A few birdwatching basics for beginners
With the arrival of spring also comes the return of the migratory birds who left in autumn for warmer climates.
One way to enjoy them, along with those feathered friends who braved winter with us, is by taking up the pleasurable pastime of birdwatching. This is both inexpensive and physically easy, requiring only patience and some attention to detail.
The most important aspect is enticing them to within your view. While there’s a variety of seed mixes, black oil sunflower seeds appeal to a wide number of birds. Cardinals, sparrows, nuthatches, finches, titmice, blue jays, chickadees, woodpeckers and more all enjoy them. These, along with several others also enjoy striped sunflower seeds, safflower seeds and millet.
Cracked corn and peanuts are also a favorite of birds, such as blue jays, doves and grosbeaks. Nyjer seeds can lure gold finches, and they can be difficult to attract, but once they know there’s a meal waiting, they’ll be seen regularly.
One tip to help attract goldfinches is by planting sunflowers near your feeding area. Once they’re naturally attracted to the flowers, they’ll find the nearby feeder.
Seeds, peanuts and corn should be stored in a dry location. If the feeders aren’t being visited, the food should be changed before it could get moldy. However, once birds know about your feeders, they’re more than happy to empty them.
Suet cakes are made of fat and protein feed, and the accompanying feeders are designed to hold the inexpensive and pre-packaged cakes. It may spoil in hot weather, but some types are made with that in mind. During the winter, suet provides a high-energy food source, and it will be visited frequently, especially by woodpeckers.
Birds are susceptible to predators, so providing some cover as they feed can help them feel safer. Additionally, a nearby birdbath with fresh, clean water will attract them for both bathing and drinking. And while robins don’t generally visit feeders, they do love to bathe.
There are also different styles of feeders, and some birds prefer one over the other. There are variety of tube feeders as well as platform feeders. Glass feeders, which can be beautiful and ornate, can also break if they fall on a windy day.
Just as some species prefer a certain type of feeder, some like to feed off the ground. Simply tossing a few handfuls of seed around the feeding area will attract these birds.
Hummingbirds are the tiniest and fastest visitors you can have, and they require their own type of feeder that can be filled with nectar that’s easily purchased or made at home. A flower bed full of brightly colored and nectar-rich blooms is the natural way to attract hummingbirds.
Some species, such as woodpeckers, cedar waxwings, starlings, bluebirds, orioles, thrashers, cardinals and jays, enjoy a feeder with fruits. Berry-producing trees and bushes are another way to attract these birds.
Many birdwatchers enjoy using binoculars, spotting scopes or cameras with a zoom lens to observe their visitors, but they’re not a necessity. Many people are happy to observe birds from a nearby household window.
Some species may be shy and quickly take flight, but others, such as sparrows and finches, are usually the first to land on a feeder. Their arrival signals to more wary birds that it’s a safe place to visit, and it’s not uncommon to have several types of birds at your feeders at the same time.
Identifying some species, such as cardinals or blue jays, is as easy as it gets. Other times it takes some observational skill and a good field book with detailed descriptions and photographs or illustrations.
There are differences between males and females and also between juveniles and adults. There may also be seasonal changes in their appearances. Goldfinches are a spectacular yellow during spring and summer, but appear much more subdued during winter.
Although sparrows are common, there are a wide variety of species, and differences are hard to distinguish, especially when there’s a dozen bouncing around your feeder.
When observing a new visitor, it’s beneficial to look at their size; the color and shape of their beak; the color around their eyes; belly color; any significant markings; and their feet.
Some people who feed birds don’t like certain species or squirrels to visit. However, all species need to eat, and it’s a losing battle trying to prevent it. Any bird who visits a feeder is only going to be there periodically, and it’s better to accept it and appreciate the natural diversity.
Squirrels, although voracious, are often acrobatic, agile, playful and fun to watch. Anyone trying to thwart a family of squirrels from enjoying sunflower seeds will quickly learn the definition of determination.
Plastic feeders are light and inexpensive, but they can be damaged by overly eager and hungry squirrels. A metal mesh feeder or a plastic tube feeder with metal perches offer a nice combination of inexpensiveness and durability. Feeders can often get worn and damaged, and they’ll occasionally need replacing. Some experimentation may be needed to find what works best in your situation.
Birdwatching is a pleasant way to connect with nature without ever leaving your home. Even after years of enjoyment, you’ll still get the occasional surprise visitor, which will have you grabbing your field guide to identify them.