EVER GO FOR A WALK with your field guide book, ready to identify the birds you spot along the way? You have mere seconds — sometimes less — to look at the bird, then the guide, then back at the bird, to make an identification.
Even when you get a good look, sometimes you’re still not sure you made the right ID.
If your field guide was a person, and that person was an expert, you can learn how to make a correct ID by sight and sound.
Steve Hale, a naturalist and hiker, wants others to see the beauty and wonder of the birds that frequent the Granite State. He created Open World Explorers in 2016 to teach people about birding.
“I have a bird talk that I do on bizarre birds of the world. I was good at teaching them and helping them to understand birds, how to identify birds and to interpret bird biology and bird behavior.
“A lot of the clients I have are interested in becoming better holistic naturalists and interpreting and explaining the natural world,” he added.
Open World Explorers helps people identify birds visually, and by their call.
“If we hear the bird vocalize, then we discuss the vocalization, we try to attach some kind of mnemonic device — a way to remember what it sounds like. There are some tools for doing that. If we see the bird, then we’ll start talking about shape and plumage of the bird, colors of different body parts.”
Hale said identifying birds takes practice, so nature hikes can sharpen your eagle-eye skills.
“You can’t go just once. You have to keep coming back. My studio is the open world. That’s where we practice our craft of birding.”
Hale, originally from Louisiana, spent eight years studying bird evolution and anatomy, which dovetailed into his studies on forest ecology.
“When I got to New Hampshire, I really got immersed in doing field ornithology, hiking in the mountains and doing birdwatching,” he said.
He was a seasonal bird observer for the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, based in the White Mountain National Forest. His focus eventually turned to one of the more elusive birds in the state, one that’s only seen 3,500 to 4,000 feet into the mountains.
“That actually led me to my PhD topic, which was understanding the habitat of a bird called Bicknell’s thrush,” he said.
Hale offers a hike that focuses specifically on Bicknell’s Thrush, but even if you don’t find one then, you may see high-elevation birds like pine siskin, magnolia warbler, Canada jay and Swainson’s thrush. The tour runs through July.
Other programs at Open World Explorers include a birding and ocean walk in Ogunquit, Maine, and year-round walks on Plum Island in Newburyport, Mass.
During “hawk watch” from August through October, people can hike with Hale up to Blue Job Mountain in Farmington and use spotting scopes to locate birds. He says Blue Job provides expansive views of the raptor.
“Sometimes the birds will fly at eye level or even below eye level. We’ll watch the hawks and try to identify them and count them. It gives us a nice field of view. A lot of my clients want to be better at identifying hawks in flight, or hawks in general.”
Other raptors that could be found include American kestrel, bald eagle, turkey vultures, sharp-shinned hawks and Cooper’s hawks.
His year-round coastal birding program begins in Seabrook and heads north along Route 1A. It’s not a strenuous hike, just walking on sand and boardwalks. It runs from two to eight hours.
“It depends on how much time the client has and also how active it is. If we start in Seabrook and — wow, it’s really active — we might not get very far up the coast. The trips (are) based on what Mother Nature at the time serves up to us,” he said.
Participants on this tour may find shore birds (waders) and warblers passing through the region.
“Shore birds, (which) would be your plovers and your sandpipers, migrate to our north and breed to our north. Many species of songbirds — warblers — breed to our north, so they just pass through New Hampshire.”
New Hampshire’s coastline is brief, but it’s diverse: saltmarsh, inland estuaries, coastal beaches and an intertidal zone that shore birds and pelagic seabirds favor. When the weather gets colder, others will appear along the coast — wintering birds like grebes, sea ducks and loons.
He said these varying habitats make birding here an “outstanding” experience.
“We have seacoast, so we have ocean, we have our mountains with diverse forest habitats. We have several ecological zones, including what’s called northern hardwoods forest. We have the alpine zones, these bare expanses of open habitat on the tops of the mountains. We also have vast and large lakes. All of these things contribute together to produce a good diversity of birds.”
Classes and presentations
Beyond bird calls and identifying shapes, Hale’s classes also delve into how they live.
“We will talk about their evolution. We’ll talk about the habitat associations, their behavior, even their digestion, physiology, what it is they eat. And if they eat flying insects, that means that they have to migrate because there are no flying insects in the wintertime.”
Hale also holds slideshow presentations for libraries. His “talk and walk” programs merge birding education with real-life experience.
“We show images and we talk about how to ID them. We talk about behaviors and vocalizations. Then we go out for two hours and do a bird walk, usually in some local conservation area, for those guests to try to find these birds, and then use what they learned in the slideshow presentation and put it into practice.”
Hale said this window on nature – not just birds, but mammals and forests — is available anytime.
“It’s open 24/7. There’s always something to be observed, something to be experienced. It doesn’t always have to be avian. It could be mammals or it could be trees.”
While New Hampshire is a birder’s paradise year-round, Hale said the real show occurs in September, when the broad-winged hawks move south.
“They migrate in gregarious groups called kettles — they come through in a pulse,” said Hale, perennial bird watcher and owner of Open World Explorers.
Hawk kettles, which he calls “one of nature’s great spectacles,” form around thermal updrafts. Around Sept. 26 each year, he said, broad-winged hawks will gather and circle the updrafts as they prepare to migrate. Huge flocks – up to 3,000 birds in a day — will pass a hawk-count station on Mount Monadnock, where volunteers will stand by to count them.
The phenomenon is a highly prized event, Hale said.
“That’s the peak, and birders try to time that. They want to be up to see the swirling kettle of these hawks. They look like a swarm in the distance.”
Hale is SOLO Wilderness first-aid certified. Visit openworldexplorers to find out more about Hale’s slideshow presentations, nature walks and birding lessons.