Mary Beth Lancaster enjoys watching nature. It was just last week I saw her standing on a bridge in Western Howard County scanning the trees and banks of Wildcat Creek. There are times she takes in her surroundings from the seat of her car, lawn chair or picnic table in public parks but this time she chose a waterway.
She can be easy to spot as binoculars usually hang around her neck and a field guide to birds close by. Like 46 million other Americans, she considers herself a birdwatcher, or birder, as many call it. The Howard County resident has been actively involved for the past four years and has seen some rare birds for this area. “Already this year I have seen Baltimore orioles and several types of plovers,” she explained. “I don’t hunt or fish but I love the outdoors and to me this is exciting. Plus it’s something I can do year round.”
“I bet you see all kinds of different types of birds, don’t you?” Lancaster asked, while I stopped for a brief visit. “Unfortunately the birds I see most involve someone’s middle finger,” I added with a laugh. She looked at me stone faced, without even a smirk. “Not surprising,” was all she said, before pulling the binoculars back to her eyes.
Deliberately searching for our feathered friends is a great way to remain active, experience the outdoors, and learn about wildlife. Let’s face it, we have all watched birds at some time or other whether intentionally or simply while sitting in our backyards.
Indiana is home to more than 150 species of breeding birds that thrive in a variety of habitats, including marshes, forests and grasslands. Hoosier birds also appear in a wide range of sizes, shapes and vibrant colors. They can include raptors, songbirds, hummingbirds, and marsh birds.
Bird watching not only brings various surprises, like seeing birds that may be rare, it is one of the easiest outdoor activities to get started in. You can go it alone or with the company of others.
Start with the proper equipment. Borrow or buy a pair of binoculars that are comfortable for you to use and carry. Optics will help you observe field marks and colors to identify bird species. Dress comfortably for the appropriate habitat where you will be. Wear clothing that is quiet and has colors that blend into the background to avoid spooking birds.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to others who have experience in birding. They can provide tips for differentiating species or finding good birding locations.
Second to binoculars is to purchase a field guide for reference. Reviewing and identifying birds can help you have a successful and more enjoyable adventure. Several smart-phone applications are also available.
Keep it simple. It’s easy to become mind boggling trying to identify every bird species you see. Narrow down species options by characteristics such as size, shape, color pattern, habitat, and behavior. For example, is it larger or smaller than an American crow? Is the tail forked? Did you find the bird in a backyard or in a wetland? Is it in a flock or alone?
Some avid birdwatchers even learn birdcalls. This may be a skill set developed after some practice, but learning calls and tricks to remember bird sounds is helpful in spotting birds. For example, think of a red-eyed vireo saying, “Where are you? Here I am,” or an ovenbird saying, “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!”
Always be respectful of other birders and the wildlife around you. Make human and wildlife welfare your highest priority as you get started. And if you do decide to actively seek out birds as an outdoor activity, consider it your lifetime ticket to the theater of nature. It helps heighten our own appreciation of the natural world around us. Even if that world is contained in your own backyard.