Ten ideas for the new year
(published 12-24-08)

This column was born five years ago next month, though not in this newspaper. I'm grateful that the Daily Herald picked it up last spring, essentially promoting Words on Birds to the major leagues. In doing so, the paper also recognized that this birding thing is getting serious.

Birding is now a mainstream hobby, just like fishing, gardening and photography. Because of that, we can now talk about what we do without feeling embarrassed or defensive. I say better to leave those emotions to the folks who call themselves trainspotters!

Sorry, couldn't help myself. Any hobby is a good hobby if you enjoy it and it helps peel away the stresses of everyday life. But let's face it, birding is the best. In my very first column I listed some reasons why this is so. Birding is simple yet challenging. You can do it anywhere at any time. It's inexpensive.

And birding is fun! Whether you are out searching for a particular species or just glancing out the kitchen window, you never know what you might see. Discovery and surprise are as much a part of birding as getting up early.

Something else mentioned in that first column: I'm not an ornithologist. And that hasn't changed. I'm still just a birder who loves the hobby and wants to share it. Words on Birds is delivered in that spirit.

So with that in mind, I'll kick off 2009 with some friendly advice—and a new list! Here are 10 ideas for helping you enjoy birdwatching even more:

1) Upgrade your optics. It might be time. There is a huge difference between cheapo $75 binoculars and a $300 pair designed for birding. Buy what you can afford, but remember that optics and a field guide (see next item) are the hobby's only essential equipment. For buying advice and to see all the options, try the Eagle Optics website. Better yet, take a field trip to the store in Madison and sample the goods.

2) Get another field guide. It really helps to have a second resource, especially when confronted with an ID challenge. I refer to the Peterson, Sibley and National Geographic guides all the time. Each book has unique strengths, and each uses bird illustrations, not photographs. If your only field guide is the photo kind then definitely add an illustrated version to your bookshelf—they are better for highlighting a bird's key features, which simplifies the ID process.

3) Hone your skills, Part I. Assuming your bookshelf has at least one field guide, consider one of these: Sibley's Birding Basics and National Geographic's Birding Essentials. These two paperbacks are highly readable and worth their weight in gold if you want to improve your birding proficiency, no matter what your current skill level.

4) Hone your skills, Part II. Identification becomes a lot easier when you learn songs and call notes. And those who know them tend to find more birds. The Peterson “Birding by Ear” CDs are excellent. If you're an iPod user, look into birdJam or iBird—software packages that turn your device into a powerful electronic field guide.

5) Join a bird club. As president of the DuPage Birding Club I'm hardly an unbiased source. But being a member of any club adds a nice social dimension to the hobby. You can learn a lot from tagging along with expert birders on a local field trip, and you'll see new birds. The guest speakers at club meetings are interesting, too. To find out more about DBC, go to dupagebirding.org. Or e-mail me if you'd like to receive the club's latest newsletter.

6) Go birding in a new place. Joining a club may inspire you to get out more often and visit some new birding spots. Or just go on your own. Maybe there's a forest preserve that you've been driving by for years. Next time stop the car—you might see something new.

7) Sign up for IBET. Once you've sampled the local online birding community it's hard to log off. You'll see daily reports of common and uncommon birds, and you'll know where to go look for them if you are so inclined. On Thanksgiving Day I saw my my first white-winged crossbill in nine years, at the Morton Arboretum. I'd have never known to go there without IBET, short for Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts. To join this free listserve, send a blank e-mail to ILbirds-subscribe@yahoogroups.com, wait for the response, then follow the instructions.

8) Add a feeder...Consider a specialty feeder that will help attract more species. A thistle feeder will draw goldfinches and pine siskins, or go with a peanut feeder to attract more chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers. And by all means have a hummingbird feeder ready when the calendar hits May.

9) ...and a heated birdbath. Fresh water is a backyard magnet for birds any time of year, and especially during the winter. Cleaning and filling takes discipline when it's frigid outside but the results will justify the effort. For durability, I recommend getting a birdbath that plugs in rather than a heating device that clips on to your existing bath. Your local bird store can show you the options.

10) Keep a log. If you're a regular reader, you know how I feel about list keeping. It can make you a better birder by raising your awareness of where and when species occur in our area. Listing sometimes gets a bad rap because of its competitive undertones. Don't worry about that. Keep track of what you see for the fun of it. Growing your lists can be motivating and a way to chart your progress as a birder.

Now it's time to get out there and bird. Or at least get back to the kitchen window. I wish you all many special sightings in 2009. Please share them with others. It's what birders do.

Copyright 2008 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.