Birding

Five Antidotes to Beat the Birding Blues Between Migrations

Birders need to fill the downtime from spring to fall somehow—and they don't always have to use binoculars.

With the rush of spring migration long over and fall migration still weeks away, you might be tempted to put birding on the back burner until the weather chills out. But a persistent birder can hone their skills during the subdued summer season by venturing away from the binoculars. Here are five new practices to try.

Study up on your resident birds.

The everyday species around our public spaces and homes are often overlooked, but there’s much we can learn from them. Take advantage of their ubiquity and monitor their behavior at close range, whether it be at a feeder or from a park bench, through journaling, sketching, photography, or listing through eBird or iNaturalist. Choose a dedicated spot to bird and look for nestlings crying for food and parents racing to forage and keep up. Near summer’s end, you may notice fledglings attempting to fly and to sing—processes that still mystify many scientists. If reported, your observations could reinforce existing biological knowledge and add value to local conservation work.

Take a budding birder under your wing.

Use the summer lull to share your skillset with new eyes (and advocates). If you think you’re an introvert, your approach might be to invite friends and familiars to accompany you when you bird in your patch. If you enjoy being among a crowd, volunteer to lead tours for a local Audubon chapter or nature organization. These groups are often understaffed and underfunded, and are eager for the extra expertise.

If you’re looking for a more hands-on approach, consider becoming a mentor. (I myself have benefited from a seasoned birder teaching me in the field and over many cups of coffee.) The logistics are simple: Match up with a beginner in your community or social media circles who’s seeking guidance and schedule a set of outings throughout the year. After that, just show up and be sure to respect your mentee’s way of seeing, hearing, and interpreting wildlife. If you don’t have a second pair of binoculars to share, make some affordable suggestions; you can also recommend a bird ID app or guide book, depending on the individual’s learning style. Focus on “starter birds,” as my mentor calls them. For a Northeast summer, that might mean American Robins, Gray Catbirds, Northern Cardinals, Blue Jays, and Northern Mockingbirds. 

Vacation to birdier places.

When birds aren’t flocking to your area, they’re congregating elsewhere in the hemisphere. The Alaskan Arctic is one summer hotspot: Much of the continent’s waders and sea ducks breed on the tundra and fissures in the ice. Likewise, the mud flats around the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada offer a popular staging ground for many species of sandpipers and plovers between July and November. Drier regions like Southwest Arizona see a massive uptick in diversity, too, and offer unique, tropical species like becards and trogons. You can book standalone trips to any of those landscapes, or plan around a late-summer birding festival.

Read (and stream) for leisure.
Jason Ward and his brother Jeffrey on Topic's "Birds of North America." Photo: Courtesy of Topic

Field guides are great for birding knowledge, but narrative nonfiction can simultaneously teach us and delight our senses through rich storytelling. Here are some recent or upcoming titles to consider:

Wildlife conservation can make for gripping cinema, too. Such is the case with Bird of Prey, a documentary about the Philippine Eagle, one of the rarest raptors on Earth, now streaming on iTunes and other platforms. Film buffs might want to add the following classic flicks to their queue as well:

The second season of Birds of North America, an online-only show hosted by avian expert Jason Ward, is also rolling out with new episodes every Thursday afternoon. So far this summer we’ve looked at warblers with Jonathan Franzen, heard the inspirations behind birdy tattoos, and followed Kimberly and Kenn Kaufman down the boardwalk of Ohio’s famed Magee Marsh. If you want facts on the go, check out the BirdNote podcast, which airs daily.

Get familiar with future fall visitors.

Identifying migrant species, especially in autumn, when they’re in subtler plumage, can be a bear. For better success, choose a cryptic group of birds and learn them inside out. My birding mentor shared this hack with me from Pete Dunne and Kevin T. Karlson’s Gulls Simplified. In the book, the authors recommend focusing on the most common species so you can rule them out when faced by a rarity. You can apply this logic to most any bird group: If you live on the East Coast, focus on the subset of warblers that most frequently fly down the Atlantic (Common Yellowthroat, Yellow, and Yellow-rumped are some examples). For a real challenge, learn how to identify your regional female warblers—they’re understudied and underappreciated as a whole.

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