The right place
Place. It was the discovery of the right place that led me into the life of a birder. Chance opened the door and I walked through.
If you want to discover birds you must discover place. To understand birds, to see birds, you have to come to terms with the idea of place. To meet all those birds in the field guides — the ones that seem to be rare as hens’ teeth — you have to know where to go.
Let’s say you have never seen a Red-cockaded Woodpecker. You have read that they like pine trees but they never seem to be in the pine trees you walk among. They aren’t in the pines along the Southwire walking trail; they are never there when you walk your dog on the new greenbelt. The fact is Red-cockaded Woodpeckers are very picky about the places they live.
Birds are creatures of place. Some birds can adapt to a variety of places — Peregrine Falcons like cliffs but can also be happy on the ledges of tall buildings in cities so long as there are plenty of pigeons for them to eat. Other birds are very particular about where they live — like the Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
The Red-cockaded Woodpecker likes remote, open long-leaf pine woods. They are odd little birds, similar to the familiar Downy Woodpecker, but they choose to live in live pines with diseased heartwood, trees that bleed large amounts of pine resin around nest holes. The resin protects their eggs and young from predators like snakes. So if you go to the right sort of piney woods, you have a chance to see Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.
Capricious? Not at all. Birds need to find food, safety, and in breeding times, somewhere to meet and mate, lay an egg or two, and raise a family. If a place doesn’t meet those needs, there won’t be many birds there. You won’t see many birds in fields that are intensively farmed for the same reason you won’t see many people in the middle of the Antarctic. There is no reason to go there: nothing to eat, nowhere to be comfortable. Your backyard is a better place. Birds, like people, go where they can make a living. This is how nature works. A hummingbird is designed specifically to make a living where there are many blooming flowers — lapping nectar from flower blooms is what its long pointed beak and its long tongue are designed for. Plant a nice yard full of blooming flowers, add a few sugar water feeders, and if there are any hummingbirds within easy commuting distance they will come.
Birding places are as diverse as the birds that fill them — hummingbirds come to your flowers, water birds and shore birds will come to sewage treatment lagoons, sparrows and field larks will come to sewage spray fields, crows like landfills and dumpsters.
These days you don’t just get field guides to birds; you can get field guides to the fields also. There are all sorts of where-to-watch-birds books. Some focus on sites across the United States or in other countries. Some are only about birds and birding places. Others tell you about general wildlife sites — places where you can look for woodpeckers, river otters, butterflies, and native plants.
Get one; get several. These books are your chance. They will open doors to special places. Walk in. Visit them and savor the richness they bring to your life. And remember, the birds need these places as much as we do.