Becoming a Beginning Birder with Tom Hallett

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Editor’s Note: Editor's Note: Tom Hallett of Wisconsin, director of birding for Alpen Optics, has been birding since his early twenties, when he went hiking with his aunt and uncle, who were serious birders. "While we were hiking, my aunt and uncle named all the birds they saw and heard," Hallett remembers. "Because I was fascinated with their knowledge of birds, I bought a birding book and a pair of binoculars, and I've been a bird watcher ever since."

Question: Tom, why is birding such a good sport for anyone?

Hallett:Birding's a life sport. You can get into birding as a very-young child, a senior citizen or anywhere in between, and it's a sport you can continue from any age. I've found that once someone begins to learn about birds, they continue to learn about birds their entire lives. Birds are very fascinating, and there's much to be learned about them.

Question: What does someone need to begin birding?

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Hallett: Basically, you need a good pair of binoculars like an 8x42, a typical pair of birding binoculars that magnifies the bird eight times closer or eight times larger with the size of the objective lens relating to the amount of light it lets in and the weight of the binoculars. For the beginning birder, I'd recommend Alpen's Apex 8x42 binoculars that retail for around $300. These fully multi-coated binoculars have extremely good glass and are very comfortable to hold. If your pocketbook dictates that you don't spend as much money as the Apex binoculars cost, I recommend the Alpen Shasta Ridge> binoculars. If you want a better binocular, Alpen's Apex or Rainier may be what you want. Both the Apex and the Rainier are high-quality professional-level birding binoculars.

Question: After binoculars, what does the beginning bird watcher need to buy?

Hallett:I suggest you purchase a birding field guide. There are a large number of these field guides available from many-different publishers. I'd recommend having a field guide that covers the United States. Some field guides are regional, covering for instance, the eastern, the western or the southern United States. Other field guides are species-specific, like the field guide for wild birds or warblers. I'd recommend a good-basic birding book like "Birds of North America: A Guide To Field Identification" published by St. Martin's Press. The Peterson series, "Field Guide to Birds," is an excellent choice, and "Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America" is another excellent choice that covers the United States.

Question: Once a new birder has his or her book and binoculars, what's the easiest way to get into birding?

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Hallett: The easiest way to get into birding is to participate in a led walk. New bird watchers should contact their local Audubon Society, which usually has knowledgeable birders who will function as leaders and teach newcomers about bird watching. The experienced birder will talk about habitat, where to look for birds, how to see and identify birds, and how to recognize birds by their songs. An easier way is to go out in your backyard and try to identify the birds you see with your binoculars and your bird book. If you see a bird, and you don't know that bird's name, look the bird up in your field guide to learn all about it. This is probably how most birders get started in the sport. You also can put up a bird feeder in your backyard, and if you see an unusual-looking bird or a bird you can't identify, look the bird up in your bird book. You'll not only learn the name of the bird, but where it lives and travels and a ton of other information about that bird.

Question: In talking to birders, they often mention their life lists. What is a life list?

Hallett:A life list is a list of birds you see for the first time in your life. You usually write down the name of the bird and the date and the place where you've seen it. Really serious life birders will have several life lists. For instance, you may record birds seen in your backyard, county, state or region, and in the United States and/or foreign countries. Most birders keep track of the birds they've seen.

Question: What are some of the most-common birds birders see?

Hallett:This is an interesting question. A common bird in the eastern part of the United States may not be common in the western part of the United States, which is another aspect of birding that makes the sport so much fun. When you travel to different sections of the country, a common bird you see in another state may be a bird you've never seen previously. For instance, cardinals are extremely common in the eastern U.S., but are rarely seen in the western U.S. The biggest dividing line on birds seems to be between the east and the west more than the north and the south.

Question: How can I get information about the birds in my state?

Hallett:Your best bet will be to contact the Audubon Society in the state where you live. If you go to a state park or a national forest, ask for a checklist, which will generally list all the birds typically found in the area by seasons. That park or forest probably has assigned a qualifying letter to each bird. For instance, A for abundant, C for common or R for rare. This way, you quickly can see and understand what birds are common in an area and what birds are unusual in an area.

Question: What's a good website to visit to learn more about birding?

Hallett:The American Birding Association has a really good website - www.americanbirding.org/, or another good site is www.birdingonthe.net, or my favorite, www.birdzilla.com, which has a list for each by state. For instance, someone from Illinois can go to the Illinois section and see what birds are common in that state. Almost every state park and national forest usually will have some type of birding checklist on their webpage. Searching the web provides plenty of information. To learn about binoculars and find the binoculars that are best for them, new birders can look at some of the binoculars we have on our website.