Claudia Wilds, whose life list contains some 3,200 species, has never seen a Himalayan ibisbill.

"It's a biggish bird with long legs, a long, down-curved bill, which is red, and a black band across its breast. It's very handsome," says Wilds, one of the D.C. area's most knowledgeable and intrepid birders.

"Even a non-birder would think it's a handsome bird. But you really, really can't find it unless you go to northern India or Tibet."

Wilds admits she was disappointed when she tried two years ago and disturbances in that part of India prohibited her from traveling to the north.

But it was a minor setback, considering there are 840 species to be seen in North America alone, more than 200 inside the Capital Beltway and another 150 within a four-hour drive of the District of Columbia.

There are owls at Catholic University, ducks at the Anacostia River Park, gulls at the the Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.

For the novice, Fletcher's Boat House on the C&O Canal is perhaps the best place to start.

You can take the D4 Metrobus to Reservoir Road and MacArthur Boulevard, but we drove the less than three miles from Wilds' Georgetown home.

"You can start by sitting in the car and looking through the glass," says Wilds, whose new Smithsonian handbook, Finding Birds in the National Capital Area, provides many other details on birding, once considered the realm of the older and rather eccentric, and now becoming increasingly popular for all types and ages.

Wilds points to a bird--small, brown, nondescript. "There. Do you know what that one is?"

Hard to say. Looks like a regular bird.

"It's a European starling--the only starling we have here. They were brought over by someone in 1890 who thought any bird mentioned by Shakespeare should be allowed to live anywhere."

"Don't feel bad," Wilds reassures. "I didn't know what a starling was my first time out, either."

When a Western Reef heron was spotted recently at Nantucket Island, birders flocked there from all over the country. The species, native to Africa, had never been seen in North America. Birding enthusiasts keep lists of their sightings--life lists, North American lists--and the quest can become an obsession, propelling them almost anywhere.

"You have to drop everything," says Wilds, "when you hear of a new bird."

For Wilds, 52, birding is mainly a solo sport. (When you go alone, "you don't know what you miss.") Others opt for organized field trips or small groups.

For those who prefer catching birds in nets and banding them, largely for the tactile pleasure, the inside joke is that a bird in the hand is worth two in the binoculars.

Taken seriously, birding is a consuming hobby; Wilds spends three days a week on Chincoteague Island studying shore birds as part of an international census begun in 1974.

Adults, she says, often turn to birding "suddenly, in times of stress--a death, a divorce, children in trouble." It helps to "concentrate on nothing but birds" for a while.

"It lets you get away from everything," says 18-year-old Michael O'Brien of Rockville. "Almost everything I do has something to do with birding."

An illustrator for Wilds' articles on birding, he will study art and biology--"to learn more about birds"--at Montgomery College this fall.

Although O'Brien has spotted 519 North American species, his worry is that he may never see a California condor, a species on the brink of extinction. So he may fly West for a weekend this summer.

"Not everyone," he concedes, "is quite as extreme as myself."

"Psh, psh, psh, psh, psh."

The sound Wilds makes is supposed to pique the birds' curiosities and draw them out. Above, somewhere, a bird sings.

"When there are two people, you can triangulate," Wilds says.

We spread out a bit and listen. The bird is between us, on a high branch.

Wilds gazes through her thick glasses and binoculars at the song sparrow above. "I'm not a good spotter," she says. "I find it difficult to find a bird in the leaves." The key is to find the bird first--without magnification--then raise the binoculars without shifting your eyes.

To the left, something is moving in the trees. Okay, concentrate: the gaze, the steady hand, the binoculars. Nothing there but some leaves.

"That," announces Wilds, "was a 'leaf bird.' You'll see a lot of those."

For the birder, the good thing about the District and surrounding area is that it attracts northern species that fly only this far south for the winter and southern species that spend summers here. The Potomac River and Atlantic coastline are major thoroughfares for bird migrations. And the varied terrain--shore to the east, mountains to the west--makes for a varied mix.

Among Wilds' favorite spots:

* Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. "May be the best place on the Atlantic Coast to see . . . loons, grebes, cormorants, herons, ibis, swans, geese, ducks, falcons, shorebirds, gulls, terns, and skimmers . . ." About a three-hour drive.

* Hughes Hollow. "Likely to be muddy and frequently insect-plagued, and the fields and woods are webbed with poison ivy and catbrier and drenched in morning dew, but it is all worth it." About 10.7 miles west on River Road from the traffic light in Potomac. Turn left on Hunting Quarter Road just after passing a big, unpainted farmhouse on the left.

Had the previous night's dinner been anything besides duck in lemon sauce, it would have been easy to look at Wilds' next find: a mother wood duck and two chicks.

Wood ducks nest in trees on the banks of rivers and their young, she explains, are pushed out into the water shortly after they are hatched.

She smiles. "You gotta remember that hawks eat them, too."

On the other hand, she says, some birders become vegetarians.

It takes time and money to build a long list of birds, although there's no rule against counting birds that other people show you. Even birds spotted at the National Zoo can be counted. "But the best birds," says Wilds, "are the ones you find for yourself and identify for yourself."

So one day, Claudia Wilds may find herself in the Himalayas tracking down the ibisbill. Or maybe she'll seek out a spoon-billed sandpiper--the only member of its family not on her list.

"I understand it's not too difficult," she muses, "to see them in Hong Kong in the winter."