Backyard living

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By Rich Merritt*

Spring: Welcoming feathered friends to our homes
Great time to give flight to a new hobby—birding

Spring is in the air! To a birder, spring migration is like the holiday season to a child or the playoffs to a sports fan—the most exciting time of the year.
As New York’s year-round resident birds such as Black-capped Chickadees and Northern Cardinals are becoming more active and vocal, warmer temperatures and longer days also signal the return of our migrating feathered friends. While some birds that migrate relatively short distances, like Red-winged Blackbirds and Killdeer, returned to our area as early as February, late April and May are “primetime” for the return of the colorful warblers, tanagers and swallows that spend the winter months in Central and South America. For these several weeks, resident bird populations are not only augmented by the return of breeding migrants, but by even more migrants that are passing through on their way to their breeding grounds to the north.

Planting for birds
Birds and pollinators are drawn to the fruits and flowers of plants that are native to our area—and the insects that depend on them—much more so than exotic invasive plants. To attract different species into your yard, plant native plants and shrubs that can provide the food and cover that our local birds have adapted to depend on. For tips on getting started check out Audubon’s Plants for Birds website: audubon.org/plantsforbirds.
The best way to begin birding is just to go out and do it, and learn by trial and error. Birding “experts” frequently find rare or unusual birds (or other wildlife) not because they are experts, but because they spend a lot of time outdoors. If you’d prefer to get started with a group of more experienced birders, the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club and the Audubon Society of the Capital Region regularly host bird walks in the area, as do state parks. Audubon New York will be holding our annual fund-raising Birdathon on May 11 and birders of all levels are welcome to join us. The event is held at various locations throughout the Capital Region and is led by experts willing to share their tips. For more information please email me at rmerritt@audubon.org.
If you’re looking for a fun, diverse and challenging activity to try this spring, consider giving birding a go. Like millions of others before you, you may just be beginning a rewarding and lifelong hobby.

What is a birder? One who seeks to identify birds for fun, as opposed to an ornithologist who does so for science or conservation (although one can be both). Birders are generally inquisitive, mildly eccentric, enjoy making lists, are apt to point out that “Seagull” isn’t a correct name of a bird, and like to spend lots of time outdoors, often at unholy hours of the morning.

Birders enjoy the intellectual challenges that birding presents, attempting to figure out what they are seeing with a limited set of clues. Physical clues on a bird are called “field marks,” which include things like color, size, and bill shape. Learning bird songs and vocalizations is also a great way to both locate and identify birds. Many birds are more often heard than seen. Being familiar with the songs of the birds in our area not only aids in instant identification, but also alerts you that something different is in the vicinity. Audubon New York, the state office of the National Audubon Society, is located right in Troy and has a host of information on its website to help you identify birds at ny.audubon.org.

Local bird neighbors
Before you dismiss birding as a new hobby that is too difficult to master, you may be surprised to learn that the number of birds you might find locally is not an overwhelming figure. Aside from rarities and vagrants, one would only have to be familiar with about 175 birds to be able to identify pretty much every species encountered in our area. Since you already know many (Canada Goose, American Crow, Bald Eagle, and American Robin, for instance), the time it would take to learn the local birds wouldn’t be excessive. Plus, you will quickly learn to categorize the bird you are seeing into family groups, which will help you develop shortcuts to solving identification puzzles.
Birding can appeal to people of all physical abilities. You can bird by simply looking out a window, from a car, or during a long, brisk hike. Anyone can be a birder. All it takes is an innate curiosity and a modest taste for adventure.
While special equipment isn’t a necessity for successful birding adventures, two tools are considered an important part of every birders’ arsenal: a pair of binoculars and a trusty bird guide. The binoculars bring the often tiny creatures into larger focus so that one can see the field marks that differentiate the species, making identification easier. A portable field guide has detailed drawings or photos of the birds and other information for comparison.
If you are looking, you can find interesting birds virtually anywhere. During your downtown stroll in the spring and summer months you might witness the aerial acrobatics of small flocks of Chimney Swifts, freshly returned from South America. City parks are generally good birding spots, especially in spring and during early morning or evening hours. Washington Park hosts plenty of species to see, including a Wood Duck pair who have been spotted already this spring. Other locations in the Capital Region that are excellent for finding birds and allow easy access include Vischer Ferry and Five Rivers Environmental Center, while sites like Black Creek Marsh and Thacher Park will require a bit more vigorous walking. Buckingham Pond is a productive spot right in the heart of Albany and you will frequently encounter birders at Collins Lake in Scotia, Peebles Island in Cohoes/Waterford, Pine Bush Preserve in Guilderland and the Bog Meadow Trail in Saratoga.
Birding also pairs well with other activities such as photography and kayaking. Consider using a birding trip as an excuse to have dinner at that place that you’ve been meaning to try, or team a morning of birding in the Corning Preserve with a light lunch and flight of ciders at Nine Pin Cider Works.
*Rich Merritt is the Director of Operations of Audubon New York.

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