Bay Journal

The birding novice

  • By Whitney Pipkin on July 31, 2014
The photo I snapped of a male house finch, which I thought might have been something more exotic, from my kitchen window. A more experienced birder helped me ID the bird. (Whitney Pipkin) I've taken to backyard birding and trying to catch my favorites with a zoom lens from my kitchen table.  (Whitney Pipkin)

The first time I wrote about birding for a local newspaper in Washington State, my friends were scared to ride with me for a few weeks. Every time I saw a bird from behind the steering wheel, I would point and exclaim its breed, “Peregrine falcon! Ferrari of the flats!” while nearly swerving off the road.

But when we moved near the other Washington a few years ago, I began to lose interest in behind-the-wheel birding. Granted, it’s not nearly as safe to practice in the stop-and-go traffic for which this area is known, and I had to start all over getting to know the obvious birds that can be pointed out while moving along the interstate.

Then I had the chance to go birding on this coast, with a professional, and the birding bug bit me once more. Photographer Dave Harp (an experienced bird-spotter himself) and I explored Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland’s Eastern Shore with intrepid birder Jared Parks last winter for a piece for Bay Journeys.

I learned a lot from Parks. First, you need a good bird book, preferably a Sibley’s Guide. Second, you need to bird with your ears first and then with your eyes, loosely focused on the horizon. Third, occasionally, you need to hold still.

I’m not yet good at any of these things, though I did follow orders and get a Sibley’s guide shortly after our trip. Holding still is pretty difficult for me, as is battling my far-sightedness (and corrective contacts) to loosely gaze at the horizon. But birds are still catching my eye.

Back at home in Alexandria, where we stumbled into a property with an expansive 1.5-acre yard that gives way to a forest and nearby creek, I now keep my zoom lens Nikon next to my laptop in case of birds. My Sibley’s guide is nearby on my desk for reference (and the Internet and email addresses of much better birders are at my fingertips).

In the spring and early summer, a hanging salad plant growing arugula, nasturtium and other microgreens out my dining room window became a lovely habitat for birds, somewhat to my chagrin. They decided the soft leaves that I would clip off into a salad bowl would make a lovely nest. Once I had given up on shooing them out of it (it looked a little worse for the wear after a few days out of town), I focused on trying to identify them. There were three different-looking yellow birds fighting over this prime-nesting habitat one morning. Instead of grabbing my camera like a good novice birder (who would need help identifying them), I slowly inched toward the window to observe.

I knew they were not goldfinches, which I became familiar with while living in Washington State, where they are the state bird (American and Eastern goldfinches enjoy this title in New Jersey and Iowa as well). But instead of running to my guidebook, I just watched them, savoring my bird’s eye view of what had become a little nesting battle. Two of the birds were a sort of couple, with the dimly colored female chirping her support as the two males puffed out their chests and hopped around the home they were trying to claim. I didn’t have the heart to tell them it wasn’t for any of them — it’s my salad plant! — and that there are several other bird houses and trees to choose from in the yard.

I never did identify them, per se, but I refer to them as my yellow birds. Neither of them ended up setting up a more permanent nest in the salad plant, which I took out of the window once it turned dry and dead. The best birding, for now, is out the window over my kitchen sink, where I catch views of dozens of house finches that often leave their mark on my patio table and chairs. On days when I work outside — like the particularly glorious trio of unseasonably cool days we’ve had this week — I catch woodpeckers and chickadees and oh-so-many cardinals cavorting about the lawn.

The great thing about being a novice birder is that you find nearly every bird impressive, simply because you discovered it. That was the case with a particular pink-hued bird that I desperately wanted to identify and kept spotting over several days. I thought it might be a female cardinal or some other variation of the Virginia state bird, which I’ve been able to identify since I was about 5 years old and birding in my grandfather’s backyard in Kansas.

But I couldn’t be sure. Finally, I caught the bird on camera with my zoom lens and emailed Parks a picture. Surely it would be something exciting.

“This is a pretty easy one this time of year,” his response began. “It is a male house finch. The females are very similar without any red… all brown and streaky they are. Sometimes the males can be kind of golden colored instead of red. Fairly common feeder bird.”

He goes on to tell me that identifying them may get trickier in the fall, when I could also catch a purple finch here and there. I responded:

“A house finch — that seems like something I should have known. Anything with the word "house" in it means really common right?”

Wrong again. Sort of.

“House is usually paired with birds that are common near structures or that nest in cavities (house wren and house sparrow are two other ones common here)… similar to ‘garden birds’ in England,” he writes and then goes on to tell me the fascinating history of how house finches spread across the country and how the Eastern populations got a version of pink eye more than a decade ago that tanked the population for a while. So I should clean my bird feeders.

“Probably more than you needed to know, but there it is…” he writes.

Thankfully, he said I can bother him with my novice birder questions anytime. I’m sure I will.

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About Whitney Pipkin
Whitney Pipkin, writes about food, agriculture and the environment. She lives in Alexandria, VA, and is a fellow of the Institute for Journalists of Natural resources and blogs at thinkabouteat.com.
Read more articles by Whitney Pipkin

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