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Advice for successful bird-watching

BY Molly Congdon
Gazette Reporter

CLIFTON PARK — When you wake up in the morning, you hear the smile-inducing chirps and melodies of birds perched outside of your window.

Those delightful sounds paired with the sun peeking through the window shades is enough to launch most of us out of bed and out the door, even if we have the day off from work.

The art of bird-watching is a wildlife observation that transforms into a recreational activity, one that has been around for many, many years.

Craig Thompson is what one would consider a bird-watching savant: Now retired from the state Department of Environmental Conservation where he was an environmental educator for 34 years and the director of the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center for 18 years, he is a member of the National Audubon Society as well as the local affiliate (the Audubon Society of the Capital Region).

He began bird-watching at a very young age, 6 or 7. “I had an older brother who was very interested in birds, and went out bird-watching with Audubon Society bird-watchers when he was 11 or 12,” Thompson said. “Every time my family went on vacation, he would insist that my father stop the car every time he saw a bird. I thought he was a nerd at the time, which was during the 1950s when nobody was really bird-watching and you were really odd if you did, but I picked it up like secondhand smoke; we watched birds everywhere we went.”

Here are some tips from Thompson on how to take advantage of the rural areas of Clifton Park and find some birds.

Bring passion and excitement: “You’ve got to have the bird in your heart before you see it in your eye,” Thompson said. “You need to bring an interest in birds and bird-watching to begin with, but the good thing is that birds are everywhere you go … outside your kitchen window, the Antarctic, desert areas. So if you are interested in seeing birds, they are going to be where you are in some form or other.”

Take a look: “There’s maybe 350 birds you can expect to see in New York state on a regular basis, but begin with a couple of easy birds that would be seen in your backyard; there’s probably 20 birds that everybody ought to know whether you’re a bird-watcher or not … robin, blue jay, crow, chickadee,” Thompson said. “The best way to build on that is just to listen and watch.”

Practice, practice, practice: “A lot of it is experience-based,” Thompson said. “It’s going to take you a lot of years before you know a lot of birds, but learn a couple every year and pretty soon you’re an expert bird-watcher.”

Go with the group: “A number of excellent bird club organizations in the area lead regular bird walks and it helps to go out with an experienced birder who can tell you what to look for and to listen for,” Thompson said. “So that would include the Hudson Mohawk Bird Club, the Audubon Society.”

Not where but when: “Another good tip is to go when the birds are around, which sounds kind of funny, but there is a seasonality to many birds,” Thompson said. “During the spring and fall, you get birds migrating through on their way to their nest habitats or wintering habitats — not necessarily in New York state. The birds in our area now are the ones who would make a nest and leave later in the summer or fall or to reside year-round. June can be a great time for bird-watching because the birds nesting here can be very noisy, they are in bright plumage coloration and they are out and around feeding young, proclaiming territory or protecting their territory.”

Necessary tools: “I’ve always said that you can bird with your bare hands,” Thompson said. “So probably the most important thing to bring is sunscreen and insect repellent. It does help to have some kind of optic, binoculars or something like that. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Now that there are leaves on all of the trees, it can be difficult to see the birds that live all the way in the tippy top.”

The better to hear you with: “It’s much easier to hear them this time of year, so learning to understand them by voice is very helpful,” Thompson said. “There are many good apps for smartphones that will help you identify birds; the apps have bird songs, bird ranges, similar birds … all that functionality. I claim that birding apps are going to replace the need for field guides, which can be bulky when you carry them into the field. I use the one called iBird Pro.”

Say my name: It can get a tad confusing when trying to differentiate between what bird is what. “There are about 15, 20 birds that say their name such as whip-poor-will, chickadee … that kind of thing,” Thompson said. “Some are very easy — nothing else sounds like them — but some are very difficult.”

Amped up: “People my age tend to lose the high register, but I found a thing called Sonic Sleuth, which are earphones attached to a parabola that magnify sound,” Thompson said. “I originally saw it in Toys R Us that was marketed as a child’s spy tool. The box says you can hear conversations 300 feet away, but it’s excellent for bird-watching and it’s helped many people. I call them ‘earnoculars’ because they do for your ears what binoculars do for your eyes.”

Patience, grasshopper: “Impatience is a common mistake,” Thompson said. “Quite often, it’s just a matter of going out and staying still and being quiet while the bugs are eating you alive.”

Birding ethics: “Be sure that you’re on public land or have permission to be on private land,” Thompson said. “Number two, some people like to attract birds by playing the songs of their mating calls — bird tapes — and that’s illegal in national parks because it scares away potential mates and so it’s frowned upon in expert circles to do this as well.”

Land of plenty: “There’s tons of land in the Clifton Park area,” Thompson said. “A couple of them have been designated by the Audubon Society as important bird areas; Vischer Ferry Nature and Historic Preserve is a good example.”

 March 2023 
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