From Binge-Watching to Birdwatching

By Matt Seek | May 1, 2022
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2022
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Prothonotary Warbler
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From Binge-Watching to Birdwatching
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Somewhere in the midst of the pandemic — between feeding sourdough starters, picking out sweatpants, and attending Zoom meetings — many Americans went from binge-watching to birdwatching.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Merlin (the lab’s bird identification app) and eBird (the lab’s internet platform where birders share species they’ve spotted) both saw unprecedented downloads and usage during the pandemic. Last February, a record-breaking 300,000 people submitted sightings to eBird during the Great Backyard Bird Count. Last May’s Global Big Day saw eBird users record 2.1 million observations — the most sightings ever in a single day. Traffic to the National Audubon Society’s website spiked over 20 percent during the height of spring migration last year. And membership in the St. Louis Audubon Society more than doubled from 2020 to 2021.

The demographics of birding are also changing. A decade ago, according to surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the field marks of a “typical” birder were: female, 55 to 64 years old, middle-income, white. Today, more Millennials and people of color are becoming birders.

There’s no doubt birding’s popularity is soaring. But if you’re still on the fence about joining the flock, here are ten reasons why you should give it a try.

It’s an Inexpensive Hobby

You start out watching birds flocked at your winter feeder. Because it’s free, you download Merlin, a bird identification app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

One day at your local bookstore, on a whim, you drop twenty bucks on The Sibley Field Guide to Birds. Soon you can tell the difference between a white-crowned sparrow and a white-throated sparrow. For some reason, this feels like a superpower.

Eventually, you grow frustrated with the paltry power of your God-given eyesight, so you order a pair of binoculars. They aren’t Swarovski’s, but $200 is a lot of money. Your guilt evaporates on the night before turkey season, when you take stock of the growing pile of gear by the back door — your Remington 870, a box of No. 4s, a Jake decoy, slate call, camouflage jacket …

You Can Bird Anywhere, Anytime

Every spring, the rainforests exhale, and a great breath of birds blows into your neighborhood. The sky dance of woodcocks, the arrival of pine warblers, the skittering of hungry shorebirds across a mudflat — these help you track the passing weeks nearly as accurately as a calendar.

To justify the binocular expenditure, you start taking them everywhere. This amuses your wife and embarrasses your children.

When turkey gobblers grow quiet, you crane your neck to spot warblers in the treetops. When bass quit biting, you watch sedge wrens and swamp sparrows creep between cattails. Birding, you realize, has no closed seasons.

Even in the city there are birds. On a trip to St. Louis, you spot a Eurasian tree sparrow in Forest Park. Your field guide shows the range of this Old World immigrant as a tiny, comma-shaped blob centered over St. Louis County. Nowhere else on the continent can you find this bird!

Binoculars take up little space in your carry-on luggage, so they begin accompanying you farther afield. You puzzle over terns and gulls on a Florida beach. You learn that the mountains of Colorado have a different suite of jays than the Midwest and that Texas abounds with hummingbirds.

It Sharpens Your Senses

Before you know it, you begin to see birds where others do not. (The trick is to look for movement, not the birds themselves.)

You delight in details — all but invisible to casual observers — the little black spots on a downy woodpecker’s tail, the rarely seen “crown” of an eastern kingbird, the sky-colored epaulets of a blue-winged teal as it whistles past at 30 miles per hour.

On a springtime stroll through your neighborhood, what once was white noise now sounds like a symphony. You hear tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle, and know somewhere in the brush an amorous Carolina wren is calling to his mate.

You Never Know What Might Turn Up

You subscribe to the Missouri Birding Society’s email forum and eBird’s rare bird alert. You read about an ivory gull — an Arctic species common among icebergs and polar bears — that was spotted at a marina on the Mississippi River. Anglers find a brown booby — an ocean-dweller common in the Caribbean — loafing near a boat ramp on the Current River. And a vermilion flycatcher — an ember-colored bird of the Desert Southwest — turns up in the Bootheel.

Now, whenever you slip your binoculars over your neck, there is a tingle of anticipation. Among the robins and cardinals and starlings, there’s a chance — however unlikely — you could find something extraordinary, a wandering bird who flew off the edge of her map.

You’ll Meet Interesting People

Like my friend Brad, who could simultaneously steer his SUV around a curvy Ozark blacktop, eat a sandwich, and ID raptors soaring overhead; who knew where to find a greasy spoon within 15 minutes of every Important Birding Area across the state; who on New Year’s Day 2018 — in subzero weather, while most of us were still sleeping off the excesses of the night before — had already recorded two rare birds for the year; who bought cheap binoculars so he could give them away to novice birders; who chose vehicles based on whether or not the rear windows rolled all the way down so passengers had unencumbered views of roadside birds; and who, when his hearing began to fail, bought a set of “bionic ears” so he could continue to listen to bird songs.

It’s Good For You

Just as your birdwatching hobby is picking up steam, a pandemic upends the entire world. Your traveling shrinks, and your waistline expands. Your mood turns sour.

But interspersed among the near-daily COVID case reports, you notice a recurring story: Spending time in nature is good for you. Almost every week, a new study emerges offering evidence that time spent outside helps lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, improve lung function, bolster happiness. Canadian doctors even begin writing “prescriptions” to visit natural areas.

You climb off the couch and grab your binoculars. Within months, you’ve re-explored every inch of the fields and forests around your town. You start to feel better.

You Can Make It a Game

Like many birders, you begin keeping a life list. At first, you simply jot down what you’ve seen in the Notes app on your phone. Before long, you begin filing observations to eBird.

You learn about Big Years and Big Days, in which birders zigzag across the world, a continent, or a particular region to tally as many feathered creatures as possible in 365 days or 24 hours. (The U.S. Big Year record is 725 species. Missouri’s best Big Year clocked in at 324 species, and our Big Day tally is 208 species.) While you aren’t hardcore enough to threaten any of those records, each May you try to break your personal Big Day, and each January you set out to improve on the previous year’s tally.

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Birding Resources
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Join the Missouri Birding Society’s email forum, download the annotated checklist of Missouri’s birds, find nearby birding “hotspots,” and more at this useful website.

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The National Audubon Society’s website offers a treasure trove of birding-related information, including a buyer’s guide to binoculars. You can also locate a local Audubon chapter to join.

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Want to know what’s been seen at your local birding spot? This is the place to find out. You can also create an account and contribute sightings, which benefits both biologists and fellow birders.

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From the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, this is one of the best sites on the internet to learn about birds and birding.

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Access this website using your smartphone for a direct link to the free — and excellent — Merlin bird identification app.

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The Conservation Department’s online hub for all things bird-related.

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There’s Always Something to Learn

You learn, for instance, that at any given moment 200 to 400 billion birds live on Earth — about 40 for every human being; that tiny mites sprint up a hummingbird’s beak to hitch a ride to the next flower; that many birds can see in the ultraviolet spectrum, and that vole urine reflects UV light, which helps kestrels find the little rodents; or that blackpoll warblers, a creature that weighs less than five pennies, can fly nonstop for three days over the open ocean and cover a distance of 1,800 miles.

It Gives You a Reason to Give a Darn

With knowledge comes admiration. And with admiration comes a sense of responsibility.

In the past five decades, nearly a third of North America’s birds — 2.9 billion individuals — have disappeared. Knowing this both saddens and energizes you.

You swear off pesticides, plant native wildflowers in your backyard, and keep your cat inside. You become active in your local Audubon chapter and join the Conservation Federation of Missouri. You buy Duck Stamps to support habitat conservation.

And you fire off feisty, impeccably argued emails to your city council and congressional delegation insisting that they wage war against bush honeysuckle, stop the encroachment of subdivisions into wild areas, ban single-use plastics, protect the few remaining marshes and prairies and mangroves and rainforests, and do something — anything — to curb climate change.

Finally, It Can Save Your Life

One day you will be sitting in your makeshift home office, struggling to write a story. You’re worried about the medical tests the pediatrician ordered for your daughter. Your decades-old refrigerator is making death rattles. World events and politics and — well, everything — are turning your hair prematurely gray.

Instead of building sentences, your mind wanders to something you read in last night’s paper about the pandemic and how languishing could be defined as “a sense of stagnation and emptiness … as if you’re muddling through your days.”

And you sigh.

Then something catches your eye outside the window. Flitting about the branches of your neighbor’s maple is a bird. With black-and-white wings, a sunshine-colored belly, and a fiery orange throat, it’s not just any bird, it is the most beautiful bird you’ve ever seen. It bounces from branch to branch — like a caffeine molecule with feathers — snapping up tiny, invisible insects.

You run downstairs to grab your binoculars.

On the way out the door, you yell to your wife, “A blackburnian warbler!” And she hurries out to join you, not because she has the faintest idea what a blackburnian warbler is, but because you’re excited about something, and she loves you, and it reassures her that things are, eventually, going to be OK.

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This Issue's Staff

Magazine Manager - Stephanie Thurber
Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Associate Editor - Larry Archer
Photography Editor - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Staff Writer - Joe Jerek
Staff Writer – Dianne Van Dien
Designer - Shawn Carey
Designer - Marci Porter
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Circulation - Laura Scheuler