There’s a real tweetstorm going on out there, and we’re not talking about the latest pearls from President Trump, Taylor Swift or any of the Kardashians.
We’re talking about birds. Warblers, robins, orioles, finches, herons … birds.
This is their time of year — when winter relinquishes its icy grip (eventually) and walkers, hikers, runners and the rest of us hear the welcome chirps of feathered creatures.
It’s also a great time of year for Audubon sanctuaries, whose staff are more than happy to welcome veteran ornithologists as well as beginners who just want to get outdoors and get their beaks wet in the world of birding.
We recently spoke via email to Lauren Parmelee, birding expert and senior education director at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island, and Doug Williams, director of the Stony Brook Wildlife Sanctuary and Nature Center in Norfolk about the surprisingly popular pastime.
Here’s what they had to say (responses were edited for length):
GO: How big is birding at your sanctuary?
WILLIAMS: Birding is extremely important to us. … People interested in birds (at any level) can find a birding opportunity that meets their needs through programs and volunteer activities at Stony Brook. We lead regular walks for people of all skill levels on weekends and every Tuesday morning during April and May each year. … In addition, our volunteer opportunities include training and the chance to steward the tree swallows and purple martins that breed at Stony Brook.
PARMELEE: Audubon Society of Rhode Island has 14 wildlife refuges that protect bird habitat and are open free to the public, dawn to dusk, to hike, bird and enjoy nature. Caratunk Wildlife Refuge in Seekonk is one of the best refuges to see a wide variety of birds because of its size and diversity of habitats. Especially during spring and fall migrations, you will see a number of birders and/or birding groups on the property every day.
Is it growing in popularity? Holding steady? Waning?
PARMELEE: Even as bird populations are declining, birding is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and Canada. It is a pastime enjoyed by all ages and on many levels. You can watch the birds in your backyard as you drink your morning coffee or you can spend lots of money traveling around the world to see birds. You can do it alone or as a family. You can go on Audubon birding trips or you can join a competitive birding team.
WILLIAMS: Birding is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the North America! (Williams links to an article in USA Today reporting that about 85 million Americans enjoy observing, photographing or feeding wild birds, and that birding ranks 15th on a list of the most popular outdoor activities, just below bicycling.)
Is it mostly experience birders who take part in your programs, or do you get a lot of beginners?
WILLIAMS: We see people of all skills and try to provide opportunities for everyone, from the person who just wants to know what visits their yard to the person who wants to be able to identify all the birds by their songs. We receive a lot of questions about birds. We never get a foolish question. If someone is curious, we want to help them find an answer.
PARMELEE: Audubon offers a very popular Beginning Birding class every spring out of our Bristol, R.I., Nature Center that includes a number of field excursions, including a trip to our Caratunk Refuge. … The folks who get hooked on birds often join our Wednesday morning birding group, sign up for our Block Island trip or other adventures, and/or take our advanced birding class called Birding the Next Step. Folks who just like to watch the birds in their backyard will stop by our Nature Shop in Bristol to stock up on feeders and seed.
Do you have young people getting interested in birding? Or is it just older folks?
PARMELEE: Audubon educators take kids of all ages birding through our outreach, after school and summer camp programs. Birds are colorful, active and noisy, so they help make outdoor nature walks engaging. Like any activity, some kids are going to take to it more than others. And sometimes you get those kids who get really into it, and they make the best birders because they are so observant and focused.
WILLIAMS: I am very happy to report that people of all ages seem to enjoy birds, and people tend to know more about the birds than they think they do. We like to start off with what people know and are routinely impressed by people’s knowledge and skills at identifying birds. We work with a local high school that has a bird club right on through the Stony Brook Bird Club, which has been fielding birders for more than 30 years.
Based on the feedback you get, what are people getting out of birding?
WILLIAMS: We hear that people really enjoy sharing their knowledge about birds with other people. They are thrilled to see and hear the birds in their natural habitat. People enjoy sharing their own birding stories (sometimes about birds). People enjoy the social aspect or camaraderie of taking a walk with others.
PARMELEE: Birding is a good excuse to go outside and enjoy nature or go to new places and hike new trails. For some people, it is just about that — getting out. Other people really enjoy social birding — getting out with friends or an Audubon group, learning something new and meeting new people. For others, it is like a treasure hunt — you never know what you are going to see on any given day. It is exciting and challenging.
How important is it to have a guide when you go birding? And at what point can you go out on your own?
WILLIAMS: I suppose that depends on each person’s goals. Most people don’t need to go far to find birds. If a person has the time and is inclined, going out alone is a good way to start. Joining a birding group, club or program is also a great way to learn birds, make friends and build confidence. A field guide is helpful if a person wants to know something about the birds (not everyone does). Joining a group being led by someone with birding experience makes the process of learning the birds a little faster perhaps, but I know many people that enjoy birding alone.
PARMELEE: You can start birding by simply by looking around your yard and up in the sky in your neighborhood or take a walk in a park or along the beach. If you go to Caratunk to walk, notice the swallows and martins using the nest boxes in the fields or watch for the turkey families strutting down the trail. If you decide birding is for you, you will want to invest in a pair of binoculars and a field guide (apps are available). Going on a guided walk with an experienced birder can really open your eyes to what’s around you and enhance your knowledge of nature, so I highly recommend that experience. But don’t feel like you have to wait for a guide — just go outside, watch and listen!
If you go …
Area Audubon sanctuaries are offering a number of birding programs this month and next, for beginners and experienced birders. Here are some options:
FREE Wednesday Morning Bird Walks, offered by Audubon Society of R.I., various locations through June; 9 to 11 a.m. With naturalist Laura Carberry. Each week a new birding destination will be chosen. Visit www.asri.org or Facebook Page for location. Contact Laura at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. Ages: 14+.
Early Morning Birds, Tuesdays in April and May, 7 to 8:30 a.m., Mass Audubon Stony Brook, 108 North St., Norfolk. Nature lovers of all levels welcome. Fee: $6members/ $9 nonmembers per person. Pre-registration required. Call 508-528-3140, email email@example.com, fax 508-553-3864 or do so in person. More details: massaudubon.org.
Audubon Birding for Beginners, six sessions, Audubon Environmental Education Center, Bristol, R.I. April 14, 21, 28, May 5, 12 and 19; 9 to 11 a.m. Basic understanding of bird biology as well as visual and aural identification techniques. Led by Lauren Parmelee. Class is limited to 15. Fee: $84 members, $102 nonmembers. Ages teen to adult. Register through the events calendar at www.asri.org.
FREE May birding walks with Audubon, Tuesdays, Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, 301 Brown Ave., Seekonk. May 1, 15 and 29; 8 to 10 a.m. Novice birders welcome. Walks geared for teen to adult. Register through the events calendar at www.asri.org.
Springtime Birding on Prudence Island, May 10, 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Prudence Island, R.I. $8/member adult, $4/member child; $12 and $8 nonmembers. All ages. Register through the events calendar at www.asri.org.
Birds, Breakfast, & Backyard Bird-a-thon, May 12, Audubon Oak Knoll Wildlife Sanctuary, 1417 Park St., Attleboro. Annual fundraiser where teams of birders spend 24-hours trying to spot the most species in Massachusetts. Day also includes:
Birds & Breakfast, 8 to 10 a.m., $20 members and nonmembers. Take a guided hike while learning about local plants, animals and birds. Followed by breakfast at Bliss Dairy (included in price of program). Adults only.
Build a Birdhouse, 10 a.m. to noon, $15 members, $17 nonmembers. Learn what types of birds you can attract to your backyard, build a bird box to take home. Each child’s registration includes one adult helper. For ages 5 and up.
Birding in woods during bird-a-thon, 1:30 to 3 p.m. $8 members, $10 nonmembers. Learn about Mass Audubon’s State of the Birds 2017 report, take a bird hike around Lake Talaquega. Adults only.
Register online: www.massaudubon.org/get-outdoors/wildlife-sanctuaries/oak-knoll.