Creature Feature: Birding 101

An American bittern. Photo: © Rob Fowler, used with permission.
An American bittern. Photo: © Rob Fowler, used with permission.

Birds—while often unnoticed—live all around us. Ranging from the very tiny, like hummingbirds, to extremely large, like ostriches, birds are an incredibly diverse group of creatures that can be found in virtually every habitat type around the world—including in our towns and cities.

Some may live in a specific region year-round, while others migrate great distances for breeding, over-wintering, or to find food. Some birds are bright and flashy, while others are more drab and camouflaged. A great many, particularly of the smaller songbird variety, seem so similar and non-descript to the untrained eye they fall into a category my ornithology professor called “the little brown blur.” [Ornithology is the name of the branch of zoology dedicated to the study of birds.] Upon closer inspection, however, unique markings distinguish between a variety of species.

Why watch birds?

Getting to know what birds can be found where you live or visit and observing their behavior can be a great way to explore the outdoors, while also providing a sense of discovery and accomplishment. Watching a warbler flit about on a branch while foraging, or a hawk soaring in the sky looking for prey, can be captivating. While some birds are easy to spot, others are much more difficult and may require dedication, patience, and some skill to determine where to look in order to find them.

Seasoned birders often keep lists of birds they’ve seen and have yet to see in person. It’s a thrill to  spot the first of a species seen in a given season, or a rare bird usually not found in a given area. Detailed records kept of birds sighted can help track changes in populations as well as helping others locate specific birds again.

On the North Coast and in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion, we are lucky to have a wide variety of habitat types that attract a diverse range of birds. Our region is also on the Pacific Flyway—a route taken by many bird species as they fly north or south depending on the season–and birders from all over the world travel here specifically for the reknowned birdwatching opportunities.

What do you need to bird?

A male Townsend’s warbler. Photo: © Rob Fowler, used with permission.
A male Townsend’s warbler. Photo: © Rob Fowler, used with permission.

The first things you need are simply some time and a sense of curiosity. When you are out in nature, listen. Be still and try to follow the sounds of birdsongs or calls. If you can locate where the sounds are coming from, you might be able to catch the movement of the bird. Be aware that birds are often frightened off by loud noises such as talking or tromping through the woods. It’s best to keep your dog (if you have one) on a leash, unless they are very well trained to stay close, calm, and quiet. It’s important to be respectful both of the birds (and other wildlife) and other people in the area who may also be birding.

A pair of binoculars or a spotting scope can be very helpful in order to see birds more closely without getting close enough to disturb them. This is especially important for identification, since markings may be difficult to discern from a distance. (FYI—binoculars can be rented from the Arcata Marsh Interpretive Center for use inside the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Refuge—one of the many amazing local birding locations!)

It is also helpful to learn some of the identifying characteristics that distinguish bird species from each other, including color, size, shape, and wing and head markings. There are several good bird identification guidebooks that provide a wealth of information, photos, and illustrations to help you identify birds that you have found, and most are small enough to carry with you on birding excursions. A small notebook and pen to note where, when, and what is also helpful so you can refer back to your observations later. Special notebooks with waterproof paper can also be very useful for birding in areas or seasons prone to mist or rain, or around waterways.

Being able to pick out who made those quick, tiny footprints on the beach, whose blue-and-black feather floated down from a nearby redwood tree, or whose hoot echoed through the starry night, are skills that can help to connect you with the natural places around you.
For more information on bird watching in the area, check out the Redwood Region Audubon Society’s Sandpiper, included in each issue of EcoNews. The Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival is also coming up in Arcata, April 18-24 (more information on page 8 and If you’ve already caught the birding bug, join the NEC and RRAS for our Fourth Annual Birdathon in May (more information on page 6 and



The following information on binnoculars and guidebooks is graciously provided by Rob Fowler of Fowlerope Birding Tours:

Birding is quickly growing as a popular outdoor pastime. Maybe you have been noticing some of the birds in the area and are interested in learning about them and want to start getting into birding. Below are a couple of essential steps to get one started birding in Northwestern California.

Step one: Gear

Binoculars are the first piece of equipment one needs to purchase to get into birding. These days there are so many great options at a reasonable price. Be sure to look for a binocular that has at least a 32 mm objective and goes up to a 42 mm. 8×32 is a nice start, are light, have good field of view, and let in enough light to be able to see birds clearly through them in the early-morning hours and the twilight evening hours. Some birders like 10x42s due to their magnification but for some people they might have to small of a field of view and can be hard to hold steady. As a general rule stay away from the compact binoculars and models that are “instafocus” or lack an actual focusing wheel.  Best option is to go shopping around and try different binoculars to see what fits best in your hand. Our local birding festival—Godwit Days—offers a great opportunity to try out various pairs of birding-binoculars from vendors who are very willing to let people try them out. For more information about Godwit Days, click here.

Field Guides: The National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds, 7th Edition, is by far the most complete guide to all the bird species found north of Mexico. It is a personal favorite and is compact enough to carry with you into the field. Another great option is the Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition. The Sibley guide is larger than the Nat Geo and a bit too large to regularly carry out into the field, but contains wonderful, detailed illustrations draw by expert birder and author David Sibley. The Sibley Guide also comes in smaller Western and Eastern versions which include only species found in each region. Once again, though, like binocular shopping, it is best to look at each guide and pick which one you like the best. Or, buy multiple guides to have on hand for comparisons of photos and info.  Our local bookstores sell both field guides (and it’s always good to support local businesses!).

It should also be mentioned that digital cameras have quickly become another important part of getting into birding. There are a lot of great inexpensive options, like the many compact “superzoom” or bridge cameras. Popular models are Canon SX50 (discontinued) or SX60, Panasonic Lumix FZ200 and others. Search for “superzoom cameras for birding” online and you will find a range of options.

Step Two: Field Trips

So you’ve got your new binoculars and a field guide or two and you are ready to dive into birding! The local Audubon Society (Redwood Region Audubon Society; RRAS) has a variety of field trips many weekends of the year. I recommend starting with the weekly Arcata Marsh field trips that meet every Saturday—rain or shine—at the foot of I Street at the Arcata Marsh (the Klopp Lake parking lot) at 8:30 a.m. The walks typically last 2-3 hours. Every week features a different leader with different levels of experience and style, but all are seasoned Marsh Walk leaders who can help you quickly learn about the common (and sometimes not common) birds of the area. RRAS also sponsors a monthly 2-3 hour walk every second Sunday (9 a.m. start time) at the Humboldt Bay NWR headquarters near Loleta that is excellent for beginners to learn about the local birds .More info on Redwood Region Audubon Society field trips and other events can be found on their website (

Godwit Days (mentioned above) also features over 100 events for beginning and seasoned birders alike.



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