Bird watching just takes a bit of practice

  • Article by: JIM WILLIAMS
  • Updated: May 13, 2014 - 4:09 PM

Birds are all around us; you just have to learn to look for them.


You don’t need a guide to look for birds in your own neighborhood. Just stop, listen and look around you with careful eyes.

Photo: Jim Williams • Special to the Star Tribune,

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How do you see birds? Looking is how you see them. The better questions are how and where to look.

Have you ever looked for agates on a rocky beach? It takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the appearance of agates. At first, you see little or no difference among the rocks. Then, an agate or two. Finally, eyes keyed to the task, agates are easier to see. It’s the same for spotting birds.

With sufficient practice you create a search image: a mental image of what, generally speaking, a bird looks like, or what kind of movement defines a bird. Once acquired, this image can be yours for life.

The adjustment can be quick — not instant, but not years. If you look and listen, you can train your eyes to see and your brain to be quickly reactive.

Where to look

This all works better if the habitat is at least halfway appropriate. You might be surprised at what you find in your neighborhood, any neighborhood, if you just stand and listen. You will have more success, though, if you are somewhere with trees, bushes, shrubs, weeds, flowers, long grass, dirt, mud, puddles, and water small or large, standing or running.

Clue: Look for public land where the managing agency has created paths and trails for access. Paths and trails are a very good beginning.

Look in trees near and far, in tangles of shrub, in weedy patches, among reeds and cattails. Watch for movement. Look for things shaped like birds, and things that look odd. Watch for anomalies. Your search image is that anomaly.

Look at fences and wires and poles and posts. Hawks, owls and meadowlarks like to sit on posts. Smaller birds sit on wires.

Look at muddy farm fields. Look at harvested farm fields. Watch the rural roadside. If you can see birds from inside the vehicle, don’t get out. You are in an excellent blind. (While driving, it is best if the passenger in a moving vehicle is the designated looker.)

Look for birds overhead or soaring in the distance. Look on power lines, on tree trunks, on the outer or higher branches of trees, in the shade on the ground. Look for birds along and on shorelines, particularly during spring migration. Look hard on water; birds there often disappear in the waves and the glare.

Look for movement on the horizon. Check the source of fleeting movement you see from the corners of your eyes. Look for unusual silhouettes. If a shadow floats across the ground in front of you, look up.

Move slowly and quietly. Stop walking now and then. Become part of where you are. Look at everything.

In spring, male birds sing courtship songs. They most often do this from exposed or high perches, most likely in sun. Look there.

Raptors like sunny perches in early morning. Look for obvious perch points in the sun. Raptors also perch high, the better to watch for prey. Look on poles and light standards and highway signs. Look at large stick nests. Look twice at bumps in the nest.

Ground-feeders like shade. Little brown birds in semi-light are more difficult for predators to see. Look there. Look in berry bushes and fruit trees at appropriate times of the year. Look on sewage treatment ponds. Water birds love those ponds. Look for nest boxes. Look up, often.

Crows bunching up over there? Loud and raucous? Look for the source of their excitement. Crows harass raptors and owls. Look just below their dive. Watch for the victim to flee.

Eventually, your eyes will automatically go to all of these places. Your eyes will see, your brain will react, you will see more birds.

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  • 20 metro birding spots

    You don’t have to go far to find good birding opportunities. Here are 20 good places to go birding in and around the metro area:

    Wargo Nature Center, Anoka County

    Fort Snelling State Park, Bloomington

    Hyland Lake Park Reserve, Bloomington

    Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge, Bloomington

    Springbrook Nature Center, Fridley

    Elm Creek Park Reserve, Maple Grove

    Baker Park Reserve, Maple Plain

    Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, Theodore Wirth Park, Minneapolis

    T.S. Roberts Bird Sanctuary, Minneapolis

    North Mississippi Regional Park, Minneapolis

    Gale Woods Farm, Minnetrista

    French Regional Park, New Hope

    Wolsfeld Woods Scientific and Natural Area, Orono

    Wood Rill Scientific and Natural Area, Orono

    Cleary Lake Regional Park, Prior Lake

    Wood Lake Nature Center, Richfield

    Lake Rebecca Park Reserve, Rockford

    Silverwood Park, St. Anthony

    Westwood Hills Nature Center, St. Louis Park

    Carver Park Reserve, Victoria

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