by Susan Gateley
As hobbies go, bird watching is about as inexpensive as they get. You can bird watch almost anywhere there are birds and about the only really essential piece of equipment is a field guide to identify the little critters, and you can buy that used (check www.abebooks.com for titles). A good pair of binoculars helps, but you can get started without them. Bird watching can be done alone or with friends or with your kids. Some people join organized outings and compete to find the most different birds in a set period. Others prefer to wander alone, perhaps observing the behavior of a single sparrow for a long time.
Once you get your guidebook, you can take it in hand and head out into the back yard. But depending on where you reside, this may be a bit frustrating. Crows, starlings, pigeons, maybe a sassy blue jay or a flock of sparrows simply aren't real thrilling visually, nor are their songs very inspirational. So you may need to venture a bit further afield. One way to find out where the birds are is to connect with a group outing.
Many nature centers, city parks, and birding groups organize weekend walks. They maybe listed in the Sunday "things to do" section of the newspaper. An advantage of tagging along with the birding herd a few times is that these folks know when and where to find the interesting birds. They can also tell you the best season to spot spectacular birds or a rare oddity. You'll also pick up a lot of good hints on how to identify those quick moving little bundles of energy, such as clues from behavior, how the bird flies, where and how it feeds, and other actions, as well as learning to identify its calls
People generally associate bird watching with nice weather and certainly spring in the northern parts of the country during the migration season is a good time. Many birds are then dressed in their bright breeding plumage and are also actively singing to establish their territories. But some of those quick elusive spring warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings can be challenging to identify as they dart among the tree branches. For people living near large bodies of water, winter can also be a good time of year to go bird watching. Many species of water fowl gather to feed in open water in the fall and winter. As lakes and bays freeze, they move south along the coasts. Ducks are fairly large, often distinctly colored and frequently sit still for a long time, so they are a bit less challenging to identify than some of the quick moving song birds. And sometimes winter time concentrations of waterfowl can be impressive.
As you become more adept at identifying the birds in your immediate neighborhood, you may want to travel to birding "hot spots." You can find them in every state and province, so chances are you won't have to spend too much money to go on an expedition if you don't want to. And bird watching can add a great deal of interest to any trip. Many local bird clubs have websites, so check the Internet for more local information.
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