All a birdwatcher needs, really, is a patch of the outdoors – or a window – and something to sit on. Patience and binoculars help. But there are certain skills that earn serious birders treasured sightings of rare or shy species, and a deeper understanding of bird behavior. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Martha Foley got an early morning lesson in the best practices from ornithologist and artist David Allen Sibley, author of the new series of Sibley bird books from the Audubon Society:
All a birdwatcher needs, really, is a patch of the outdoors – or a window —
and something to sit on. Patience and binoculars help. But there ARE certain
skills that earn SERIOUS birders treasured sitings of rare or shy species, and
a deeper understanding of bird behavior. The Great lakes Radio
Consortium’s Martha Foley got an early morning lesson in the best practices
from ornithologist and artist David Allen Sibley, author of the new series of
Sibley bird books from the Audubon Society.
It’s a warm, sunny fall morning – fragrant and dewy. Cicadas tick and trill.
We’re walking along a nature trail in northern New York State – destination,
a new wildlife viewing platform on the verge between some woods and a
marsh. On our way, of course, David Sibley is looking up:
“Let’s take another look at those chickadees; they’re sounding more interesting.”
It’s a good time of year for birding, fall migrants are passing through. And
we’ve come to a good place – the trail takes us from deep woods to a bright,
sandy area that’s growing up to berries and birches. It looks like heavy
equipment was through here not long ago. Not pretty, but good for birders.
“It’s kind of ironic that birdwatchers end up going to all the disturbed habitats and
open fields and even garbage dumps, and then avoid the thousands of acres of
unbroken forest which is so important to the birds, but not much visited by
Sibley’s Audubon bird books – five so far – exemplify a new generation of
field guides. They push past identification towards art. The illustrations are
highly skilled, detailed and lush, fitting inheritors of the Audubon name.
Sibley works from sketches made in the field, checking details against
photographs, specimens, and a lifetime of mental images. Now in his forties,
Sibley started drawing birds when he was five, says drawing and looking
gone together ever since:
“I don’t do art so much for art’s sake but for information. I do the sketches and
illustrations of birds to record details, to record information about them so that I can
remember it and pass it along to other people. So I’m able to draw other things but
unless I have some sort of information I want to record about it, it doesn’t hold the
We’re in the woods again. Sunlight filters through a high canopy of maple,
cherry and hemlock. The group is strung out as we pick our way through the
underbrush. Walking is a little hairy, with uneven ground underfoot, and
our eyes on the treetops. But before long, we’re at the marsh, climbing the
viewing platform. Sibley sets up his scope, but most of the time, we’re just
“There’s a blue jay in that half dead treetop in the distance.”
Sibley quotes Yogi Berra in his “Birding Basics” book – “you can observe a
lot just by watching” – but this is a practiced way of watching.
“Well things like that blue jay, I heard it before I saw it, but I think that one of the big
things, one of the big skills in birdwatching is watching for movement and seeing the
difference between a bird moving and a leaf falling. And also you get a sense of
where to look. Not necessarily where the birds are mostly likely to be, but where
you’re likely to see one. There’s not much point of looking through the deep shady
woods, because even if a bird is moving in there, you’re not likely to see it. But if you
scan the treetops and the edges and the open sky you have a good chance of seeing a
bird in one of these treetops.”
A sharp chip means a swamp sparrow somewhere. Sibley tries the universal
call, but it won’t show itself.
“You never know, it might have climbed up onto t twig somewhere and just be sitting
there in the sun looking at us right now.” (laughs)
“Bird watching takes a lot of time.”
“Yeah it’s a big commitment.” (laughs)
“Are we being too noisy?”
“No. Birds don’t mind noise that much. They’re much more sensitive to movement.
One of the worst things you can do is point at a bird. If you see a bird and say, ‘Oh,
look at that!’ and point, it will almost invariably take off and fly away or duck down
under cover. But if you don’t move you can shout, and say, ‘Look over here!'”
Most of the group getting this impromptu lesson have put in some serious
time with their own binoculars and field guides. There’s a friendly, but
ongoing competition of sitings and stories, and a sense that we should be
able to show Sibley something unusual – but we don’t. Neither do we cover
a lot of ground. From the marsh it’s a quick walk back to the parking lot. It
is, how it is – a simple success.
In the sense that we got outdoors early in the morning and we saw a bunch of birds
that was a very successful birdwalk. A birdwalk is really a birdwatch more than a
walk. And I tend to go very slowly when I’m birdwatching.
For the Great Lakes radio Consortium, I’m Martha Foley.