First of all, if you are under sixty years old, be prepared to catch various amounts of hell about bird watching. For some reason, people believe that bird watching is like knitting. Reserved for the old and in the way. The bird nerd conjures up images of the quintessential retired white couple at a nondescript pond straining through their glaucoma with clunky binoculars, wearing high-wasted Lee jeans, a multi-pocketed khaki vest, and a stupid looking hat waiting for Warblers. Looks like a Depends commercial. Nicholas Lund perfectly describes the travesty of the “look” of a birder in Rule #49. In this first “How To”, I’ll describe the badass way to bird watch.
When waiting for birds to appear, I’m usually playing a Soundgarden album in my head, air drumming, looking pretty cool. This is Step 1. Like all activities, looking cool is of utmost importance. Whether you are playing tennis at the park or cowboying on the range, looking badass is the first thing that will score you points. When birding it’s important to dress like you don’t need this shit in the first place. Like looking at birds is the easiest thing you’ve ever done. Like your spouse is making you do it. Wear regular street clothes like you just got finished drinking overpriced cocktails on a patio somewhere and were interrupted to pick up the binoculars.
Step 2: Be nonchalant about the whole ordeal. Most times when I spot unique birds I’m performing some bullshit task such as washing dishes or picking up dog crap in the yard. If I’m camping, the binoculars are always within reach while cutting wood, setting up the tent, or yelling at the dog. Damn dog. There is usually no reason to creep around the woods like you are elk hunting to see a multitude of species. In fact, my favorite opportunity to spot flitting little avian is sitting around eating breakfast, at home or at camp. Birds are badasses too and they get up at the butt crack of dawn to start their day. If they sleep in, they die of starvation, so the motivation is strong. Get out of bed, pop some Advil to kill the hangover, and make a platter of bacon.
Step 3: Get nice binoculars. Lugging around a pair of your grandpa’s Bushnells just isn’t bad ass. Spend the money on a pair of Oculus or Nikons. You will look cool (see Step 1) and the adjustments on new binoculars are a million times better than those crappy old ones. Go for nothing less than 10×42 which is standard.
Step 4: Speak the lingo. That’s right. You aren’t looking through your binoculars, you are “glassing”. Sounds almost Navy Seal to say “glassing”. I get goosebumps when I say it. Like I’ve got a high powered sniper rifle just waiting out another sniper on a mountainside. Also, get to know a bunch of species names. This will take practice but you’ll get there. When someone is looking toward the sky in obvious wonder about some raptor, you just say the name of the bird. That’s all. Name only. Don’t say, “Oh, that looks like a Swainson’s Hawk. You know, they winter in South America and only come through here once a year in summer?” Yes, of course you know this tidbit of information, but don’t share it right away. You’ll come off as a nerd or worse, arrogant. Just say, “Swainson’s Hawk.” Say it like there is no doubt. Like you see these damn things all the time. You will get questions after that. And hot dates.
Step 5: Where to find info and other badasses. The best place for information on Birds and Bird Watching is the Audubon Society. They have everything from binocular reviews to exotic trips. This amazing group is also in the same boat on conservation as us fly fisherfolks and they are also standing up for Bristol Bay. “Bristol Bay, Alaska is one of the most ecologically and economically important watersheds on Earth. The bay supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon run, a $1.5 billion annual commercial fishery, and over 14,000 Alaskan jobs.” And above the water line are multitudes of plants and animals, and birds, that depend on this one-of-a-kind natural place. Be a badass and do what you can here.
Step 6: Travel. Another obvious reason bird watchers are badasses is because of the intense places they will travel to spot birds. Sure, backyard birding is nice during a pandemic, but you will have to get way, way out there to see more hard to find species. Such as the Bali Bird of Paradise. Almost impossible to spot, the Bali Bird of Paradise, mostly lives in inaccessible, dense rain forest habitats. Most inhabit the island of New Guinea and its satellites. Bali? New Guinea? Sign me up please! Others are so hearty you will have to climb high mountains to get a chance to see one. So you can take a whole bunch of geriatrics out of the equation with that one.
Step 7: One prerequisite of any badass is a bookshelf full of books. And when it comes to books about birds there is no shortage. My favorite Colorado bird book is American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of Colorado. Superb photography and dry humor make this one a must have. Now imagine one for each state. That’s a lot of books on the shelf behind your desk to make you look smarter on those Zoom calls with your boss. I grew up with a paperback Birds of North America which was cool, but actual photography is so much better than a drawing when it comes to identifying birds.
Need more reasons to bird watch? Birds are badasses. They are everything we cannot be. Smart, colorful, unbelievably diverse, and…they can fly. With ease, these super athletes can judge time and space like we never could. Okay, maybe not dumb ass chickens, but watch a hummingbird dart in and out of the branches of a blue spruce, or a peregrine falcon reach 200 mph and take an unsuspecting pigeon out of mid-air in a crowded urban setting. I can barely put on my underwear without falling on my face.
Watching birds is also a family affair. But don’t drag them to some hotter-than-hell prairie lake or frozen tundra. Just make it easy. Walk through the neighborhood. Take your binoculars to the park. But honestly, camping is always the best place to watch birds. In camp, there is time and space to just relax, drink a whiskey, and wait for movement.
These days there is also an insane amount of information on bird watching and birds in general. Some excellent podcasts I love are The Bird Shit podcast and Birdchick. Audubon also lists quite a few here and they grow daily as we all begin to wonder what species of bird just pooped on our shoulder. Now go out there and be a bad ass bird watcher!