Curious about bird-watching? These experts can help you take flight.
Back in January 2021, Cathy Hallam—like so many people weathering the strangeness of COVID-19 protocols—was searching for some interesting online courses to take when she came across an opportunity to learn about birding.
“I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to get into birding. It’s for old, weird people,’” Hallam, 63, recalls with a laugh. “Then I realized, ‘Well, I’m old and I’m kind of weird.’” So she decided to give it a shot.
Enrolling in the course ended up being a fortuitous decision for Hallam, who spent most of her childhood in the Capital Region and now lives in Maryland. She’s since been bird-watching in all 23 of Maryland’s counties, plus the city of Baltimore, a lofty goal she achieved in her first year. The hobby has brought her home to the Capital Region, and even to Costa Rica with the Grassland Bird Trust based in nearby Washington County.
Hallam says she fell in love with birding after a cross-country skiing trip, during which she spotted a tiny owl peeking out of a hole in a tree. She hoped if she ever got lucky enough to see another owl up close, she’d know how to identify it.
Plus, she says, it’s a peaceful hobby that connects her with nature—and with herself. “It gives me much the same feeling as when I did yoga,” she says. “There’s a freedom of mind.”
If you’ve ever found your heart aflutter after glimpsing bright feathers or delicate nests, bird-watching might just be your next hobby. The good news is, as far as hobbies go, it’s accessible: inexpensive, relaxing, and even good for the environment. But beyond simply noticing the wildlife on your favorite nature trail, where should you begin?
Bird smarter, not harder
Some experts say the best way to get started is to bring the birds to you. Rob Snell, president of the Audubon Society of the Southern Adirondacks, has been watching birds for 50 years. His interest has taken him far, including a four-week trip to study tropical ornithology in the Bahamas during his graduate program that solidified his passion for the hobby. But it all started with his mother’s attention to their own backyard visitors while he was growing up in Schenectady. “She would always point out birds that came to the feeders,” he recalls.
“Backyard birding is the simplest way to do it,” Snell says. “Put a feeder out back. Get comfortable watching birds come to your feeder.”
Peter Dubacher, director of Berkshire Bird Paradise in Grafton, N.Y., echoes that sentiment: “What I always stress, especially for bird-watching, is to put up some birdhouses on your property,” he says.
Dubacher has almost 150 delicate birdhouses lofted high on poles, clustered in groups for birds that like to nest communally. In addition to the pleasure of seeing avian friends come and go, Dubacher cites another, major benefit of bringing the birds to you.
“Believe it or not, we have no problems with mosquitoes,” he says. Different birds consume a smorgasbord of pesky insects, including biting black flies and disease-carrying ticks, all while eliminating any possible need to spray pesticides.
Backyard birdhouses don’t need to be fancy, and building a simple nesting box for your yard can be a fun and inexpensive project. But it can take a little while for the local winged wildlife to move in. Dubacher says fall is the best time to set up new birdhouses so they’re ready for nesting mothers in the spring.
Beyond the backyard
While you’re waiting for your own personal paradise to populate, the Capital Region offers plenty of places to look for birds and lots of experienced birders eager to teach what they know. Snell suggests connecting with a group, such as a local Audubon Society chapter or the Hudson Mohawk Bird Club, and letting an expert show you the ropes. Clubs host frequent bird walks where you can learn and meet like-minded individuals.
“Go out with somebody who can point things out and teach you how to use a field guide,” he suggests. Snell also teaches a birding class twice a week at the Academy for Lifelong Learning in Saratoga and speaks highly of the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s online courses. Cornell’s lab even offers a free field guide phone app that eliminates the need to carry an old-school book.
People seem eager to take Snell’s advice and learn from experienced bird-watchers. In the past couple of years, Paloma Spina, board director and vice president of the Grassland Bird Trust, has noticed group birding events becoming increasingly popular. She says it’s a combination of people looking for new, outdoor hobbies that are socially distanced and an accompanying change in the Bird Trust’s operations.
After being unable to hold any events in 2020, the trust downsized from a single, annual fundraising event that drew more than 2,000 guests to the Washington County Fairgrounds. Now, they regularly lead small groups on bird walks to a viewing blind on the grasslands, and the small nonprofit can hardly keep up with the waitlist.
“People really like the new model,” says Spina, who started bird-watching in college. “It’s way more natural than the county fairgrounds.”
The group outings have been so popular that the Grassland Bird Trust is currently fundraising to add birding trails to its land. In the meantime, the viewing blind is open for visits, and nearby Department of Environmental Conservation land has walking paths open to the public. All 59 designated Bird Conservation Areas in the state are listed on the DEC website.
However you approach it, whether in your backyard or on an adventure, bird-watching can be a rewarding hobby that helps people feel more connected to nature. For Hallam, it continues to help her find tranquility.
“I love birding because you can be totally in the present. You forget yesterday, and you forget tomorrow,” Hallam says.
“I’ve lived in my house 26 years,” she adds. “Until this year, I never noticed all the sounds in the forest.”
“A good field guide is essential for new and seasoned birders. A hard copy is always best but if you want to supplement or are in a pinch, a good app I recommend is Merlin Bird ID by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,” says Paloma Spina. “It has sound ID and photo ID!”
• Inexpensive Binoculars
Spina says you shouldn’t need to spend more than about $100 on an entry-level pair. “It is important to get a pair that makes you feel comfortable and empowered,” she says. “If you can’t see anything, you’re not going to want to go.”
Where to go
A selection of places to bird-watch in and around the Capital Region:
• Brunswick Wildlife Viewing Area
855 Hoosick Road, Troy
• Berkshire Bird Paradise
43 Red Pond Road, Petersburg
• Pine Bush Preserve
195 New Karner Road #1, Albany
• Alfred Z. Solomon Grassland
Bird Viewing Area
160 County Road 42, Fort Edward
• Bird Conservation Area sites