By PARIS WOLFE
More and more Americans are embracing birdwatching or birding as a hobby. In its most recent 2016 report, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reported about 45.1 million birdwatchers (16 years or older) in the country, about 20 percent of the United States population. Those numbers have likely increased as a result of the pandemic, with more and more people embracing outdoor hobbies and pursuits.
Dan Donaldson, District Administrator for the Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District, a trained conservationist and a lifelong birder, started birdwatching as a youngster at his family’s backyard feeder. “My mother bought me my first bird field guide when I was eight,” he recalls. An ornithology class in college formalized his interest.
Today Donaldson leads birding hikes throughout Northeast Ohio, and
guides birding trips in the United States and worldwide. In February, he led 12 people on a birding trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands in search of specialty birds such as Blue-footed Bobbies and Darwin’s Finches. While a trip such as that may be something toward which birdwatchers might aspire, Ohio’s parks and natural areas are ideal for watching too. More than 440 birds are on Ohio’s official species list, with 200 species regularly breeding here.
“Ohio is a terrific place to birdwatch. Our parks usually have several different habitats and water features to attract birds,” Donaldson says. “We’re also in between the Atlantic and Central migratory flyways of North America so we can get both eastern and western species of birds showing up here in Ohio.”
Flyways are important to birders. Northwest Ohio attracts thousands of visitors for the Biggest Week in American Birding, a 10-day festival in the unofficial Warbler Capital of the World. Birders gather to watch migrant songbirds, shorebirds, waders, and raptors pass through by the thousands on their way to Canada. The festival offers bird identification workshops, guided birding trips, birding by canoe, daily walks at the world-famous Magee Marsh, American Woodcock field trips, keynote presentations, a Birder’s Marketplace, and evening socials with food and music.
During the festival, Donaldson leads two trips for Naturalist Journeys, a national nature, birding, and ecotourism company headquartered in Arizona. He helps small groups of people from around the United States avoid crowds and find hot spots. Trips usually sell out a year in advance. Watch naturalistjourneys.com for 2023 reservations.
With equipment and travel, birding can be complicated and costly. Or it can be easy and inexpensive. “Birding is like any other hobby,” says Donaldson. “You can be a minimalist. Just own a reasonable pair of binoculars and a field guide and have a wonderful experience and become a particularly good birder. Or you can go all in and spend a couple thousand on a pair of binoculars, another couple thousand on a top-end spotting scope and tripod set up. Most folks go through a progression of getting better and better equipment over time.”
Binoculars, he says, are really all you need. “Spotting scopes are optional but almost mandatory if you’re going to be watching waterfowl with any regularity. Waterfowl are typically much farther away, so the stable scope on a tripod is the way to go.”
Anthony Gazso, Interpretive Naturalist, Lake Metroparks, Penitentiary Glen Nature Center in Kirtland, says birding is a terrific way to get in touch with nature. He means going beyond looking to interpreting what you see.
“Birds are connected to everything in the outdoors. Once you observe them and learn their habits, they can tell you about things that are happening outside that you wouldn’t be aware of,” he says. “Even at your backyard feeders, birds know when a predator is near before you do. Do you have fewer birds at your feeder than usual? That could tell you that the native plants created more seeds that year. Is it a beautiful day but there are no birds around? That’s a good indicator the weather may be changing soon.”
Field guides are useful for identifying birds and today, they’re available as apps. “I use Merlin, developed by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology,” says Gazso. “It has a number of useful tools and includes sounds and range maps. Another app I have is BirdNet. BirdNet, developed in part with Cornell, will record sounds you hear, analyze them, and give you its best guess. It’s used for an unfamiliar bird call. You just need to be close enough to hear it clearly.”
Donaldson says, “Most folks have more than one app. Sibley Bird app seems to be a new favorite. Merlin from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is also exceedingly popular. Then there is the app called eBird. It’s an electronic checklist that birders use to share and keep track of all things birding … locations, checklists, rare bird alerts, trip planning and much more.”
Other birding apps, some free, some for a fee, are available. Each has distinctive features and benefits.