Umpqua Birds
Birds and Birding in Douglas County, Oregon
This website is supported in part by the Umpqua Valley Audubon Society. For information on sponsorship, contact Matt Hunter at 541-670-1984 or
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TIPS FOR BEGINNING BIRDERS IN DOUGLAS COUNTY, OREGON

If you have developed an interest in birds and/or birding and want to learn more, there are many opportunities available. You can develop your interest at the pace and in the way that interests you, whether on your own or with others. There is no "one way" to do birding. I hope this page gives you what you need to continue pursuing your interest. Most importantly, get your binoculars, tune your ears, and go out and learn from the birds. They are the best teachers.
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BINOCULARS AND SPOTTING SCOPES

Why Get Optics?

Binoculars and spotting scopes give us the magnification--the distance vision--that many raptors have naturally, but which we lack. Our vision is naturally best suited to viewing things very near us, or in broad landscape view. But when small birds at a distance become our "prey," we are at a disadvantage. Glass optics serve as supplementary lenses to allow us to see our world with much more magnification than we normally do. Binoculars are all-purpose birding optics best suited to distances of a few yards to a few hundred yards, but can be used for even greater distances once you learn the shapes and flight styles of birds. Spotting scopes are tremendously helpful for viewing birds far out in fields or on ponds or soaring over a distant ridge.

What Should I Buy?

One can spend from a couple dollars for old binoculars at a garage sale to several thousand dollars for a new top-of-the-line spotting scope. So where to start? First, determine what you're willing to spend. Second, educate yourself. For this I recommend exploring Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Gear Guide. Finally, the best advice for determining which pair of binoculars or which scope to buy is to try them out yourself. Many types will do well in average daylight with the sun at your back. Where the more expensive optics earn their money is in the extremes: low-light conditions and in cases of strong glare such as over a body of water. The more expensive optics will bring in more color in low-light conditions and filter out glare when the sun is more in front of you.

Where Can I Try Them?

While local stores in Douglas County have a small selection of birding optics, you will have to go to larger cities for an expanded selection of in-stock optics. However, one of the best ways to try out a range of binoculars and get some first-hand advice at the same time is to get together with some local birders and try out their binoculars and spotting scopes! You might even make a new friend! Where to find local birders? Try the Umpqua Birds email list, and check out the Umpqua Valley Audubon Society website for upcoming field trips.

Where Should I Buy Them?

Shop around. Ask around. Typically you can find the best deals at on-line camera and optics stores, but sometimes local stores have good binoculars at a reasonable price. Also, sometimes you can find a good model in used condition for a good price. Look in classifieds, put in a wanted ad, go to estate sales.

How to Use Them?

If you have not used binoculars before, at first it can be bewildering trying to find the bird through the binoculars, but here are a few basic steps that will help you get on your way: (1) pre-focus your binoculars to the approximate distance that the bird is at. (2) Look at the bird with your eyes, then--without shifting your gaze--bring the binoculars up to your eyes aiming them at the bird. (3) Practice these steps on something stationary and easy to see such as a bird box, your feeder, or an apple in a tree. Then go out and try it on something with feathers. Over time it will become second nature. With a spotting scope, line up the barrel of the scope with the bird of interest, and begin at the lowest magnification. If you don't see the bird, adjust the scope left and right or up and down slightly. Once you've found the bird, zoom in if desired.

OBSERVING BIRDS

Spend the time

One of the common threads in birding is the desire to identify the birds we see--to know their name. This is a lifelong process if one desires to identify all birds one encounters, in different plumages and viewing conditions, and there are many species that present difficult challenges. Nevertheless, the best way to start is to become familiar with the more common birds. I mean really familiar. How does one do that? Watch them. Observe. Look. Notice. Be curious. Unconciously or conciously describe or note to yourself (or on paper) what you see on the bird. What shape is the beak? What color is it? How long is the tail? Does it wag its tail? Flick its wings? Cock its head? Does it sit up vertically? Does it hang upside down? You don't have to ask yourself aloud all these questions. Just soak up the persona, appearance, habits and sounds of the bird. Watch it for a long time. That is how you become familiar with it. Eventually, you will recognize its shape, movements, and appearance just like recognizing the shape, stroll, and clothing of a friend a block away.

Use Your Ears

Many beginners think of recognizing birds by what they look like; by sight. However, if you are really interested in knowing birds and detecting them to the best of your ability, recognizing them by sound will open up a whole new world to you. In fact in many forested situations, over 90% of the birds can be detected by sound and less than 10% by sight! I can't go into earbirding in depth in the space here, but I will point you in the right direction.

(1) Start in your yard or a favorite location. Do you hear any bird sounds you can identify? Great! Listen for a bird making a sound that you cannot identify and go find the bird. The effort of finding it and discovering its identity will help solidify the connection in your mind. Watch and observe the bird for some time, if possible, listening to the various sounds it makes, thinking about the sound, describing it to yourself, or writing down a description. You can even try to draw a representation of the sound. When you have opportunity again, repeat this process, solidifying the sounds you recognize and seeking out the source of sound you do not recognize. Over time you will become much more familiar with the birds in your area.

(2) Boost your earbirding skills by reviewing and quizzing yourself with Dendroica (free) and/or Larkwire ($15-$45). There are also many sources of bird sounds on the web, and bird sounds are associated with all the major North American bird identification apps for mobile devices. These are fun to explore.

(3) Go out with an experienced earbirder to learn things you didn't know and check your ear and current knowledge.

(4) To pursue earbirding and bird sounds in depth, dive into all the resources and links at earbirding.com.

 

 

RESOURCES FOR IDENTIFYING AND LEARNING ABOUT BIRDS

Resources for Identifying Birds

There are hundreds of books, apps, and websites available to birders. I am not going to list every resource available as there are too many and new ones appear all the time. Rather, I am going to summarize the types of resources available and give a tip or two about them. You can explore the web and ask others for more information. The important thing is to get a field guide and begin birding!

Most field identification guides include birds from all over North America (or east/west), so there will be many species in these guides that you will not see here in Oregon, much less Douglas County. I recommend downloading the seasonal occurrence bar-charts on the Umpqua Birds home page which will inform you which species are most likely to occur here and when.

Field Identification Guides

Any standard North American field guide published by National Audubon Society, National Geographic, Peterson's Field Guide series, or National Wildlife Federation will be a superb resource.

In the last few years, many of the major publishers have come out with some "beginner," or "youth" field guides for birders. These are all excellent and can be a first, and maybe last, guide for some. One of the first of these guides was Kenn Kauffman's Field Guide to Birds of North America, published by Houghton Mifflin in 2000. There is a "new" edition published in 2005. This is an excellent guide for anyone.

Field Identification Apps for Mobile Devices

Many of the major publishers of standard field guides now have their field guides formatted for mobile devices. These are also excellent, incorporating most material from the paper versions, with the additional benefit of including sound recordings for most species. There are also stand-alone apps that are excellent, such as iBird.

Again, the major publishers of field guides are competing to produce the best beginner apps for birders. Right now, however, at the forefront, in my opinion, is the Merlin Bird ID App developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Bird Identification Websites

There are a dozen or more websites devoted to bird identification that have no paper corollary. Here I just list two of the best: the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's All About Birds, and Audubon's Online Guide to North American Birds. There are others that treat most birds of North America and some that are targeted at beginning or backyard birders. A web search for online bird identification guides will find plenty.

Specialty Identification Guides

If you want more advanced reference materials, the sky is the limit. There are books, such as Kenn Kaufman's "Field Guide to Advanced Birding" that address many specific challenges in bird ID not often included in standard field guides. In addition, there are numerous books that deal with identification (and sometimes biology and habitat) of specific families or groups of birds, such as seabirds in general, tubenoses specifically, waterfowl, raptors, shorebirds, gulls, terns, hummingbirds, warblers, sparrows, etc. Even further, there are always new identification articles being published in bird and birding journals and magazines (e.g. Birding, American Birds, Western Birds, Oregon Birds, etc.), that have information that will eventually end up in the aforementioned bird ID guides. Seek them out if you are eager!

A Final Note

Yes, the amount of information available is astounding, even overwhelming. Don't sweat it. The birds don't care. Go spend time with them, not your computer, or even your field guide. My recommendation is to only use these resources to the extent that they help you with your goals for your way or style of birding. The "guides" are only that. On the one hand they compile information that would take many lifetimes to acquire individually. On the other hand, they cannot possibly describe all individual variation in plumage, molt, habitat use, or song. That will be up to you to observe.

Resources for Learning About Birds

Many people are not only interested in naming the birds they see, but they want to know about them. Again, there are inumerable resources on this topic. Here I just list what I consider some of the best for this purpose for our area.

Familiar Birds of the Northwest (many publishing years), by Harry Nehls. If I was to recommend one book to a beginning birder in Oregon, it would be this book. It has a lot of older paintings used as illustrations that give you an idea of what the bird looks like, usually set in its habitat. Although it is not a comprehensive identification guide it does give plentiful descriptions of the birds and ways to distinguish some similar species. Each paragraph gives you a good feel for the status, distribution, habitat and habits of the species being discussed. It is an enjoyable read. It could just as well be called "Becoming Familiar with Birds of the Northwest," and that is why I recommend it.

Birds of Oregon: A General Reference (2003), edited by David B. Marshall, Matthew G. Hunter, and Alan L. Contreras, and written by about 100 authors, many of whom were authorities on the species they wrote about. This large reference is for someone wanting to find out extensive details on what is known about each species in Oregon, or where to get more information.

The Birder's Handbook: A Field Guide to the Natural History of North American Birds (1988), by Paul Erlich, David S. Dobkin, and Darryl Wheye. Birding sometimes has the reputation of being comprised of a bunch of "listers" just wanting to get bigger lists. While that is one segment of the birding population, most people, I would say, including many "listers," are very interested in the habits and life histories of the birds themselves. The Birder's Handbook focuses on all these aspects of bird's lives. It includes essentially two books in one: information on each species in North America, and information about aspects of birds in general, and these two "books" are mixed together by putting one set of info on the left side of the open book and the other set on the right side. Anyway, it is chock full of interesting information on birds and will give you an appreciation of the wide variety of life histories these birds exhibit. Also see The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.

A Field Guide to Western Birds' Nests, by Hal H. Harrison or A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds by Paul Baicich and Colin Harrison. When one stumbles upon a bird nest, especially one with eggs, we want to know what species it belongs to. These books not only describe birds' nests, they describe the eggs. They are fantastic and wonderful resources for those interested in all aspects of our birds' life histories.

The Birds of North America Online is arguably the most complete synthesis of information on all North American birds available. It requires a subscription, but if you are deeply interested in North American birds, the annual subscription is modest.

 

EXPLORE NEW AREAS

If you are interested in seeing more kinds of birds, there is a simple and sure way to increase the number of species you encounter: look for birds in a different habitat. Habitat is a word that refers to the physical environment in which an organism lives. In the case of birds, some features that are important to birds include whether there is open water, deep water, shallow water, or tall trees, short trees, shrubs, grass, or gravelly rocks, large bolders, vertical cliffs. All these features and more determine which species of birds are present. If you have been birding an area that is mostly dense forest, go find a wide open area with abundant shrubs or grassland. If you have not yet gone to a body of water, go find a lake or pond. Exploring different habitats will bring you into contact with new species. See the Umpqua Birds home page for ways to find local areas to go birding.

FIND A FRIEND

Some people prefer to experience the outdoors and birds alone and that is wonderful. I enjoy that myself. But many people, including myself, also enjoy experiencing birds with someone with a similar interest. Not only can that be enjoyable, but with an additional set of eyes and ears one often gets to find more birds than when birding alone. How to find a birding friend? Well, in this age of social media, this should not be a problem. But if these methods are not successful, or if you don't use them (like me), there are a few other possibilities. One is to join the Umpqua Birds email list and request a birding companion for an outing you have in mind, or request to tag along with someone else. Another option is to attend a program or field trip of the Umpqua Valley Audubon Society and ask around there.

Matthew G. Hunter
Wildlife Ecologist/Birding Guide
matthewghunter@gmail.com, 541-670-1984
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