DELMARVA ALMANAC

The Basics of Birding

by Jim Rapp

You can find birds anywhere on Delmarva, and getting to know the birds in a familiar local park is a great place to start. In the Easton area, one of the best places to bird is located about 3 miles southeast of town on Dover Neck Road. The media for this story will become available later today. Check back here to listen to this story.

The Seth Demonstration Forest is a 125-acre tract of loblolly pine and hardwood trees where visitors can hike and observe wildlife. The forest is open every day, year-round, sunrise to sunset. There are no restrooms or facilities other than a small parking area and nature trails for hiking and birding.

It has been said that golf is a good walk spoiled. Well, birding just makes a good hike even better. It's like hunting or fishing without the hooks and bullets. Just like hunting and fishing, you'll need some basic equipment and tips to get started on your birding adventure.

The most essential piece of equipment a birder owns is a good pair of binoculars. Many brands and different levels of magnification are available, and you can spend $50 to more than $2,000 on binoculars. When purchasing binoculars, first decide on what you want to spend. Low-cost binoculars will be functional, but won't provide the clarity, bright colors, and durability over the higher-priced optics.

Binoculars will have numbers attached to them, such as 7 x 35 or 8 x 42. The first number refers to the magnification, or, how many times closer an object will appear compared to looking with the naked eye. The second number indicates the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters. The objective lens is the one that gathers light.

When choosing the magnification power of your binoculars, consider this trade-off: low magnification binoculars offer a wide field of view and are easy to hold steady. Higher magnification offers a closer, more focused view, but can be difficult to hold steady using your hands alone.

For most birders, binoculars with 7 or 8 power work best in the field. This will provide good magnification while still allowing a wide enough look that the birds won't be constantly hopping out of view.

If you want to get really good looks at shorebirds on distant mudflats or ducks on the bay, you'll want to invest in a spotting scope. These optics will give you 20x to 60x magnification, but will require a tripod for stabilization. Spotting scopes aren't cheap -- a good one can cost more than $2,000.

Photographing birds can help you remember what you've observed in the field, or share your sightings with others. While buying both a good camera and spotting scope may break your budget, you can purchase inexpensive brackets that can connect your smartphone or small digital camera to your scope. Digiscoping is the practice of shooting digital photos through a spotting scope. The scope replaces the heavy telephoto lens of the camera, and can take photographs with amazing clarity and brightness.

There are many opportunities to learn about the birds before you take your first field trip outdoors. Historically, books have been the birders' best tools for information. Roger Tory Peterson published the first modern field guide in 1934. Peterson's "Guide to the Birds" has been updated many times since then, and is still available today. Other notable birders, such as David Sibley, Ken Kaufmann and Richard Crossley have developed their own field guides. Most are small enough that they can be carried with you in a small backpack.

More opportunities exist online for advancing your knowledge of birds. One of the best websites for learning about birds and birding is AllAboutBirds.org, which is hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This website features field guides, bird songs and calls, tips for better birding, and quizzes to test your knowledge.

eBird.org is another modern tool used by birders. eBird is a real-time, online checklist program that has revolutionized the way that birders report and access information. Launched in 2002 by the Cornell Lab and the National Audubon Society, eBird's goal is to utilize the vast numbers of bird observations made each year by birders. The data collected and entered into eBird by thousands of birders contributes to the science and conservation of birds around the globe.

Participating in eBird is easy and free -- you create an online account, and begin logging your sightings by species and numbers of individuals observed at specific locations. Keeping records has always been a tool used by birders to recall what species and behaviors they've observed in the field. eBird provides an online template for maintaining and sharing your records.

Technology can be used in the field, too, thanks to smartphone apps. Apps exist for most modern field guides, and they combine images, range maps, written descriptions and sound for helping you identify birds by sight and song. eBird has an app for keeping your records in the field, too.

The use of bird recordings in the field requires birders to be responsible for their own behavior. Playing a recording of a warbler song or owl hoot can lure a wild bird in to investigate a perceived intruder. If this practice is abused, it can be disruptive to the wild bird's behavior. The American Birding Association -- which is based in Delaware City, just north of the C&D Canal -- has a Code of Ethics, which includes this statement:

"Limit the use of recordings and other methods of attracting birds, and never use such methods in heavily birded areas, or for attracting any species that is Threatened, Endangered, or of Special Concern, or is rare in your local area."

Once you've got your equipment and technology together, it's time to plan a field trip. Just like any outdoor adventure, watch the weather forecast, and plan for exploring in habitat that might include ticks and chiggers. Wear comfortable clothing and the proper footwear for hiking on high forest ground or muddy trails near the marsh. Don't forget other outdoor basics, too, such as sunscreen and a bottle of water.

The Seth Demonstration Forest in Easton is a great place to launch a beginning birding adventure. 88 species have been recorded here on eBird.org, including common year-round birds such as Red-bellied Woodpecker, Blue Jay and Carolina Chickadee, and Neotropical migrants such as Black-throated Green Warbler, Scarlet Tanager and Acadian Flycatcher. The best time of day to observe forest birds is early morning, right after sunrise.

Once you're outside, try practicing a four-step approach to identifying the birds. First, consider the habitat you're exploring. You're much more likely to find wrens and warblers at the Seth Demonstration Forest in May than you will shorebirds and swans.

Second, judge the bird's size and shape to help you distinguish an Ovenbird from an owl. You'll be surprised at how much this can help narrow down the species you're observing. Third, look for its main colors and feather patterns. Finally, take note of its behavior -- a bird climbing vertically on a tree trunk is likely a woodpecker or nuthatch rather than a robin or sparrow.

Birding can be enjoyed alone, or with friends. If you want to make connections with other birders, look into joining your local bird club. Delmarva also features several birding festivals. Visit www.DelmarvaBirding.com to learn more about birding events on the Peninsula.

If you enjoy sharing your sightings with others through social media, check out the regional birding Facebook pages. Search Facebook for MD Birding, Delaware Birding and Birding Virginia to see what others are seeing on Delmarva.

Until next time, I hope this story inspires you to start birding and explore Delmarva's many natural wonders.

Find out more:
http://www.DelmarvaBirding.com
http://dnr2.maryland.gov/forests/Documents/300_T01_Seth_Demo_Forest.pdf
https://www.allaboutbirds.org/basics-of-digiscoping/
https://www.allaboutbirds.org
http://ebird.org/ebird/hotspot/L526237
http://ebird.org/content/ebird/
http://www.aba.org/about/ethics.html