrows song.

It will be interesting to see if this bird continues to hang around for the summer and maybe finds a mate. Now I am off to training for my summer job doing point count surveys for the 2nd PA Breeding Bird Atlas.

New State bird on the drive home

This afternoon, I was driving home from New Jersey after completing the hawk counting season. It was a pleasant day but I didn’t see much bird-wise for most of the trip. It was pretty ordinary in fact until I turned on to Schantz Rd southwest of Allentown. I spotted a plowed field off to the right that was sporting a large (1/2 acre maybe?) flooded area. Straining my eyes as I slowed down I could see birds moving out in the water and one really seemed to stick out. Slamming on the breaks and swerving to the shoulder in the safest manner possible, I slung by binoculars to my eyes, fully expecting to see the graceful foraging of a Greater Yellowlegs. What I had seen as I was driving was white flashes above the water as a shorebird dipped into the water, but what really stood out was how high above the water the white flashes were.

Binoculars now up to my eyes, I focused….and bam, not a yellowlegs, but a gorgeous black and white bird. A Black-necked Stilt! No wonder the flashes had been so high. I managed to get a few record shots of the bird as it foraged and a video which you can watch once it has been processed by Youtube. I shot of some quick phone calls and then continued to watch the bird as it foraged back and forth over the same little flooded area. It gave me a fright when a Canada Goose landed nearby and all the Least Sandpipers and Semi-palmated Plovers took to the wing. I would have been sorry to see the stilt leave without giving others a chance to see it. Luckily it stayed and I know at least several people have gotten a chance to see it. Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to get back to that pond and have a better chance to study it.

Big Day attempt and final day of the hawk watch

Today was a sad day in some respects. My last day at the hawk watch and last day with all the wonderful people that came up to help me scan the skies for the migrating raptors. I ended the season with 2,966 raptors, just shy of the more impressive looking 3,000 mark that I was hoping for. Still, due to strong flights by several species, it was a respectable and very enjoyable season. I also managed to rack up a total of 124 species seen from the watch, including 20 warbler species, 6 swallow species, 5 thrush spp. and 4 vireo spp.

The exciting thing is that in approximately 5 hours from now, my fiance and I are going to do what I am dubbing a “Medium Day”. It is in the spirit of a big day and we will certainly try to see and hear as many birds as possible. But, we will also be trying to get good looks at quite a few species that she has never seen and so our pace will be somewhat slowed by that. I am still hoping for around 100 species of birds seen in the maybe 15 hours that we will spend out in the field. Wish us luck as we bird n. New Jersey in hot pursuit of 20-30 warbler species and as many other things as we can get our eyes and ears onto!

Year Milestone

I finally hit the 200 mark for the year, a good start but not necessarily that stellar. There have been quite a few birds mixed in to make it interesting though. A Long-billed Murrelet showed up at Sandy Hook in January to provide me with my first rarity of the season. I was also able to see a Scott’s Oriole and a Lazuli Bunting in Mechanicsburg and Red Hill, PA, respectively, which were both new state birds for me. One notable bird I did not chase (and now regret) was the Yellow-billed Loon that was present on the Susquehanna near Harrisburg, PA for several days in May. Number 200 was a Whip-poor-will that sounded off as I walked around outside of the Weis Ecology Center. Hopefully this summer, fall and winter will bring me many more excellent birds to see and to chase.

Digiscoping the Gnatcatcher

Here are some of my attempts at catching the Blue-gray Gnatcatcher through my scope. Seems that despite my best efforts, this guy was always able to hide behind at least a little bit of tree stuff. The last shot is my favorite, catching it mid-hover as it is going up to snag an insect off of the leaves.

The hawk flight has slowed considerably, only 1 Cooper’s Hawk today and nothing this past Saturday. If it weren’t for all the new migrants it would really be boring. Warblers for the day include: Blue-winged, Black-and-white, Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green, N. Parula, A. Redstart,Yellow-rumped and Common Yellowthroat.