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Winter Is for the Birds

How to get to know our ­regulars and seasonal visitors

At the tip of Thomas Point in Annapolis on a windy November morning, Linda Davis sees buffleheads, horned grebes and a loon diving in the Bay’s chop.
    “I am just learning my birds,” says Davis, of Shady Side. “I had surgery last winter, so I put up feeders outside the window where I sat and saw all these birds I didn’t even know existed. Then I began photographing birds, and now it’s all I want to do.”
    Winter is the perfect time to begin birdwatching. Feeders benefit hungry birds and allow us up-close views. Migratory bay ducks, swans and geese have also arrived. They’re too big to visit feeders, but you can find other places to watch them.
    “The best way to start learning birds is to put up a feeder,” says lifetime birder Colin Rees. “Many people who come to my house on Mill Creek — plumbers, postmen, you name it — see my feeders and say, You know, that’s a good idea, my sons have been prodding me to do this, I should do it. So I sometimes give them feeders and a bit of seed to get started, and they are hooked, especially their kids.”
    Rees offers us an armchair tour of his birding adventures in his new book, Birds of a Feather: Seasonal changes on both sides of the Atlantic. The past president of Anne Arundel Bird Club, Rees has worked in Maryland and internationally for conservation of biodiversity and bird ­habitat.    
    Co-author Derek Thomas, of Wales, recent chairman of Wildlife Trusts Wales, has made a career of protecting birds and wildlife.
    Day by day for a year, Rees and Thomas take us wandering their favorite spots. Through their eyes, we see the joys and rewards of birding as well the effects wrought by climate change and loss of habitat.
    Enticed by Rees’ observations or by your own backyard visitors, you might find a new winter sport in birding.
    “Feeding and watching birds is the second largest hobby in the U.S.,” Rees writes. He reports impressive figures to support that claim. “Over 52 million people spend some $2 billion U.S. in bird seed, feeders and housing per year. According to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey, birdwatchers contributed $36 billion to the U.S. economy in 2006. A fifth of all Americans are identified as birdwatchers.”
    Rees joined their number at age 10 in his native Wales. He made his first bird feeder, hanging an upside-down flowerpot larded with seeded-filled suet. “Then I joined several bird groups with some close friends, who went on to be very well known in their field. We would scour the countryside on weekends from morning to night.”
    Maryland — where he’s lived since 1988, while working as an environmental specialist for the World Bank — offers him a new universe of birds.
    “The Chesapeake is so rich,” he says. “Just go to Sandy Point, Jug Bay or across the bridge to Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, the Everglades of Maryland. There is a constant stream here, so much opportunity with migrations, winter, summer and spring. It is one of the richest areas on the East Coast.”
    Here’s how you can get started.

Clues in the Patch
    “To begin identifying birds,” Rees says, “develop a patch. Pick a place to walk around and get to know it well. Derek and I found that by concentrating on an area, what was ordinary became extraordinary. We were able to find delight in commonplace things.”

“My first memory of birds is at my grandmother’s,” says Margaret Barker. “I got this old pair of used binoculars from the Atlanta Audubon Society and took myself birdwatching.”

    Margaret Barker’s patch is her Shady Side backyard feeding station, which was inspired by her grandmother.
    “My first memory of birds is at my grandmother’s in Bristol, Tennessee,” says Barker, who is co-author of the Audubon Birdhouse Book, which offers inspiration and instructions on how to make houses for birds from wrens to owls.
    “I got this old pair of used binoculars from the Atlanta Audubon Society,” Barker continues, “and took myself birdwatching. That opened the world of treetop birds, the warblers and vireos.
    “Binoculars are a big step,” Rees advises, “but they are essential. You have to spend about $200 to $400 to get a good pair.”
    For birdwatching, you want a magnification of 7 to 8X and an objective of 35 to 45mm. Higher magnifications make the bird bigger but the field of view smaller, so the bird can be harder to find. Larger objectives let in more light but weigh more. Some binoculars are designed to compensate for eyeglass-wearers.
    You’ll also need a good field guide. Many birders swear by The Sibley Field Guide to Birds. To find your favorite, go to your local bookstore and look over a range. Guides also come as apps for your mobile.
    Identification, like any sleuthing, begins with clues. Cornell University’s All About Birds website recommends starting with four main pieces of evidence: size and shape, color pattern, behavior and habitat.
    Use what you know to help figure out what you don’t. Is the bird bigger or smaller than a robin? Does it have different colors on its body and wings? Is it scratching up leaves on the ground or creeping around on the trunk of a tree?
    Drawing can help you see better.
    “Some of my British friends sketch the birds they are seeing,” Barker says. “They get the gist of the bird, then add details later when they see it again.”
    The closer you get, the richer the experience.
    “I have never seen kids respond so well to anything as holding a bird in their hand,” says Rees of a big next step, bird-banding.
    On fall and spring weekends at Chino Farms near Washington College in Chestertown, you can join banders, looking on as birds are retrieved from mist nets, weighed, measured and banded.
    “Then comes the big moment of holding the bird in your hands,” Rees says, “just looking at it, all the colors, all the delicacy and yet strength at the same time. You get to experience what marvelous creatures they are.”
    Trained volunteers band birds at Jug Bay, but anyone can join in their year-round waterbird surveys, two Thursdays a month at 7:30am.
    “You don’t have to know anything,” says naturalist Elaine Friebele. “We supply binoculars. Winter is the perfect time to start because so many waterbirds are here.”

Stop, Look and Listen
    When northern waterways freeze, the Chesapeake fills with hungry migrants. The tundra swans, also called whistling swans for the sound their wings make in flight, arrived in November, having flown more than 4,000 miles from the north slope of Alaska on the Bering Sea. The gray-hued, dusty, yellow-headed young hatched in late June and began flying here with their families in October. Not bad for a four-month-old.
    Finnish composer Sibelius was so inspired by 16 tundra swans circling above him that he wrote the swan theme in the final movement of his fifth symphony, Rees reports. Sibelius called their song “nature’s mysticism and life’s lament.”
    Most birds do not sing in winter, as song is meant for establishing territory and attracting mates. But you will hear the swans’ hooting flute across the water. Inland, the Carolina wren sings its three-part teakettle, teakettle, teakettle. They cannot help but sing.
    When you follow a bird in your patch, listen to the tone of its chirps and twitters. Learn the sharp peek of the cardinal, the fussy chatter of the titmouse. Their full songs begin in February and March.
    Watch bushes and trees with berries. They are bird magnets. Robins adore berries, as do migratory hermit thrushes, medium-sized birds often found foraging low to the ground, with brown backs, black-spotted white breasts and rufous tails. If you hear thin high-pitched seeee whistles, a flock of fruit-loving cedar waxwings may be nearby. Their jaunty crests and black masks are good clues; a close-up binocular view will treat you to their sleek tan-brown upper bodies merging with gray, and their red-wax-tipped wings and yellow-edged tails.

“Learning to recognize birds and enjoy watching them is a bit like learning music,” says lifetime birder Colin Rees.

    “For many people, it’s the hunting quality of birding that is so exciting,” Rees says.
    Barker agrees. “Observing and witnessing, seeing a new color, even if it is a bird you know, there is always that excitement, that mystery. Every trip you make, anywhere in the world, you’ve got something special to do, to go birding.”
    Birding can also improve your ability to see.
    “It’s been found that young people’s observational skills are in decline,” Rees says. “Professors teaching courses in natural history have found they have to help young people reconnect with their environment through greater observation.
    “Learning to recognize birds and enjoy watching them is a bit like learning music,” Rees continues. “Birdwatching can help our senses that are already there, perhaps below the surface, and we gain a sense of spirituality, a connection with nature.”
    “Nature is not somewhere else,” Barker says, quoting a favorite environmental writer Doug Tallamy. “You don’t have to get into your car and go find nature. Nature is here. Humans may have transformed it, but it is here. You just have to have the eyes and the ears to be aware of it.”


Birds Are for the Kids

    “I find kids to be especially interested in birdwatching,” Colin Rees says. “I take my grandchildren and other kids down to the pier to look at ducks and swallows, geese, nests.”
    Maryland welcomes young birders. Each chapter of the Maryland Ornithological ­Society annually offers a backpack with binoculars and a field guide to a young person with an interest in ornithology.
    Kids can also go to summer camp through the Youth Division of the Maryland Ornithological Society. “George Radcliffe, an ex-school teacher, runs week-long birding summer camps,” Rees says. “I am very impressed with him. We have sent a number of youngsters there, and without exception they’ve enjoyed that.” Learn more at www.ymos.org.
    In February, get your whole family involved in counting backyard and neighborhood birds during the Great Backyard Bird Count. Jug Bay naturalists offer two opportunities to get you ready.
    “On Saturday morning, Feb. 14, we will be at Crofton and Deale libraries,” says Lindsay Hollister, Jug Bay volunteer coordinator. “We’ll be training people how to do the count. Everyone is welcome, the more the merrier.”


Join a Bird Club

Bird clubs welcome new members, and skilled birders enjoy helping beginners learn identification. Club websites list field trips and programs, plus birding hotspots and checklists of birds you might see in different seasons.

Maryland Ornithological Society MOS: www.mdbirds.org Youth Division: www.ymos.org

Anne Arundel Bird Club: Covers both Anne Arundel and Calvert counties: www.aabirdclub.org

Audubon Maryland-DC: Covers Anne Arundel County: www.md.audubon.org

Southern Maryland Audubon Society: Covers Calvert County: www.somdaudubon.org