By Jenny Neyman
At first flush, beginning birding seems both bird-brain easy and overwhelmingly challenging for the exact same reason — birds are everywhere.
Spring on the Kenai Peninsula is accompanied by the constant fluttering heartbeat of avian life — flitting, wheeling, swooping, diving, flushing, roosting — and the sweet to cacophonic soundtrack it provides. Being outside and not seeing and hearing birds would be as improbable as floating the Swanson River on a calm, July day without becoming anemic from the mosquitoes.
But that’s also the challenge — there are just so dang many birds, how do you tell them apart? There are 274 bird species on the Kenai Peninsula alone, with 18 different gulls, for crying out loud.
Not only do birders need to learn to differentiate species visually, but their songs should also be learned. Was that a whoop-whoop-whooooo, or a monotone huuuumm-trill-chirp, or a click-whirr-wheeze, or a wop ba-ba lu-mop, a wop bam boom?
Then there are the names to keep track of — semipalmated plover, greater scaup, sooty shearwater. Not the most helpful references. Does a Bonaparte’s gull have something to do with its black head, like Napoleon’s iconic cap, or are they just short and lousy at holding France against attackers? What about a red-necked grebe? Do they sport actual red necks, or have an affinity for broken-down pickups and dating their cousins?
Woah there. Bring it in for a landing, would be Ken Tarbox’s advice. The retired Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist, and one of the organizers of the Kenai Peninsula Wildlife Viewing Trail Guide, led a beginning birding tour as part of the weekend Kenai Birding Festival on Friday. The goal of the outing was two-fold, to instill newcomers with the fascination and excitement birding can bring, and to get them started without leaving them overwhelmed.
Before you go
When heading into the field — whether the backcountry or the backyard, preparing and packing the proper gear is key, Tarbox said. First, get a good pair of binoculars rated for decent vision in low light, and focus them for your eyes, adjusting only one lens at a time. A spotting scope with higher magnification is also good to bring along.
“When you’re buying scopes and binoculars, buy the next-highest grade than you can afford, because you’re making an investment for life,” Tarbox said as he packed a $300, straight-lens scope and a $2,000 angled-lens model. “I bought this 10 years ago and it’ll outlast me.”
Next, pack reference materials. That way, birders don’t have to know everything, they just have to know how to look it all up.
Bring a good birding book — Tarbox had the “Sibley Guide to Birds” — and a bird checklist, such as the “Flying Wild” pamphlet put out by the Kenai Watershed Forum, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Keen Eye Birders. If you’re car birding, bring a CD of birdsongs of Alaska to help identify what you’re hearing. If you plan to leave the car behind, bring an MP3 player with birdsongs downloaded.
“You’ll hear the birds calling and sometimes it’s much better to find birds by listening to them and say, ‘Oh, it’s over there.’ Then go for it and you already know what it is,” he said.
Whenever possible, bring an experienced birder with you. Tarbox had Kenai attorney and avid birder Kristine Schmidt along for the tour Friday. She knows more bird songs than he does, Tarbox said, and more sets of eyes means more chance for spotting and identifying birds and settling the inevitable resultant debates — “It’s a scoter. No, it’s a bufflehead. No, scoter. No, bufflehead. …”
If an experienced birder is heading into the field, pack a novice. What’s the use of all that birding knowledge if it’s not shared with others? On Friday’s trip, staff from the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center — Rebecca Gilman, Debra Dougherty and Cathy VanCauwenbergh — were along for the ride in order to see firsthand the birding spots and species they routinely recommend for visitors.
“We’re just trying see all these sights that we’re telling visitors to go experience,” Gilman said.
“It’s much easier to communicate something once you’ve seen it, so I’m really appreciative that we’ve gotten to do it.” Continue reading