Sharing bird sightings online is a fun way to learn
Editor's note: Today we introduce Cheryl Kimball, who herein introduces a bit of her own background. She and Stacey Cole (who insists on slowing down) will alternate the Nature Talks column on a weekly basis.
The first bird I identified on my own was a black-and-white warbler. I was middle-school aged and wandering through the woods behind my home with my dog. While Eli snuffled in the woods off to the right of the trail, I noticed a flash of movement off to the left.
This is how bird identification often begins — a flash of movement. Within that movement, a visual of color. Then noticing if that color is somehow "unusual." Perhaps in a place you haven't seen that color before — red on the belly not the head, yellow under the wings not on the chest.
In this case, I had noticed black and white in a striped pattern along the body. This immediately told me it was not a black-capped chickadee, a species that was a frequent diner at my mother's backyard feeders and one whose color pattern of black and white mostly in patches was very familiar.
I was too young in my ornithological avocation to be carrying a bird identification book — I was just out walking with the dog. In that case, it is important to gather as much information as you can in the length of time you can observe the bird for later identification purposes. Body shape and size (cigar-shaped? smaller than a robin?), movements (flitting from branch to branch? walking along the ground?), activity (pecking insects out of a tree trunk? scraping up leaves on the forest floor?) are important to recall. Once you get more advanced, you can learn quite a lot if the bird vocalizes, an area of weakness in my bird identification skills.
When I got back home, I got out the only bird book we had — the classic "A Field Guide to the Birds" by Roger Tory Peterson. Plate 49, black and white warbler. Bingo.
And then you start sharing. In high school, I took "driver's ed" in the spring, i.e., prime birdwatching season. My teacher — also my physical education teacher — noticed that I was scanning the telephone wires and treetops while I drove and finally asked, "What are you looking at?" She made it clear I should keep my eyes on the road, not watch for birds while driving. But I had made an impact. A couple weeks later, a call over the intercom requested that I report to the phys. ed. teacher's office. I didn't recall doing, or not doing, anything specific; I assumed I was in trouble for lack of participation in a class I disliked. No. My teacher wanted to tell me that it was my fault that she felt compelled to spend most of her weekend at the shore after hearing about the sighting of a rare seagull typically seen only in Russia.
Sharing bird sightings is one of the few things that I love about Facebook. Postings from friends was how I heard about the "irruption" of snowy owls this winter. It is also how I confirmed that the birds I had seen in numerous pairs around our farm for the past few years were red-bellied woodpeckers, not yellow-bellied sapsuckers, which I knew we had around and I had simply assumed these were as I watched them hop their way up high branches in oaks around the farm.
In that sharing spirit, here are a few of my favorite bird-related Facebook pages:
• birdaday: This page is by Phillip Augusta, one of the greatest bird photographers I know of. Just when I think he has posted the best bird picture I have ever seen, the next day he posts the next one. He is local to the New Hampshire seacoast so his postings — accompanied by interesting tidbits about the bird in general and the sighting in particular — are often about birds those of us local to the area might see. You can also post comments and questions and perhaps get answers from Phillip and the many birdaday followers.
• Cornell Lab of Ornithology: This is where Facebook really shines — you and I have access to this world leader in bird study and conservation! You also must visit their website where you can link to their bird cams — I spent half a spring one year watching great blue heron eggs hatch up close and very personal.
• NH Audubon: Of course, it is simply a no-brainer that you have to like the NH Audubon Facebook page and get their regular posts of what is happening in the bird world right in your own backyard.
I would love to hear about readers' other favorite bird-related Facebook pages. Until next time, be sure to keep your eyes on the road!
Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.