Tips for Winter Birding with Children
Last weekend we hiked around St Albans in Herfordshire and smack in the middle of a lake at Verulamium Park, we spotted a dozen gigantic nests in the trees. Only minutes later, a grey heron flew the highest birch tree and landed slowly, spreading its wings over a nest larger than 3-feet wide. We were gobsmacked and with our girls, stayed still in the bitter cold to see some more. Now if your kids are like my girls and can spend hours watching ducks in a pond, seagulls by the sea or hummingbirds in trees, they gotta love winter. When deciduous trees are leafless and cold snaps drive northern species to seek warmer shores, that’s when children can have a blast getting started on the observation of our feathered friends. Thanks to migrations, no need to board a plane to Arctic regions to see northern birds in the wild. Last but not least, winter birding is a a fabulous way to observe wildlife and get a dose of outdoorsy time on cold and dreary days.
Here are a few tips on starting your children on birding this winter. If all goes well, they’ll be fine and ready for the Great Backyard Bird Count in February.
Photo Gallery: click on thumbnails to enlarge
Nest Spotting in Winter, Nest Watching in the Spring
Winter’s bare trees make nest spotting a piece of cake. Bonus points for large birds who build nests so big they look like a bush in the tree. To get my girls used to the idea of winter birding, we play “spot the nest” driving along country roads or in the city when we see a tree “skeleton”. It’s a great exercise to train the birding eye.
If you are lucky to find nests at eye level, chances are they are old nests since bird usually start nesting in the spring but you can still get a good peek inside (don’t disturb active nests) and maybe ID the birds. Later when the weather warms up, you do something really cool and nerdy with nest watching. The website NestWatch.org has nifty online tools to teach you how to monitor nests, what to look for and data fact sheets.
Look for Birds Around Open Water
Lakes, ponds, coasts, marshes or rivers attract a wide variety of birds who are looking for food in the water or the mudflats. That’s where your children will find geese, gulls, ducks, pelicans and plenty of shore birds. When you find a bird, try to get close slowly and quietly to get a good view. For “easy” open water observation, urban areas are a good pick. While they lack the “wild” aspect of nature, they welcome birds used to humans. “Used to humans” means you can see birds much closer than in the wild where they’ll fly away more easily.
Other good locations include coniferous trees that bear pine nuts (birds love nuts) and open fields or grassy hills where raptors can easily spot rodents.
Learn To Identify Birds
Last year we hiked with our friends Dallas and Thomas, both hard-core birders who stumped us by their easy identification of many birds in the East Bay hills, including ID-ing birds by song. It was the same kind of magic as when you’re sitting to the guy who can point to every single constellation and planet in the night sky. Voodoo nature magic. How cool it would be to identify a bird in a snap? Of course it takes practice and patience but here are a few tools to make that exercise easier.
- Find field guides of birds in your area so your children can get to know a dozen or so of your backyard birds.
- If you can, take a picture of birds you observe with a good lens so you can see up close feathers, peak, colors, bird shape, etc. Later at home you can blow up the photographs and look up identification guides.
- If you have binoculars at home, bring them on your birding trip. If there’s a child birthday looming close, kids binoculars are a fantastic gift (with a bird guide). Professional birders recommend a magnification of 7x or 8x to view most birds, 10x for details (birds of prey).
- Become familiar with the most common bird silhouettes (seen from the side or as overhead flight silhouettes). Birds are like gems, they come in many colors for the same species. Their silhouettes, however, are pretty distinctive.
- Join an outing with real birders and learn from them. Local chapters of the Audubon Society are the best place to start but local parks and open space/woodland trusts may also offer beginning birding outings.