People who are more experienced and serious about it like to call themselves birders. People who just look out their windows at the birds are bird-watchers. Birders really do try to identify everything that they see.
About 15 years ago, I worked at Manassas Battlefield as a park ranger. I was doing a Civil War program for fourth-graders, walking through the field in late April, and all of a sudden all these little black bobolinks — birds that migrate as far south as northern Argentina and then summer in Canada and the northern U.S — started popping up. I yelled, “Stop. Stop. Wait. We are going to stop and look at these birds.” It’s very easy to be very obsessive. When I started, I was competitive about listing — finding a big number of species. You just want to see as many different species as you can — in a day, in a week, in a year. But when it’s a competition or an obsession, it can become more about the number, about the next bird, not the one in front of you. For me now, it’s really just about relaxing. I still want to ID everything I see, but at the end of the day, seeing a chickadee today is just as good as seeing a chickadee yesterday.
It can be hypnotic. You are watching these birds’ daily lives — finding food, looking for a nest cavity, how they interact with other birds, the little behaviors they do to stay alive, to keep from being eaten by something else or to find something to eat. There’s always something going on out there.
Birding is at an intimate level, but you get a preview of what’s happening in the big picture. People who have been birding a long time will tell you that the dawn song is nothing like it was 30 years ago. Some birds, like thrushes, are just getting harder and harder to find. But on the other hand, some species, like cardinals — I’m looking at one right now — are doing pretty good. They have adapted to human habitats and the food we put out for them. We humans aren’t all bad.
Bird-watching is just a very easy way to instantly connect with nature when you’ve been staring at the screen all day. Maybe it’s because there’s less nature in our area, so when you see that bright red of a cardinal, it makes you stop. When people start taking [bird-watching] classes, they realize how much more is out there. If you’ve just been watching your feeder, you’ve probably seen 20 species. But if you get out, on a good day in May, you might be able to find 80 species at a park; get close to water, and that goes up to 125. You don’t have to spend a lot of money on binoculars or field guides. Just pay attention.