Archive for Monday, November 6, 2006

Watch the birdy

As hobbies go, birding is cheap, easy : and wildly popular

November 6, 2006


Cynthia Shaw hasn't been birding her entire life.

Shaw, a 71-year-old Lawrence resident, figures she only has bird-watched the last 70 or so years.

And she has the newspaper clipping to prove it.

The article, from February of 1938, details how Shaw's father hoisted her on a hotel manager's desk and she - then a 2-year-old -identified birds as he turned the pages of a field guide.

"There were newspaper people all round, bribing me with an ice cream cone," Shaw said. "I remember part of it."

Shaw admits there were times she might not have been the most active birder, but she never strayed far.

"There were times, like when I was in college, I didn't have time to go out and bird all the time," she said, "but I never lost interest."

So for the past seven or so decades, Shaw has participated in what the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment has named as the fastest-growing outdoor recreation in the nation, shared by 70 million Americans.

A different survey, by the Outdoor Industry Foundation, found that Kansas ranks fifth in the country by percentage of active birders, behind Rhode Island, Idaho, West Virginia and Montana.

So why are so many Kansans - and, by extension, Americans - drawn to view their fine feathered friends?

"I don't know," Shaw said. "My grandfather taught me about birds out of books, and I suppose that some of it is attached to my relationship with my grandfather. I'm sure that has a lot to do with it. Other than that, it's something that I can do, something I'm good at."

Birding sites online - Home page for the Jayhawk Audubon Society; included are local birding sites, contacts for various aspects of birding, upcoming events and more. The group also loans books and binoculars. - Home page of the Kansas Ornithological Society; included are species lists (for the state or by county), plus publications and several links Where to go With 355 confirmed species sighted, Douglas County is among the state's most prolific counties for birds. Popular nearby destinations for birders include Perry and Clinton lakes and the Baker Wetlands, where more than 200 species have been sighted. The basics Beginning birders need little more than their own eyes to start. A regional field guide can help birders identify the species they see, and wide-field, low-power binoculars can help in identification. More experienced birders usually graduate to more powerful binoculars and/or a spotting scope.

Galen Pittman, a biologist by trade and one of the state's premier birders, thinks accessibility and affordability are at the center of birding's allure.

"I'm biased," Pittman said. "I like birds. But there are so many different kinds, and they change constantly through the year. If you're interested in birds, anyplace you are, they're constantly changing. You can travel across the country, so it's endless fun in that sense.

"Another reason is, if you buy yourself a pair of binoculars and a bird book, maybe feed birds : spend a little money on equipment, and you can go bird anytime you want. It doesn't cost much, and you can do it anywhere."

In the beginning

Birding is wickedly easy for beginners.

Heck, you don't even have to leave the house.

Throw up a feeder, fill it with sunflower seeds - "the single bird feed that appeals to the most birds," Pittman said - and see what flies in for a bite.

"We do a lot of birding from here in the yard," said Shaw, whose house in the 1600 block of Mississippi is hardly in the country. "We frequently go out to Clinton and, less frequently, out to Perry, but there are a lot here in the yard. I'm looking out the kitchen window now. I just saw a big bird fly into a tree. I figured it was a crow, but it was a red-tail hawk eating something, a bird or a mouse. That's what we do. We notice things."

Shaw suggests birders invest in a guide book to help identify birds. The next purchase would be low-power, wide-field binoculars. More experienced birders, she said, graduate to more powerful binoculars and possibly a spotting scope.

That's it.

"It's a little daunting to learn 'em all," Pittman said. "It's good for people to find out what's in their yard first, get a book, birds they can see real easily close up. Start with that. I think if you just learn a couple dozen birds, you have something to compare to: That little bird is about the size of a goldfinch."

Birding, Pittman said, can be as casual or as intense as the birder chooses.

Some birders never do more than glance out the kitchen window. Others plan vacations for places that might help fill out their "life lists," where they track all the species they've seen in their lifetime.

"There's a whole social aspect to it," Pittman said. "You can go by yourself, or you can do it with other people. You can go on field trips. You can be as social as you want. It's as free-form a hobby as you want it to be. Some people keep track of lists, and you can be very competitive about it. Or you can do it very casually. It's up to you."

By the numbers

Pittman said 800-some species of birds had been spotted in North America. Pittman has seen 630 or so.

All told, 466 species have been seen in Kansas, and Douglas County ranks among the most diverse.

Sedgwick leads the pack with 377 species and is followed by Morton (368), Barton (363) and Douglas with 355 species.

The big number likely is the result equal parts habitat and birders.

"It's habitat, but some of it's effort," Pittman said. "Part of it is, people here are paying attention. With the university here, there are more people interested."

Shaw and Pittman rattled off several choice nearby birding areas.

They recommended Clinton and Perry lakes for waterfowl and the Baker Wetlands, where more than 200 species have been confirmed.

Then again :

"There's a guy I know, a professor I know really well, and he goes to Burcham Park in the spring and fall, every morning for an hour or so," Pittman said. "Burcham Park has a lot of neat birds. So, there are lot of places, really, you can go."

"It's something you can do anywhere," added Shaw. "You can do it in the city and the country and on the beach. There's not anyplace you can't go birding."

Pittman warns, however, that birding can become addictive.

"There are something like 800 birds you can see in North America," he said. "If you've seen 100, you've got a long way to go. But if you've seen 700, then you're down to the really rare ones. That's the beauty of it.

"Bird-watching is like collecting. I've collected all these birds. I've see most of the birds in Kansas. The rest are pretty rare."


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