Be Your Own Birder


I’m not one of those birders who saw an amazing bird and suddenly became a birder, nor was I nurtured from a young age to get into birding. I’ve always loved birds, and I do have childhood memories of them – blue jays squawking in the yard and hurriedly snatching up the few in-shell peanuts my mother would toss on the driveway, the mean mute swans at a rest stop along a family vacation drive we took several times each summer, the ruby-throated hummingbirds at a feeder my grandmother kept at my grandfather’s hunting trailer.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties and thirties, however, that I really began to notice birds and had those “spark bird” moments that initiate a new mind into all the feathered fun that is birding. Unlike birders who may see just one bird and take flight with birding, however, it took me three different encounters with three different birds to really recognize this fledgling interest.

Swallow-Tailed Kite – Photo by Alan Schmierer

The first was a fleeting glimpse from an apartment window as a graceful form soared by. The bird was absolutely enchanting, elegant and ephemeral, with coloration and shapes so clear as to be easily identified – too bad I didn’t yet have a field guide. At the next opportunity – which meant a trip to a massive used book store I still visit today – I was drawn to the nature and field guide section, and easily identified the bird as a swallow-tailed kite. While I was living in Florida at the time, I was in Jacksonville, just a bit far north for this raptor’s summer breeding grounds. It was a rare and amazing sighting, and I bought that field guide on the spot – after all, since I’d identified one bird, it just might come in handy again. For a few more years, however, it would only gather dust on the bookshelf.

Fast forward those several years, through a career change, cross-country move and home purchase, and you’d find me looking out a picture window facing my very own backyard, watching goldfinches enjoy a feeder I’d hung. Except… Not all of these birds were goldfinches. Some were a bit more brown, though they had brilliant yellow flashes on the wings. Their bills were a bit sharper, their bodies a bit more slender and their attitudes definitely more aggressive. Out came the field guide again, and I met the pine siskin. Even that seemed only a curiosity, however, and while there might have been a few cracks in my shell, I wasn’t yet aware of how much I was intrigued by birds. I wasn’t quite a birder, yet.

Pine Siskin – Photo by Putneypics

It took one more bird, one more misidentity, this one a bird that most decidedly wasn’t a mourning dove. I was near the same window, but this time looking out the adjacent patio doors, watching birds nibble on seed spilled on the ground. I’d known mourning doves all my life, and this bird was too large, too blandly colored, and what was that half-ring in black and white around its neck? One more trip to the field guide, and the Eurasian collared-dove truly sparked my interest in birds and how they shift and change, for this was an introduced species whose range was shifting. In fact, my older field guide had a less extensive range map for these birds; they shouldn’t have been where I saw them. A bit of online research later, and I knew these doves were invasive and spreading, but already I admired their tenacity to do so.

Eurasian Collared-Dove – Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren

To this day, all three of these birds remain some of my favorites, and each time I see one of them – not nearly as often as I’d prefer – they rekindle my love of birds, and I’m glad for each one of them. Without those sightings, I might never have taken flight as a birder.

What birds sparked your interest in birding? Share your stories in the comments!

One thought on “Spark

  1. Kay Craig

    I wasn’t raised to notice birds either unless they were eating our crops. But one summer, for some reason, i heard the crazy squawkings of what turned out to be a Yellow-breasted Chat. I didnt have a field guide but i did have a coffee table book of north American birds and by process of elimination (location, color, description) I figured out it was a chat. I’ve been hooked ever since

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