By Rose Kennedy, For the AJC
Ann Stinely is a standout bird-watcher who also happens to be a veteran nurse in small-town North Carolina.
She’s had the hobby for decades, and says it’s a source of stress relief, exercise — and wonder. She’s developed an enviable “life list” of bird sightings, bonded with scores of fellow birders and taken weeklong vacations centered on bird-watching in nature hot spots like the Outer Banks.
At home, she takes a camera, binoculars and sometimes a birding buddy and sets off for a nearby lake or park. She watches birds whenever she’s got time off work and the weather cooperates — and sometimes if it’s raining or snowing.
She says the hobby helped her resist ill effects from the “blah month of February,” when she set an arbitrary goal of spotting 50 species each day. “That kept me off the couch and walking 10,000 steps a day.”
Stinely recommends this pursuit for fellow nurses, or pretty much anybody who likes wildlife and wants to actually look forward to getting outdoors and staying active, instead of feeling like it’s a chore. But note, you don’t have to be as dedicated or far-ranging as Stinely.
Bird-watching is an accessible, inexpensive hobby that rookies can enjoy from the very first outing.
“You can bird anywhere, anytime. It’s a hobby you can do in your back yard or take with you around the world,” National Park Servicesaid. “It’s very rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make discoveries. It’s also only as much work as you want it to be.”
In the Peach State, you’ll have loads of opportunity to observe our fine feathered friends. According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources website: “Georgia’s location along a migratory route ensures seasonal wildlife that never fails to fascinate and entertain. This is most evident when it comes to the number of different birds you may spot in our parks. There are over 300 species, including colorful examples such as painted buntings, ruby throated hummingbirds, bald eagles, wood storks and great egrets.”
This kind of engagement can be particularly helpful for anyone who’s been feeling frenzied or housebound since March 2020 (that’s everybody, right?).
In coverage for the American Birding Association, Birding magazine editor Ted Floyd explained how “the pandemic has highlighted what was until recently a consistently undervalued virtue of birding. It’s good. Good for all of us, individually and corporately. Birding has gotten me out of the house, every single day of the pandemic. Exercise is good. Birding has introduced me to new friends. Friends are very good. And birding continues to challenge me to notice and marvel about the world around me. Thinking and wondering are very, very good.”
It does take some planning and prep work, though. Follow these tips, and you’ll soon realize feathered friends are pretty much everywhere, available for you to see, hear and enjoy.
One of the National Park Services top tips for beginning bird-watchers is to “be present while you are in nature. Take note of your surroundings. What’s around you right now? Feel the air, hear the sounds, and the natural world will reveal itself to you in surprising ways.”
Borrow or buy binoculars
Bird-watching can quickly become an expensive hobby if you rush right out to buy binoculars. But they will help you identify more birds at a distance.
It’s a good idea to make sure you like this hobby before making that investment. To start, you can usually borrow a pair of binoculars from a birding group leader or a friend — or even rent a pair from an outdoors outfit.
Remember, lots of sports fans have binoculars for games, so consider asking them, too. Later, if you like, you may want to buy your own pair, or even invest in a spotting scope or digital camera with scoping capabilities.
Bone up with a bird guide
The Park Service recommends a waterproof bird ID card that folds up and lists common species, but only for beginners.
As you progress, you may want to invest in guides arranged by colors or shapes of birds, or that present bird families, like “woodpeckers,” “small owls” or “warblers.”
The local public library also will have some of these books on loan. Used bookstores will have some affordable options, too.
Checklists can be handy, too. The Georgia Audubon Society provides a free compilation of the birds of the Atlanta metro area, for example, and the Park Service lists bird species by park.
Pick a likely place
Drive through a wildlife area, sit in a parking lot, check out a lakeshore or beach. “One key is to find a place where two habitats meet, such as the edge of a forest and a meadow, or where muddy shorelines meet the water,” the Park Service advised. “Finding a spot where birds can find food and water can increase your chances of finding interesting species.”
To make sure this will interest you, start keeping a lookout for neighborhood birds, noting what times of year they’re around and any distinguishing marks or traits.
“By learning to identify these birds by sight and sound, and by recognizing their habits (How do they move? What do they eat? What do they sound like?) you will better be able to notice when something unusual comes along,” the Park Service noted.
Try to blend in
“By wearing inconspicuous colors and being quiet, you’ll avoid scaring birds away,” the Park Service added. “Staying still helps, too. If you’re you’re in a good birding spot, the birds will come to you!”
Make a list
It’s more fun if you list the birds you see, and when and where that happened. “If you keep a logbook, over time, you’ll be able to anticipate the movements of birds during migrations,” the Park Service advised. “Some birders like to keep a life list, recording every species they have seen in the wild.”
Try the trails
Old-timers will tell you birds are everywhere, once you’re attuned to hearing their cries and noting the habits of various species. But there’s also something to be said for striking out on one of Georgia’s birding trails, where the hike is already mapped out for you and you’ll know which birds to expect ahead of time.
The recently redesigned Georgia Birding and Wildlife Trails website has a checklist of Colonial Coast birding sites that includes Tybee and Jekyll islands.
“More than 300 species of birds (75% of the total species of birds seen in Georgia) have been spotted at the 17 sites along the birding trail,” the website explained, cautioning: “Don’t expect to see most of these birds on a single visit. The birds you see will depend greatly on when and where you visit. Some birds can be seen throughout the year. Others are migratory and travel long distances from their breeding grounds to wintering areas.”
The organization said it plans to add a second collection of Georgia bird trails in the Southern Rivers category.
Consider joining a group
The best known and most respected organization for bird-watchers nationwide is the Audubon Society. Georgia has numerous chapters and has resumed scheduling field trips that are ideal for newbies.
Note, though, the Georgia society is quite strict with mask requirements and other pandemic requirements. And you must register ahead of time at the organization’s website to participate in field trips.
In one of those rare benefits of the pandemic, some chapters are holding online meetings that anyone can sign up for. At 7 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month , for example, the Athens-based Oconee Rivers Audubon Society holds a virtual presentation on topics like “Birds and Butterflies of Honduras.”
The chapters also serve as clearinghouses for bird-oriented volunteer opportunities, like sprucing up local pollinator gardens or helping with annual bird counts.
A one-year National Audubon Society membership will cost $20, and confers benefits that include the magazine and email invites to guided bird walks.
Get the apps
If smartphones are your thing, there are also apps that aid the bird-watching hobby.
The free Go Outdoors GA app has a Georgia birding trails component that lets you keep a checklist of the birds you’ve spotted on each trail and check out other people’s sightings, for example. It also provides driving directions to birding points of interest in the state.
And the Merlin Bird ID App, produced by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, provides on-the-spot identification for more than 5,500 birds of North and South America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
Learn to wait
Birding requires patience, too, “both with yourself and with the birds,” the Park Service added. “The birds don’t always cooperate, even for experienced birders. For you, there are a lot of birds to get to know. You will get better with practice. Just keep going!”
This can be casual, the Park Service explained. “Take note of the birds you see and hear on your walk to work or school, while you’re looking out your kitchen window, or while you’re doing other activities outdoors. You might notice other interesting things, too!”
And as you get better at bird-watching, don’t forget to observe your own growth and increased perception. That’s part of the benefit of this popular hobby. As the Park Service reminded, “Birding can be a gateway into recognizing and appreciating a wider world that was there all along.”