Watching Birds: My Early Experiences

My Story

I didn’t really know a lot about birds when I was young beyond what my dad taught me from our backyard feeders, but for whatever weird reason, I tried to memorize our old Audubon guide when I was little. I was never sure of my knowledge, though, without a true birding mentor. Maybe it’s a personality trait of mine, but this lack of confidence kept me from trusting my “matching” of the pictures in my guide to anything I saw outside. Nonetheless, I’d guess at identifications outdoors, silently from a car window or when out at a new place. I’d hope that this bird I’d never heard anyone else talk about was in fact what I saw in the photos. I remember seeing a painted bunting on the cover of a magazine and thinking how amazing it would be to see that bird (which brought it full circle when my 1st field job ended up focusing on nest monitoring for that species). A formative experience that sticks out to me was when I was in middle school, and a good friend and I went to a camp to learn about the Chesapeake bay watershed. I finally saw several of the birds up close that I’d gawked at in our bird book, and also had the identifications confirmed by our counselors from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. I came home with a shiny heron-shaped pendant that I’d earned from my attention to the avi-fauna of the trip!

After my childhood interest in watching birds got put on the back-burner sometime in high school, I found myself drawn to learning about birds again as an undergrad. I was a burnt out physics major, looking for something else to revitalize me after a time of personal hardship. Before I switched my major, I took up hiking with my family’s old Audubon guide that I borrowed during some weekend trip home. I started at Mountain Lake, one of the closest spots with a lots of trails well-known around campus. The first bird I remember identifying along a hike was dark-eyed junco, again a bird I had never really “heard of” commonly talked about. So I wondered, was it unusual? Was my ID therefore wrong? Yet, it matched the picture, description and range perfectly. I descended back down the trail and found a bird list at the nature center, and was happy to find the word “junco” listed on it. I felt better about my ID. I kept the bird list with me, and later intending to join one of the guided bird walks, I showed up to a scheduled hike in the spring only to find it cancelled. Yet, with no binoculars, I noticed a flurry of small birds in a tree near where the walk was supposed to meet. I would later find a kinship with a classic ornithology paper I read once I started my M.S., because as I painstakingly sat trying to visually track the varied active birds in that flowering tree, I noticed that certain species seemed to hang out in different parts of the tree. That observation helped me focus enough to identify the birds in front of me, unperturbed by my sneaking up on them amidst their early morning foraging.

After I switched my major into biology, I was drawn to wildlife electives. When I took ornithology, my childhood fascination with birds fully reignited, and I felt it was what I meant to pursue as a career. In a funny twist, I had to buy the Sibley Guide (still my favorite bird guide) for class, and years later during a CBC walk with my now-birding-friend Matt Hafner, it became apparent that I may have bought it from him when he worked at a local bird store in Blacksburg! Armed with the bare minimum tiny binoculars I had to buy for lab, I was hooked into birding from the first outdoor venture, and finally had the help of knowledgeable TA’s Julie Danner (née Castner) and Jonathan Moore pointing out birds in the field to feel confident in assigning species ID’s to the birds I saw. I felt I had the tools in hand now to truly start birding, and so I did. It was perhaps the first time I couldn’t wait to do my homework, which was weekly bird observations. I relished walking to a new spot, with the hopes of seeing new bird species and learning more about bird identification. Our class had a great time for the remainder of the semester, and afterward, my TA’s recommended me for my first field job, which became my M.S. thesis project. In that time, I upgraded to a still-low-end $100 pair of Nikon binoculars that lasted me throughout my M.S. degree. The rest is, as they say, “history.” To everyone who has helped me along the way, I am eternally grateful, and am happy to now be in the community of birders and bird researchers. Birding continues to be my passion, as both a hobby and a career!

Your Story?

When did you become interested in birds? Are you at all curious about our feathered friends right outside your window? What has been your experience interacting with birds and other wildlife? Please comment below!

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