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Birding Essentials

By Heather Shirley I March 02, 2021


Photographers taking pictures of birds flying in the sky with clouds and green grass looking upwards

Planning to enjoy a fine spring day in the verdant woods, enjoying nature and birds? Make sure you take the right things to ensure a wonderful adventure.


Binoculars magnify the birds, so you can better see plumage and behavior details to identify their species. The range of binocular choices—and prices—can make buying optics confusing. The best advice I ever heard is to buy the best you can afford, straight away. Don’t start out with an introductory $50 pair of binoculars; they’ll only leave you wanting something better. You’ll spend more in the long run and deny yourself months or years of having a great pair to enjoy.


If you get hooked on birding, plunge in and buy smart. I recommend going to a New Jersey Audubon sanctuary store (www.NJAudubon. org) to buy optics; their prices are competitive, the staff knowledgeable and you’ll learn about walks and outings they sponsor. Choose binoculars that feel good and fit your budget, then get out in the field and find some birds!

But first, you’ll need to take a few more things with you.


A hat, bug spray, sunscreen. Water and plenty of snacks. (Because birding generally means an early start to the day, you may find yourself ravenous by 10 am!) Clothing layers, rain gear. A field guide (I like David Sibley’s, available in app stores).


Finally, most importantly, whom will you take?


The qualities to consider as you make this critical decision are many. Birding skill is certainly a factor: will you learn something or will you feel gratified teaching others if you’re the more experienced birder? Birding style: are you a dawn-to-dusk, no-matter-the-weather, rabid birder? Or more of a midday, fair-weather birder? Who will keep you alert and entertained on long car drives? Finally, and bluntly, who won’t drive you crazy, especially if you don’t see the bird you were hoping to?


Since moving to south Florida, I’ve been lucky to find fantastic bird pals. We could not be more different, spanning ages, careers, religious and political views. What unites us is our appetite to see birds, and our passion for nature.


An emphatic, whistled bob-white ringing from a grassy field or piney woods has long been a characteristic sound of summers in the Eastern countryside.

Since moving to south Florida, I’ve been lucky to find fantastic bird pals. We could not be more different, spanning ages, careers, religious and political views. What unites us is our appetite to see birds, and our passion for nature.


Our typical Saturdays start at about 5 am and continue until almost midnight. Entertaining each other, learning from each other and laughing together are important for any friendship, and especially so for bird pals since we all think it is completely reasonable to drive three or four hours (one way!) for a chance to see a rare bird. That’s a lot of time trapped in a car—it helps if the conversation is sparkling.


My bird friends and I talk about absolutely everything under the sun and even beyond. We talk about birds, of course, sharing identification tips and revealing secret honey holes that promise elusive species. We talk about science and parascience, like whether UFOs are real and being covered up by the government. Current events, music and books, relationships past and present. We recount stories about ourselves.


Once I was completely incapacitated with laughter by my friend’s tale of a Led Zeppelin concert that involved police and illegal drugs of questionable efficacy. Thank God we were at a red light, and I was able to keep a foot on the brake. I eventually recovered, drove on and we saw that day’s target bird.


Oh, my, the birds and sights we’ve seen together. Once we watched a pair of eagles soaring, chasing and following each other in exciting loops. Suddenly they reared up and locked talons. One flipped upside down, and they plunged towards the earth, free falling and spiraling hundreds of feet until finally breaking apart just above us. Breathtaking! Eagles and other raptors such as red-tailed hawks do this cartwheeling fall occasionally as acts of aggression, or more often as one of their many courting rituals.


An emphatic, whistled bob-white ringing from a grassy field or piney woods has long been a characteristic sound of summers in the Eastern countryside.

Another thrilling encounter was with a placid northern bobwhite early one summer morning. These birds have suffered a sharp and worrisome population decline because of overhunting and urbanization that caused loss of habitat. Seeing a bobwhite innocently living its life humbles me and fills me with joy, and I know my friends feel the same.


Driving down a dirt road, we spotted one of the small quails ambling along the roadside’s edge, nimbly stretching to pluck seeds from the overhanging grass heads. We stopped the car and got out to silently watch. The bird, chestnut brown with a peaked black and white striped head, took absolutely no notice of us. It meandered along, coming nearer, placidly walking along and feeding. A few steps, a few nibbles. Closer. Closer. Eventually it literally bumped into my friend’s shoe, looked up, saw us and startled, flying swiftly away and whistling its eponymous “bob-WHITE!” call.


Can you imagine? What an encounter! And whom better to share it with than friends who appreciate both the rarity of such a gorgeous bird and the rare bond that comes from experiencing such wonder together.


This season, set yourself up for wondrous outings. Grab your optics and choose a like-minded friend or make a new one on a New Jersey Audubon-guided walk. 

Who knows what wonders await?

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