Beginning Birding Step 2 - Find a Buddy

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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." By now, you should have your birding field guide and a pair of quality Alpen binoculars. Maybe you've set up a bird feeder in your backyard and gone on a birding trip with someone from your local Audubon Society. If so, you're ready for step 2 of birding - finding a birding buddy.

Question: Why do I need a birding buddy?

Hallett:If you can find an experienced birder to take you looking for birds, you quickly and easily can learn the sport. An experienced birder can teach you how to identify a bird. One of the most-frustrating things for a beginning birder is to see a very-colorful bird and then when he or she goes to his birding book to identify that bird not be able to find it. Beginning birders generally focus too much on the beautiful colors of the bird and don't know the other identifying characteristics that separate one bird from another. A knowledgeable birder not only will show you the bird, but also will tell you the name of the bird, what about the bird's beak makes it different from the beaks of other birds, what makes the bird's tail distinctive from the tails of other birds and also give you other points to look for on the bird that will help you categorize the bird and distinguish it from other birds. Many people falsely believe that the color of a bird is the primary characteristic to look for when identifying the bird.

Question: What characteristics do you look for to help you identify a bird?

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Hallett: You begin by learning that certain birds have certain telltale characteristics to help you identify one bird from another that may look similar. For instance, when you see a hawk, most people can identify a hawk, but what kind of hawk is it? One of the best distinguishing characteristics to help identify the different types of hawk is the tail. If you're looking at a small bird, often you'll identify it by its bill. If you're looking at shorebirds, a combination of the color of its bill and the color of its legs will be a field mark. If you go on a walk led by a knowledgeable birding leader, he'll point out the field marks to look for to help you better identify the birds you see.

Question: How easy is finding a led walk in your area?

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Hallett:Very, very easy. The Wildbird Centers of America, a chain of about 100-retail stores all over the nation, can tell you how to become involved in led walks. Also, your local Audubon Society will usually sponsor led walks. State, county and federal parks often will have a birder who takes individuals and groups on led walks to look for birds. You usually can find a schedule of led walks by contacting the parks. Becoming a birder is much like becoming a golfer. You're better off to spend an hour or two with a pro and start off right than to go out on a course and hack and swing and wonder why you can't hit the ball straight.