Winter Birding for Beginners
Hide and seek at Lillie Park
by Stephanie D. Atkinson
From the January, 2020 issue
Last winter, as I flipped through Pittsfield Township's Rec & Ed brochure, I paused when I saw the words "birding" and "beginners" together. When I read "spotting them in the winter is easier," I was sold. Then I sold my wife, Elissa, on it!
Though we'd never studied birds, we'd inherited an interest in them: my father and both of Elissa's parents have been birders for decades. Separately, my father has collected data on the migratory habits of multiple birds across the U.S. and studied the piping plover in Belize and hawks in the Western Sahara. Admiring our parents' affection for birds and looking forward to learning more, I signed us up.
Three weeks later, a lazy Sunday found us sitting together in the family room under our fleece throws and humming laptops, our two black pugs lying next to us. I was very much enjoying the relaxing and cozy winter's day.
At one point I looked up from my laptop and was elated to see the sun shining. "I'm going to have to get outside sometime today," I told Elissa. "Maybe I'll take a walk, even if it's only to the end of the driveway."
She asked if we were still doing "that birding thing." I replied, "That's not today. It's in a week or two" and went back to my reading. She was insistent and asked me to check our calendar.
I did, and she was right. With a mere twenty-five minutes to spare, we rushed into action.
We arrived at Lillie Park, binoculars in hand, and met our guide, naturalist Michael Tucker, aka Tuck (tuckstreetopadventures.com). It was the first time the class was offered, and to our surprise and delight, Elissa and I were the only two who had signed up.
Before setting out, Tuck took a few minutes to talk about binoculars. We both learned a few things, including that one of our three sets had a bad lens and another was not
strong enough for most birding, but our third pair was pretty good.
More importantly, he walked me through how to adjust each pair. I hadn't known that the eyepieces have two settings: extended (for non-eyeglass wearers) or retracted (for eyeglass wearers). Though I'm a wearer, mine were at the extended setting; retracting made a big difference.
He then showed me how to adjust the distance between the barrels to fit my eyes then focus by turning the center adjustment ring--but at first with my right eye covered, so I was looking through the left barrel only. Then he had me cover my left lens, look through the right, and adjust the diopter between the eyecup and the body of the right lens. So long as no one else touched my binoculars I wouldn't need to do this again. We were now ready to roll.
The birds were not ready. Though Tuck assured us he had seen a number of them that morning, the woods were quiet that afternoon. For the next couple of hours, we played hide-and-seek.
Tuck was probably the most disappointed among us, but he filled the time affably, describing how to identify a few of the birds we might have seen. Woodpeckers, brown creepers, and white-breasted nuthatches, he explained, move differently as they forage on tree trunks or large limbs. Woodpeckers (both downy and hairy) walk up the trunk in a straight path with their heads up as they tap into the tree for insects.
Brown creepers also walk up the tree as they search for insects, but move in a spiraling fashion. Nuthatches, on the other hand, walk downward in a haphazard series of alternating diagonals, foraging for insects and seeds and caching seeds in crevices in the bark.
At one point we became excited when we saw a flock of birds fly over and land atop some nearby trees just out of view. To get them in our sights, we turned down a less traveled and descending finger trail. But as we worked our way through overgrown branches, they took off, crossing the trail too quickly for us to get our binoculars on them. By the time we could see the trees again, they were empty of fowl.
But all was not lost: almost immediately, we came out of the heavily wooded area and into that fantastic sunshine.
Despite the lack of birds, the brisk thirty-degree temperature made for a comfortable walk and an invigorating intimacy with nature. The conversation was engaging, and Tuck gave us just enough information to absorb without our eyes glazing over.
Back home, I filled our feeders and confirmed that we needed more birdhouses. A few days later the feeders were busy. I was able to identify a couple of downy woodpeckers and at least one white-breasted nuthatch.
[Originally published in January, 2020.]
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