A Flying Start

During the pandemic, the popularity of birdwatching is soaring. Here’s what you need to know to tune in to the feathered soap opera outside your window.
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One of the lesser casualties of the coronavirus pandemic is gossip. Many of us are suddenly leading very boring lives: baking banana bread, learning TikTok dances, watching the full contents of Netflix. Even the celebrities are dullsville these days. Sensing our desperation for scuttlebutt, they’ve retreated into their luxurious villas, which they quickly learned not to flaunt.

Now who are we supposed to talk about, judge and live vicariously through?

Birds.

Seriously, these feathered freaks have no shame. A family of pigeons has been visiting my balcony since March, and their lives are dramatic. It all started with the male, Mr. Whitebutt, seducing Ms. Whitebutt right on my railing. Not long afterward, Whitebutt Jr. showed up — begging for food from his harried parents, even though he could have easily pecked it up himself. Later that very day, I saw Mr. Whitebutt strutting and cooing at a lady pigeon who was most decidedly not Ms. Whitebutt, as this temptress’s butt was dark gray. What. A. Snake. Ms. Whitebutt, if you’re reading this, you deserve better.

That’s a lot of excitement for a 10th-floor balcony, but suburban yards are even better. At my friend’s house in Arlington, Va., I’ve seen a cowbird con a pair of robins into raising her baby, a family of woodpeckers get evicted by starlings, and — way up high — a bald eagle yank a fish from the talons of an osprey. It’s wild out there, and the wilderness is closer than you think.

Writer Sadie Dingfelder made friends with a pigeon, Mr. Whitebutt, who now visits her 10th floor balcony daily. (Courtesy of the author)

Of course, what I am talking about here is birdwatching. In the Before Times, many people saw birding as weirdly inert. Now, the fact that you can do it without going anywhere is one of birdwatching’s major attractions — and birding is trending in a major way. From March through June, a record-breaking 186,377 folks signed up for accounts on eBird, a massive database where birders report their sightings. That’s a 68 percent increase over last year, according to Ian Davies, who coordinates the project through the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Locally, the DC Audubon Society has seen a massive spike in newsletter subscriptions, the Prince George’s County chapter reports a big increase in members, and the Audubon Society of Northern Virginia has seen a spike in webinar attendance.

Everyone, it seems, is turning to birds for entertainment — including some tabloid celebrities who should really be focused on entertaining us. I’m looking at you, Spencer Pratt and Heidi Montag. Stop obsessing over your hummingbird garden and do something outstandingly dumb. Why else are you even around?

In the meantime, here are some tips for spying on birds.

Get good binoculars

Tuning in to the natural world is as simple as looking out your window, but you have to really look. That’s easier (and more fun) if you have a pair of decent bins. A few good, relatively inexpensive options include Celestron’s Outland X 8x42 ($79.95) and Nature DX 8x42 ($139.95), Nikon’s Prostaff 3S ($129.99), and Tasco’s Essentials (Roof) Binoculars ($51.95). If those are too spendy, look for used ones online, or look for an old pair in your relatives’ drawers.

Practice on easy targets

If you’re not wearing glasses, extend or twist your binocular’s eye cups to their full length. Then, adjust the distance between the two barrels so they fit your face. Find a conspicuous target, like a pigeon or a squirrel. Turn the middle wheel to bring the image into focus. You know you’re doing it right if you’re looking through a single circle and the image is ultra 3-D.

Download Merlin

The free Merlin Bird ID app by Cornell Lab (for iOS and Android) will help you identify any bird you see with an easy-to-navigate decision tree. Or just snap a picture of the bird and it will use machine learning to identify it for you. Another great free app is BirdNET (for Android), which is basically Shazam for birdsong. Record some chirping and it will tell you what kind of bird is making the sound.

Wake up early

Songbirds sing their little hearts out first thing in the morning, so that’s the easiest time to find them. Don’t fret, late risers. You can bird too, but your focus will be on out-all-day species, like hawks and waterfowl.

Pick a sit spot

One of the best ways to get to know your local critters is to find a comfortable place to sit outside and stay there for as long as you can stand it. Set up a chair in your backyard, or find a dry log in a park. In as few as 15 minutes, the wildlife will relax and go about their business as if you aren’t there. You can also walk and bird, of course, but don’t forget to stop and look. The longer you stay still and quiet, the more you’ll see.

Know where to look

Birds are all over the place, but they can be stealthy. As you scan the environment, keep an eye out for movement and for anything that stands out. Pay particular attention to snags (dead trees), the edges of forests and fields, and any kind of shoreline.

Bring the birds to you

A bird feeder can provide hours of entertainment. Truly, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen woodpeckers duel like American Gladiators while hanging upside-down from a suet cage. But before you put out a single seed, set up a squirrel-proof pole-and-baffle system. You can make your own or buy one. I recommend the Squirrel Stopper SQC05 ($180.99). It’s expensive, but you’ll save a fortune on birdseed in the long run. Next, make or buy yourself a few bird feeders: a thistle feeder to attract goldfinches (No/No finch feeder, $19.98), a suet feeder for woodpeckers and nuthatches — upside-down to keep the greedy starlings at bay (Nature’s Way, $19.99) and a tube feeder for everyone else (Gray Bunny, $16.97.) Mail-order birdseed is often stale, so consider picking some up from a local supplier, such as the Audubon Naturalist Shop (8940 Jones Mill Rd., Chevy Chase, Md.) or getting it delivered from Wild Birds Unlimited. One last note: You have to wipe down your feeders with disinfectant once a week to keep birds from trading diseases. If this all sounds like too much trouble, another way to attract birds is with a DIY birdbath. Pour water into a shallow dish, place it outside and call it a day.

Explore eBird

Want to know what kinds of birds live in your favorite pocket park? This app (probably) has the answer. That’s because birders around the world report some 100 million observations each year through the eBird app and website. Scientists tap this data to track migration and watch how climate change is affecting bird populations. Birders use it to find nearby hot spots and track how many species they have seen so far this year. If you get really into it, you might make the leader board for your county, state or region.

A short guide to a socially distanced fall migration

Colorful songbirds known as warblers have been nesting in the north all summer, and now the adults and young must race to their southern wintering grounds. Hot on their tail are a river of raptors, gliding on air currents that run alongside mountain ranges. Fall migration is a fantastic spectacle here in the Mid-Atlantic, and popular hot spots, like Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, can get crowded with people as well as birds. Since you’re probably avoiding humans at the moment, here are a few off-the-beaten-path places to see migrating birds as well as flashy year-round residents.

D.C.

Fort Dupont Park (Minnesota Avenue and F Street SE). The tall trees around the activity center are a magnet for migrating warblers and flycatchers. Then follow the trail across the field and into the woods to find wild turkeys and pileated woodpeckers — the punk rockers of the bird world, with their bright red mohawks and earsplitting call.

Kenilworth Park (1500 Deane Ave. NE). This marsh-fringed field is near the famous Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, but it’s much bigger and less crowded. Look on the old football goal posts for colorful, pint-size falcons known as kestrels, and scan the fields for northern harriers — spooky, owl-faced hawks.

Maryland

Little Bennett Regional Park (23701 Frederick Rd., Clarksburg). There’s nothing little about this 3,700-acre warbler trap, where birders have spotted more than 30 species of migrating songbirds this year, including American redstarts, so smart-looking in their little orange-and-black suits.

Virginia

Snickers Gap (Route 7 at Route 601 in Blue Ridge). Every fall, tens of thousands of raptors — especially broad-winged hawks — stream through this little divot in the Blue Ridge Mountains, with numbers peaking from mid- to late September. All you have to do is stand in the parking lot and keep your eyes on the sky. The hawks are late risers, but if you arrive early, you might find warblers on the trail to Bear’s Den.

Sadie Dingfelder is a writer in Washington.

Design by Christian Font.

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