Bay Area Birds: Blueprint for happiness – become a birder
By Charlie Frisk
A study recently published in “Science Daily” found people whose immediate surroundings host a high species diversity are particularly satisfied with their lives.
Joel Methorst, a doctoral researcher at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, said “According to our findings, the happiest Europeans are those who can experience numerous bird species in their daily life.”
Sounds like an excellent reason to become a birder.
It is not difficult or expensive to become a birder. With a little equipment and technique, you can easily go from simply liking birds to being pretty good at recognizing them both by sight and by their songs and calls.
First you need a good field guide to the birds.
There was a time, not long ago, that people studying birds used a shotgun as their primary study tool. John James Audubon, the most famous bird artist in history, shot tens of thousands of birds.
One field guide, “A Field Guide to the Birds” by Roger Tory Peterson, first published in 1934, did more to eliminate the ‘bird in the hand’ method of bird identification than anything else.
Peterson realized that to get people to quit shooting birds as a way to identify them, they needed a field guide that would simplify identification of the ‘bird in the bush.’
Peterson’s guide grouped birds by family and had small arrows pointing out the most important identification field marks.
They were designed so amateur birders could use them with ease.
For decades, the Peterson’s guides were just about the only option, but today there are many excellent competing guides.
Other guides that I reference, include:
• From Golden Books – “A Guide to Field Identification, Birds of North America.” The Golden Guide was my first field guide to the birds. It had excellent range maps, which Peterson did not have at that time.
• “The Sibley Guide to the Birds,” by David Sibley, shows the plumages for different times of the year. Sibley Birds East is a much more manageable size for carrying in the field than his guide to all of North America.
• “The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America” has the most artistic pictures of the birds.
If I could only own one field guide it would be Sibley, but I like to have several to check when making a tough identification.
The other thing every birder needs is a good pair of binoculars.
There are two numbers on all binoculars. The first number is the magnification; the second is the diameter of the objective lens in millimeters.
My binoculars are 8X42. Most birders use binoculars with magnification between 7 and 10. For binoculars of a similar size, the higher the magnification, the smaller the field of view.
For those trying to locate small birds in wooded environments the size of the field of view is very important.
People that do most of their birding in forests or any environment with lots of vegetation prefer 8X binoculars.
If you spend more time birding in open environments, such as over water or on beaches, you might prefer 10X.
Anything higher than 10X is hard to hold steady enough to avoid vibration problems unless you are using a tripod.
The larger the diameter of the objective lens, the more light your binoculars will admit.
In low light conditions this is very important.
Most of the popular full-size binoculars range from about 25-40 ounces.
The most popular objective size is 42mm, simply because they are lighter than the 50mm lens and yet admit a good deal of light.
Almost all birders carry their binocs on a harness strap. This takes the weight of the binoculars off your neck and keeps them from swinging around.
I also find that the harness makes it easier to keep the binoculars steady while looking through them.
There are many companies that make excellent mid-cost binoculars, costing between $100 and $400.
Nikon and Vortex are two brands that are highly respected.
The high-range binocular world is dominated by Swarovski, most of their binoculars fall between $1,000 and $4,000.
What do you get for that chunk of change?
Better brightness, clarity, light gathering, design features and a lifetime warranty.
Swarovski binoculars are typically bought by people for whom birding is their primary pastime.
Though $3,000 for a pair of binoculars might sound excessive, it is a fraction of what one snowmobile costs and you can bird year-round.
In future columns, I will cover local organizations that will help introduce you to birding, cellphone apps that help with identification by sight or sound, and attracting birds to your yard by landscaping and feeding.
Bay Area Birds is a monthly column written by local ornithology enthusiast Charlie Frisk.