An adult Little Blue Heron eating
a Common Pipefish. The Little Blue Heron ranges through
much of the East Coast and Gulf Coast, nesting inland
northward into Kansas and also up the Mississippi Valley.
They are often seen at national wildlife refuges.
Clay Taylor, Swarovski Optik of North America
major activities of National Wildlife Refuge visitors are
bird watching and wildlife watching. Indeed, an estimated
81% of our 40 million refuge visitors are estimated to engage
in some wildlife watching.
Since birding is known to be the major part of wildlife watching,
and since birds are probably the "easiest" wild animals to
observe and appreciate, it is useful to know exactly how to
approaching bird watching.
Fortunately, it's not a difficult pastime to pursue. There
are only three requirements:
can certainly provide the third element yourself. Indeed,
the mere fact that you are interested in refuges, are visiting
refuges, and are actually reading these birding pages is evidence
that you have the curiosity required to be a competent birder!
So, what you need to get in the way of equipment are the first
two items: a field guide and binoculars.
Birding is an activity for a variety
of people in a variety of habitats and locations. Here,
are two bird watchers at Okefenokee NWR in Georgia.
There are some fine field guides currently available, written
by Kenn Kaufman, Roger Tory Petersen, David Sibley, or Don
and Lillian Stokes. The National Geographic Society's guide
(Field Guide to the Birds of North America) is a collectively-prepared
guide, that is another excellent guide. You can find any of
these field guides easily through a Internet search. Buying
them at your local Refuge Shop or birding specialty store
is another great way to support those people who support our
resource! Every experienced birder has a favorite guide; and
they are not all the same. Find a guide you like, one you
are comfortable with. They are all designed a bit differently,
each has its minuses and pluses, all are good! Each of the
books, by the way, has a must-read introduction, designed
to give the reader a good start in the joys - and pitfalls
- of birding.
Binoculars are more complicated. There are acceptable ones for
as cheap as $90 and excellent ones as expensive as $1800. If
you are just starting birding, buy one of the cheaper pairs
and plan to "buy up" to better quality as your needs and skills
demand and grow. Look for ones that are 7-power or 8-power.
If you go above that, the quality deteriorates unless you are
willing to pay dearly for the requisite adjustment. Ask among
your birding friends, and sample different brands and styles
to find binoculars right for you. Here are some things to consider:
and size: Binoculars are described with two numbers,
such as 7 x 35 or 8 x 40. The first number is how many times
the binocular magnifies what you're looking at, 7-power
or 8-power. The second number is the diameter, in millimeters,
of the large, objective, lenses through which light enters
the binocular. Which power you choose is a matter of personal
preference. Birding binoculars usually have lenses between
30mm and 50 mm; those larger than that are very heavy, and
smaller ones will not admit enough light to work well, especially
in twilight conditions.
of view: This term refers to how wide an area you see when
you look through binoculars. It's the slice of the world
you can see, from side to side, left to right. The figure
is usually expressed as a field width at 1,000 yards, although
some manufacturers describe the field of view as an angle.
You should seek out binoculars that offer a minimum of 330
feet at 1,000 yards or 6.3 degrees of arc. The wider the
field of view, especially if you are an eyeglass wearer,
the easier it is to scan a large area or to follow a flying
or Porro: These describe the prisms forming the two
basic designs of binoculars. Roof-prisms have the eyepieces
and the objective lenses in a straight line; this design
is more compact than the wide-bodied and traditional porro-prism
models, which have objective lenses spaced farther apart
than the eye-pieces. Roof-prisms tend to be more rugged
than porro-prisms of the same quality, but they are also
usually more expensive. Do be aware that within a given
price-range, porro-prisms often give the user a slightly
better optical performance.
relief: This is the measure of how far away from the
binocular eye-piece your eye needs to be. This distance
is usually given in millimeters; depending on the binoculars
considered, it may be from 8mm up to 24mm or occasionally
even more. Longer eye-relief makes binoculars easier and
more comfortable to use, and is especially important if
you wear eyeglasses. (Eye relief is critical for eyeglass-wearers,
since these folks have eyes which are already set back 12mm
to 20mm from their glasses. Note: be sure to roll down your
binoculars' eyecups.) Eye relief shorter than 16mm is usually
fine for non-eyeglass-wearers.
It's important to buy a pair of binoculars that feels
comfortable when you use and carry them. Consider weight
and size. Even a modestly-weighted pair of binoculars, say,
at 32 oz, can feel mighty heavy at the end of the day! Most
birders avoid pocket-sized "compact" binoculars, but for
young birders with little money and small hands, a pair
of compacts may be a good option.
you are ready for the big leagues, you will certainly want
to consider a quality spotting scope - on a solid tripod-
especially if you have a penchant for far-off seabirds, waterfowl,
or shorebirds. Digiscoping - the growing practice of taking
digital photos through a spotting scope - is also a very good
reason to buy a quality scope!
A group of students at Yukon Flats
NWR, Alaska, observing birds through spotting scopes.
Photo: FWS/Mark Bertram
best to go afield with someone who is more experienced, someone
or a group to provide you with beginning skills and hints.
A local bird club, or a field-outing run at your favorite
National Wildlife Refuge is ideal. This way you can start
to learn what to expect by season and by habitat. This way
you can also learn the bird sounds from people who can give
you helpful cues.
the field guides, there are a number of good "how-to" books
which can guide you through different stages of birding activity
and expertise. We can recommend for of the following books.
They are listed below in increasing order of complexity or
Complete Idiot's Guide to Birdwatching by Sheila Buff
(Alpha Books, 1999, 410pp, $18.95) - this lamentably-titled
book is really a great introduction with fine ideas on getting
started, field trips, equipment, habitats, backyard-birding,
and some resources.
Watching for Dummies by Bill Thompson III and the editors
of Bird Watcher's Digest (IDG Books, 1997, 384pp., $19.99)
- another sadly-titled book, but part of a highly successful
series, this is a step above the previous volume, but only
because it includes slightly more details and better resources,
with some good conservation projects added.
Dunne on Bird Watching by Pete Dunne (Houghton Mifflin,
2003, 334 pp.; $12.00) - this is a gem of a book, compact,
informative, and a delight to read. Dunne provides solid
information for the beginner and intermediate birder and
also weaves in a number of conservation messages within
Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2002, 154pp,
$15.95) - This is a high-intensity book, designed to teach
you how to look at birds. It's a great guide on ways to
hone your identification skills, to get into the fine points
of plumage, habitats, behavior, and sounds. It's highly
recommended for the birder with some field time already
under his/her belt.,
The Black-crowned Night-Heron is
a striking wetland bird, often observed sitting hunched
and motionless in trees or branches near water. They become
far more active after dusk.
Photo: FWS/Gary M. Stolz
won't devote much space here to backyard birding and feeder-watching
except to say that it is a superb way to learn about birds.
The first three of the four books listed above devote considerable
space to the backyard scene, with lots of ideas over how to
attract birds to your home through native plantings, placement
of bird-boxes, and appropriate feeders. Instead we stress
here your Refuge birding experience afield, although many
refuges do have some excellent bird-feeding stations at visitor
birding, you should always keep in mind the issue of appropriate
behavior, or ethics, in the field. This has to do with your
impact on the birds, the habitat, and on others afield. An
excellent set of guidelines is the "ABA Code of Birding Ethics,"
developed and promoted by the American Birding Association
and reproduced in many books, newsletters, and websites. You
would do well to become familiar with the principles involved.
can also get other excellent introductory bird-oriented "All
about birds" information through a project between Swarovski
and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology site located here.
we include in this introduction on starting birding with three
side-notes on related developments: family radios, watching
insects, and digiscoping:
are increasingly using an inexpensive standard FRS (Family
Radio Service) or FRS/GMRS radio afield. This kind of common
communications is often very helpful when driving in multiple
vehicles or when spread out in multiple parties, whether
at a Refuge or not. A number of state bird organizations
and local bird clubs have already adopted or encouraged
a common channel. We suggest using channel 6, subcode 6
as the standard default channel, with 11-22 as the backup
if there is a problem. (We mention this here because most
of the "How-to" books referenced above - with the exception
of Pete Dunne's book - don't mention current radio-use.)
bug watching is growing! Many birders just ease into butterfly-watching.
There are some wonderful companion butterfly field-guides
to teach you about the habitat, range, and identification
of these lovely insects. Some people are also getting enamored
with dragonflies. Yes, there is lots to watch, and it's
not always birds... or mammals... or reptiles... or amphibians.
(Do note, however, that binoculars for watching butterflies
or dragonflies need to have close-focusing ability, with
4-to-6 feet desirable. These kinds of binoculars are often
on the more expensive end of the scale.)
mentioned above, digiscoping is a great activity to accompany
your birding and wildlife-watching. We will develop some
pages on digiscoping here soon. In the meantime, you may
want to view the following collection
of links by Mary Scott.
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