The Tree Swallows are back in Nahanton Park this week. I saw two Eastern Phoebes this morning — first of the year, or FOY. The grackles returned to town weeks ago, rusty door-hinges creaking at my feeder. As New England wakes from its winter slumber, the birds return, wave by wave, species by species. The woods are already full of woodcocks doing their weird evening interpretive dance as they try to pair off; a hardy Yellow-rumped Warbler (affectionately known as a “butterbutt”) prefigures the rainbow of warblers to come in April and May.
Maybe you already know about all these guys. Or maybe, after a year of pandemic has turned you away from humanity and a long cold winter has bottled you up indoors, you’re ready to take the things with feathers more seriously. Birding is a democracy — anyone can play and does. The entry requirements are minimal, the rewards greater than just seeing an interesting owl (although that’s pretty cool). When it’s done right, you can feel yourself become one with the world instead of standing apart from it, as everything else in human civilization urges us toward. If you’re a rank beginner who can’t tell sparrow from starling or have wanted to deepen your interest in what’s out there in field, tree, and city park, here’s a Birding 101.
What you need
A decent pair of binoculars. Leave home the pocket-size ones you take to Fenway and consider upgrading; there are plenty of solid options under $75 and even $50 on Amazon and elsewhere. Binoculars come with two numbers: 12x50, 8x40, 10x25, etc. The first number means how many times they enlarge an image: With a 12x50, an object will appear to be 12 times bigger. The second number is the size in millimeters of the objective lens inside: The higher this number, the more light the lens lets in, the brighter the image, and the heavier the binoculars. You want a magnification between 8 and 12; any higher and hand tremors make it hard to get a steady look. You want the biggest objective lens you can get away with. I have a pair of Nikon 10x42s and swear by them.
A guide. For decades, every birder carried a worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide in his or her pocket; in recent years, David Sibley’s guides have commandeered the field. Now you can buy a Sibley or other birding app and put it on your phone, complete with sound recordings and comparison charts. (If you do stay with print, avoid the guides that use photos instead of drawings. A photo is an image of one particular bird in a particular setting and light; a well-done drawing represents the ideal bird.)
Someone who’s better at birding than you are. An experienced birder, if you have one lying around, is great to tag along with in the field, since they see and hear things you haven’t learned to yet. Or join a group outing like those organized by the Brookline Bird Club, founded in 1913. Because of COVID-19, the BBC’s walks are limited to eight at a time, and social distancing is mandated; for now, migration-time mob scenes like the ones traditionally at Mount Auburn Cemetery, in Cambridge, are strongly discouraged. But it’s a general truth that the more eyes you’re with, the more birds you’ll see.
Where to go
Outside, silly. Your backyard is a perfectly fine place to start, especially if you have feeders up. A local park is better, woods or conservation land better still. Lakes and rivers offer ducks and herons; shorelines have little peeps and outre oystercatchers. A friend and I make a habit of visiting different patches of land in the greater western suburbs during migration months: Dunback Meadow, in Lexington; Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, in Concord; the trails back of Horn Pond, in Woburn. Some areas seem to offer specialty birds. Want to see a lot of Bobolinks? Cow Common Conservation Area — which is basically just a field in Wayland that’s left unmowed during nesting season — is lousy with them in mid-May.
Urban environments, ironically, can offer great birding, since the few green spots attract a greater concentration of birds. Pete Gilmore, who leads birding trips for the Brookline Bird Club, cites Belle Isle Marsh Reservation, in East Boston, Post Office Square, and the Rose Kennedy Greenway as migration hot spots. “Boston Common has good birds,” says Gilmore, “and of course there’s the Riverway — the walk from Jamaica Pond up to the old Sears Building.”
Your best friend here is eBird.org, a crowd-sourced website managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, where birders file checklists and where you can peruse a map of hot spots (ebird.org/hotspots) to find out what’s been seen near you in recent days. You can even sign up for a daily state or county rare bird alert e-mail if you feel like chasing down the odd Fork-tailed Flycatcher visiting from South America. (Yeah, I saw one. At Chandler Pond, in Brighton, in 2008.)
When to go
Birds tend to be most active early in the morning and at dusk, much less so at noon. Right now, it’s still very early in the annual spring migration: The Ruby-crowned Kinglets are here, the early warblers — Pine and Palm — are just starting to show up. (Plenty of species have stuck around all winter: I saw a brilliantly blue bunch of Eastern Bluebirds in Wellesley’s Centennial Park in deep February.)
Things really heat up in April and May, as different species pour into the area from southern climes. Some are just passing through on their way farther north: There’s one week in mid-May when you can’t turn around without tripping over a Northern Parula (it’s a warbler, and a handsome one); the next week, bupkes. Check out a mind-blowing site called Birdcast (birdcast.info) — another Cornell Lab project — which uses radar to track nightly bird migrations on a map of the United States. When there’s a wave of action at night, your area will almost certainly be hopping the following day.
What to do
Here’s the hard part: Stand still and be very, very quiet. (After you get used to it, this becomes one of the best parts.) Forget you’re there; after a while, the birds will, too. Become a giant eye, a big ear. Look for little bits of movement in the trees and bushes. Be patient. Expect a certain level of frustration, because the little buggers don’t just come out and sing “Overture, curtain lights.” That Red-eyed Vireo calling somewhere near the top of a tree? You’re never going to see it. But then you’ll turn around and there’s a Scarlet Tanager minding his own business in a bush 6 feet away.
When you see a bird and you’re not sure what it is, narrow the possibilities by asking yourself the Three Questions. 1. How big is it? (Sparrow, robin, crow, eagle, emu.) 2. Where is it? (Treetop, ground level, meadow’s edge, shoreline.) 3. What’s it doing? (Foraging among leaves, soaring high in the sky, flitting from tree to tree, skulking through a marsh.) After a while you learn that a small olive-colored bird with a darkish head that repeatedly bobs its tail and hangs out in the woods near water is — a phoebe. And so forth.
Forget about the sandpipers. No one can tell them apart.
What not to do
Here we get into birding ethics, a field of much controversy lately. Just because you have sound recordings on your birding app, does that mean you should use them to lure birds closer? Some people do, other people believe it freaks birds out and causes stress. This debate has turned contentious among the many birders on — where else? — Twitter. In general, take care to interfere with birds as little as possible. It’s called bird-watching for a reason.
Also, don’t bring your dog. Wherever a dog is, birds generally ain’t. And small children tend to be a losing proposition unless they have the attention-span and focus of a Zen monk, which by definition they do not. (On the other hand, introducing older kids to birding might set them up for life. Tell them the warblers are Pokemons and they have to collect them all.)
Start a life list. Memorize a few birdcalls. Follow a few online birders. (My favorite is an amateur bird photographer in New York City, @lucent508 on Twitter and mizzou159 on Instagram, who takes incredible pictures.) Do more birding. Learn to see.