A Close Look at Bird Watching
How to get started in Montana’s fastest-growing outdoors activity.
This story is featured in Montana Outdoors
“I’ll never hunt or fish with the same eyes.”
Ron Aasheim, a dyed-in-the-wool elk hunter, experienced this optical epiphany one morning last summer along the Blackfoot River. He was out with longtime friend Bob Martinka, a retired Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks wildlife manager and bird-watching expert who lives in Helena. Aasheim, also of Helena, had visited the river many times before as an angler, but this was the first time he spent the day looking into the trees rather than the water. What he discovered was a whole new dimension of wildlife.
“Bob really raised my awareness of things in the outdoors I’d never really noticed before,” Aasheim says.
For instance, Martinka pointed out an American redstart, a black and orange bird Aasheim hadn’t noticed before. “Heck, I didn’t even know there was such a bird,” he says.
Aasheim, who heads FWP’s Conservation Education Division, isn’t alone in discovering the joys of bird watching. As people across the country increasingly head outdoors to recreate, birding has become wildly popular. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, birding is America’s fastest-growing outdoors activity. And Montana is leading the way, with a participation rate of 44 percent, double the national average and highest of any state. Fortunately for Treasure State birders, Montana has plenty of places to see a wide range of winged wildlife. And thanks to the Internet and a growing number of field guides and birding festivals, finding where and when to go birding across the state has never been easier.
It’s never been so important, either. Ecologists point out that observing wildlife provides clues to the world around us. The survival and health of birds in particular (because they are especially sensitive to environmental changes) can indicate an ecosystem’s well-being. When birds start disappearing, something has gone wrong. Conversely, the reappearance of declining species, such as bald eagles and other fish-eating birds, indicates a decline in pesticide use or other environmental improvements.
Of course, most people don’t watch birds to save the planet but rather to observe their strikingly beautiful colors and diversity of shapes, sizes, behaviors, and plumage.
For dedicated participants, bird watching often takes precedence over vacations, jobs, and even family life. “I was a casual birder for many years, until retirement,” says Martinka. “That’s when the addiction set in.”
Like many participants, Martinka says birding is “an excuse” to get out into the natural world. “It’s just like fishing, hunting, or other activities that provide a reason for being outdoors,” he says. “It’s always fun to walk along a stream or through a forest, but it’s even more so if you’re doing it purposefully, with your senses alert, trying to discover something new or interesting.”
Such sentiments are shared by bird watchers of all ages. Kids can look through binoculars as easily as their grandparents can. In fact, bird watching is one of the few outdoors pursuits an entire family can do together.
Kristi DuBois, who coordinates FWP’s Native Species Management Program from her office in Missoula, says she can’t think of an easier outdoors activity.
“You can watch birds almost anytime and anywhere,” says DuBois, who looks for birds while hiking, skiing, boating, and even driving. “The other great thing is that anyone can do it. You don’t have to be an expert or know everything in the field guides. Plus it’s free—no license needed.”
How to spot birds
You don’t even need to leave the house to watch birds.
“Start birding in your own backyard,” says Harriet Marble, a Montana Audubon Society board member and chair of the organization’s Montana Bird Records Committee, which tracks unusual bird sightings throughout the state.
Marble, of Chester, began birding at home as a child, learning to identify birds using an old field guide. Field guides are still essential tools for birding, she tells beginners. Fortunately for newcomers, several beautifully illustrated bird books have been published in recent years (see sidebar, page 26).
Because birds don’t always appear in the wild exactly as they do in pictures, many bird watchers own two or more guides and compare the images.
Though a guide is necessary for positive bird identification, Marble advises birding beginners to resist the temptation to open an identification book the moment they spot a bird.
“At first, just watch the bird for a bit,” she says. “I try to observe as much detail as possible.”
If several birds are flitting about, focus on just one. Carry a small notebook and jot down notes about the bird for help later when referencing the field guide.
Begin at the beak (or the bill, for waterfowl), observing the shape, length, thickness, and color. Work down the bird, checking the wing shape and size, then tail length and shape. Look for patterns or field marks such as eye patches or rings, dots, lines, and stripes. Check for wing bars and flashes of undercolor that show when a bird flutters. If more than one species appears, compare sizes. Only after you’ve amassed these details, says Marble, should you open your field guide.
Most bird books catalog bird species from the oldest to the youngest along the evolutionary scale: Loons and grebes cover the first few pages, and songbirds pile up at the back. For easy comparison, the guides cluster birds in similar groupings and families.
To start identifying a bird, begin the process of elimination. A bird swimming in a lake, for instance, is probably not a woodpecker, and shorebirds rarely appear in mountain forests.
From there, simply look for birds in the guide that generally match your
observations, until you get it narrowed down to one species.
Another clue, says Marble, is to check distribution maps, included in most field guides. As an example, she notes, “We’re not likely to see cardinals in Montana.” Read habitat descriptions carefully. You won’t see high-altitude species such as willow ptarmigans in your low-elevation backyard.
To aid in identification, listen to birds. “Start with what you hear in your yard,” Marble says. “I like to watch the bird actually sing.”
Substituting words for notes helps with memory. Chickadee-dee-dee-dee is the call of the black-capped chickadee. The most common of the American robin’s songs is stop— stop—stop. And if you hear, quick, three beers, then an olive-sided flycatcher is likely nearby. Commercial birdsong tapes and CDs can help you make the audio connection more quickly.
Another way to learn bird identification is to find an expert and ask to tag along. Meet experienced birders by hooking up with an Audubon Society chapter, most of which sponsor field trips open to beginners. Some years, FWP offers a Becoming an OutdoorsWoman birding class. The Glacier Institute, Yellowstone Association Institute, Raptor View Research Institute, and The Nature Conservancy of Montana also sponsor birding trips. Or ask at your local bird food store for the names of friendly, expert birders in your neighborhood.
When to watch
You can spot birds any time of year, but they are most abundant during spring and fall migrations. Many birding festivals celebrate these predictable flights. In May, check out the Bitterroot Birding Festival at Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, the Yellowstone Valley Audubon Society’s Birding Classic, and International Migratory Bird Day at the National Bison Range. Each June, Glendive observes the return of turkey vultures at Makoshika State Park during Buzzard Days, and the Montana Audubon Society sponsors several bird festivals. In early October, the Bridger Raptor Festival held north of Bozeman celebrates one of North America’s largest golden eagle migrations.
Martinka says that if he had to pick one month for watching birds, it would be June, when most of Montana’s several hundred nesting species are mating. Male songbirds in particular display colors and sing operatic trills while courting.
The best time of day to spot birds is at dawn, says Marble. That’s when they sing to establish territory and forage for food after a long night of roosting. Dusk is good too, she adds, because birds usually feed before nightfall. If you hope to find owls, however, night is usually the time to be out listening and looking.
Where to watch
Birding in your backyard will soon make you an expert—on birds in your backyard. That’s not a bad place to start, but observing more of Montana’s 416 species requires some travel.
“The key is to change habitats—lakes, forests, prairies—and keep going different places,” says Marble.
Montana has abundant and diverse ecosystems, each containing birds unique to those habitats. National parks, wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, and state parks teem with bird life. Many public wildlife areas publish bird lists to aid with identification.
To increase the odds of seeing even greater bird diversity, go to where two habitats meet, such as where a grassland becomes aspen grove or where a fen intersects with conifer forest.
Almost without exception, the best place to see birds is near water, including streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, marshes, bogs, and sloughs. Roughly 90 percent of Montana’s bird species use riparian and wetland habitats for breeding and nesting. Streams and rivers are especially attractive to birds in
Montana’s dry eastern half, says Martinka, who frequently looks for birds along prairie waterways.
Many people love to follow official routes and trails, and birders are no exception. That’s why FWP teamed up with 30 other state and federal agencies and dozens of communities and private conservation groups to establish the Montana Birding and Nature Trail. FWP’s DuBois, a member of the steering committee developing the trail, says that over the next few years the project aims to identify, map, and sign hundreds of miles of roads and hiking trails linking Montana’s top birding locations. Already portions of the trail have been established in the Blackfoot and Clearwater drainages, the Bitterroot Valley, and the Helena and Gallatin valleys. You can find maps of these birding trails on-line at montanabirdingtrail.org/about.htm.
Trails, festivals, and field trips are fun ways to see birds and socialize with like-minded birders, but they aren’t essential to the sport. All it really takes to watch birds is a pair of binoculars, a pocket notebook, and a field guide. Pull up a chair and watch out the back window. It won’t be long before you see that those “identical-looking” little brown birds are actually many different species. And once that happens, you might well become like elk hunter Ron Aasheim and never look at the outdoors with the same eyes again.
For more information on bird watching and conservation, contact Montana Audubon at (406) 443-3949 or www.mtaudubon.org.
Becky Lomax is a freelance writer in Whitefish.
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