I Didn’t Think Birding Was for Me. Now It’s My Favorite Self-Care Hobby.
Speaking of apps, there are a few that attempt to be the Shazam of birds—essentially helping you identify birds through song alone—and I personally haven’t had great luck with those. Your mileage may vary, of course!
A state-specific birding book
While an app is nice for identifying birds on the go, having a reference book can be helpful because it offers a more complete picture of the birding scene where you are. For starters, it’ll likely have very specific recommendations for the best birding spots, and will also get into the details of what you can expect during different migration seasons. I also like it for backup when it comes to identification; if I thiiiink I saw an Eastern towhee in Acadia National Park, for example, but an Eastern towhee is simply not mentioned as an option in a book about birds in Maine, then I’ll know my ID is off. (Yes, I own birding books for multiple states now—each one is useful and doubles as a nice little souvenir from a special trip.)
While you can certainly observe nearby birds with your naked eyes, I found that buying binoculars was the big turning point in my birding journey. Not only did it make me feel like, Okay, I’m really doing this, but…turns out, you can see birds a lot better with some good ’nocs! While I love my Carson binoculars, they didn’t come cheap ($140 when I bought them, and now retailing for $185), so I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them unless you’re pretty sure you’re going to use them. My girlfriend uses Pentax binoculars that cost $85 and, while they aren’t as sharp as mine, they make up for that by being so lightweight and portable.
A bird feeder (maybe)
While I’m extremely envious of people who have an outdoor space that is conducive to a bird feeder, bird feeders are also higher-maintenance than a lot of people realize: They need to be cleaned and sanitized regularly so they don’t become vectors of disease. Wirecutter has a great guide to how to do this; if the extra work doesn’t put you off, this can be a really nice option for bringing more birds to you. While you’re at it, consider picking up some window stickers to prevent birds from crashing into the glass on their way to the feast.
An understanding of the basics of ethical bird watching
It should go without saying but: Our little hobby should never stress birds out or put them in harm’s way. The American Bird Association has published an ethical guide that’s a quick, but worthwhile read. A couple other things to keep in mind: You shouldn’t use audio or other recordings to try to lure birds to you, as these sounds can also attract those birds’ predators, and you should leave your dog at home (they can disturb birds and their nests).
Ultimately, birding—like most hobbies—is what you make of it. You can go all-in, traveling the world with your $2,000 binoculars in search of unique and rare species that make you believe in God…or you can just learn to recognize the song of your friendly neighborhood goldfinch. I currently fall somewhere in the middle: I seek out birds near and far, and I give myself over to how astonishing it is that they (and we!) exist. I believe the goldfinches when they tell us—in Mary Oliver’s view, anyway—that “it is a serious thing / just to be alive / on this fresh morning / in the broken world.” Birding is how I remind myself that no matter how I’m feeling in a given moment, I’m part of something bigger—and that beauty is right in front of me if I’m willing to look, and to listen.
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