Birdwatching Basics for RVers

American Goldfinch - photo by Kim Selbee

American Goldfinch – photo by Kim Selbee

Birdwatching and RVing are a perfect match. Great for all ages, requiring little experience or equipment, and a fantastic way to add fun and discovery to your travels, it’s really no wonder birdwatching is a popular hobby among RVers.

We spoke to Bob Lefebvre an experienced birder in Calgary, Alberta, who was more than happy to share his knowledge on how to get started.

 

Q.  First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started birding.

A.  I was born in Northern Alberta in 1960 and I have a university education in the sciences, although I have never worked in that field. I have lived in Calgary since 1986 and I work as a letter carrier, so I am outside a lot. I was always interested in nature and environmental issues, but for many years my birding was confined to watching birds at my backyard feeders. I really didn’t know much about birds. Over the years I became more and more interested in birds and began reading books such as Wild America by Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher. In 2007 I invested in a decent pair of binoculars, and in early 2008 I began to go out on field trips with our local naturalists group, Nature Calgary. Within two years I was leading field trips myself, blogging on Birds Calgary, and getting more involved in the birding community.

 

Q.  What is your essential equipment?

A.  My binoculars are my most essential piece of equipment, and that is really all you need to go birding. I have good mid-range binoculars that work well in all light conditions. I also have a spotting scope with much higher magnification that birders use for scanning distant waterfowl or perched birds. I will take the scope in my car, or when walking if I think we’ll see some distant birds on the water.

I sometimes take my camera with a big lens with me as well. I don’t often get great photos, but it can help to identify distant or confusing birds. And of course, I always have my phone with me, which has the eBird app for recording all my sightings, and field guides which also have bird songs and calls.

Barred Owl - photo by Kim Selbee

Barred Owl – photo by Kim Selbee

Q.  For someone just getting started, what do you recommend for equipment?

A.  A decent pair of binoculars is the most important piece of equipment. They have to be the right size (at least 8X42 or 10X42 magnification) so that the image is bright and large enough. You can get decent binoculars for about $120 or great ones for up to $2000. They should be waterproof. My mid-range pair cost me about $425, and came with a lifetime guarantee, so I am now on my second pair with no further cost. The mid-range ones for $400-$600 are very good, and they usually have a lifetime guarantee. Be sure to try them out to make sure they suit you before purchasing.

To me, binoculars are something I never want to go anywhere without. They are great for any kind of nature-watching – birds, mammals, butterflies, bees, clouds, landscapes, stars, or the moon. Many people do not realize how much more enjoyment you can get out of a scene by viewing it through good binoculars. Some people begin to go birdwatching with just a camera, and although it’s nice to get a photo (and helps you identify the birds!), no camera will give you as good a view as even cheap binoculars.

A good field guide is something you should get very early on, and read it to educate yourself, not just to look up birds you see. The Sibley and Peterson guides are very good, and there are other good ones. It’s a good idea to get a few from your library and see which ones you like before purchasing. Nowadays there are field guide apps for your smart phone too.

 

Q.  What is your process for identifying birds?

A.  I learned the Six “S” Rule: size, shape, sound, season, site, sight. The size and shape of a bird narrows it down quickly, and usually you can tell what family the bird belongs to (ducks, hawks, etc.). Sound is the vocalizations of the bird. Many people are surprised to learn how much of birdwatching is actually listening. Learning birdsong can be intimidating at first but once you’ve seen a bird make a sound, you can quickly associate the two and remember the sounds. A lot of birding involves hearing a sound, and then trying to see a bird that you have already identified by sound. Season, or the time of year, also narrows it down a lot, once you learn which birds to expect at which time of year. The same is true of site, or habitat – you learn to expect certain birds in certain habitats. Finally, sight refers to the markings, colours, behaviours, flock formation, or anything else you noted about the bird.

As you gain experience, each species you know well will usually be identified very quickly, without much conscious thought. Even non-birders don’t have to go through a process like this to identify a Canada Goose; it is just one of the birds they know very well.

 

Q.  Where are your favourite spots to bird watch?

A.  I haven’t travelled much to go birding so most of my favourite spots are in the Calgary area. There are some world-class birding spots in the area like Frank Lake near High River, which is great from spring through fall. Fish Creek Provincial Park right here in the city is a very large park with several different habitats, so it can be really good whatever the season. I also spend quite a bit of time just watching birds in my yard, where you can study them, take photos, and learn their habits. I take pride in trying to see as many species as I can from my yard, usually about 55-60 species a year.

 

Q.  What is your favourite season for bird watching?

A.  I really like the spring migration, since there are new arrivals all the time, and unusual species can show up almost anywhere. May 1st until June 15 or so is the peak birding season here. That said, I really enjoy going out in the winter, and it is the best time of year for new birders to learn: there are no leaves on the trees, there are fewer species around, and many species are in large flocks.

Lazuli Bunting - photo by Kim Selbee

Lazuli Bunting – photo by Kim Selbee

Q.  Do you use any great birding apps?

A.  I use the eBird app to record all my sightings and enter them into the worldwide public database. Before the app came along, I had to record everything on paper, then go home and enter it into my computer. I can’t imagine going without it now. eBird is also a great resource for finding good birds and good birding spots.

New birders may not start out keeping track of all their sightings, but they will need a field guide. I use the Audubon Birds app, and I also have the iBird Canada app, and the Peterson Birds of North America app. I love books and wouldn’t go without my printed field guides, but apps have great features too, including many photos of each bird, and recordings of the bird songs and calls so you can try to figure out what you are hearing.

 

Q.  Are there any books or websites you’d recommend to someone who wants to learn more?

A.  Apart from field guides, there are dozens of general books about birds published every year. As I mentioned, when I was starting out I found Wild America inspirational. It tells the story of a trip that Peterson and Fisher made all around North America in 1953, to see all the wildest places. They recorded over 500 species of birds that year. A book that really got me interested in birding was Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufmann. As a teenager in the 1970’s, he spent a year travelling around the continent trying to break the record for most species seen, and he spent less than $1000 doing it.

A good website is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds. It includes an online field guide and a lot of other information about birding.

 

Q.  Any recommendations for connecting with fellow bird watchers?

A.  Depending on where you live, there is usually a local nature club which often includes a birding group. In Calgary, we have Nature Calgary, which includes a Bird Study Group. The Bird Study Group has monthly talks, and its members lead field trips in the area several times a week. You can probably find a nature study group near you in most urban areas in Canada.

There are also online birding forums all over the world where birders can share sightings and other information. Most provinces have forums like this.

Of course, you can always just go out and start birding in a local park! You will inevitably meet fellow birders, who I have always found friendly and helpful.

 

Whether watching birds from the comfort of your campsite, or getting out onto the nature trails, we hope these tips enhance your experience! Do you have any RVing spots that are also great locations for birdwatching? Let us know in the comments!