Spring is sprung

The grass is riz

I wonder where the birdies is


Well, let’s act on that children’s rhyme. Let’s go birding. Here’s a primer to get you started.

Good things to have: comfortable shoes, a light jacket, billed cap, anticipation of joy.

You’ll also need an identification guide book — one of the pocket-size editions, with all of the information you would find in a Peterson or Sibley guide. Buy a guide to Eastern birds.

Begin by looking through the book to get some idea of the order in which species are presented. It’s easier than trying to learn on the job.

Make yourself a brief index on note paper or the back of a business card. You need only the name of the bird or bird family with page number. Loons, 23. Waders, 60. Ducks, 84, etc.

Toss the dust jacket and tape your brief index to the book’s cover. Strapping tape works. Your book is a tool. Use it that way.

Customize the book. Write in it. Fold page corners. Tape things to the cover. You can waterproof the book with strapping tape. Include a note of self-identification so the person who finds your lost book can return it.

You can make your guide smaller, too. Why not remove birds you are unlikely to see here from the book? That’s OK. As far as Minnesota is concerned, seabirds can go. Some of the shorebirds and gulls and hummingbirds can come out. Western species, out. Some of the thrushes and sparrows, out. Make it easier to find what you’re looking for. (Save the pages just in case.)

Learn some common bird sizes for comparison. That way you can figure out whether a bird is about the size of, or larger or smaller than, a chickadee, a sparrow, a robin, a crow.

Before you open the book it really helps to know: approximate size of the bird; color(s); size and shape of bill; obvious markings, like on head or wing; basic behavior, i.e. walking, hopping, flying straight, flying in swoops.

Understand that you will not identify every bird you see.


Buy binoculars from a store that knows birding needs. Avoid big box and sporting goods stores unless you know exactly what you are buying. Good bins can cost less than $300. Ask dumb questions. Compare brands. Find a size that fits your hands. Weight is important. Waterproof is nice.

If binoculars are to be a gift, carefully consider all of the above, or take the giftee with you. Binoculars are very personal.

Keep the lens glass clean. Never wipe the lenses when they are dry. Scratches on that glass are forever. Blow on the lenses first, then moisten them. Avoid spit. Use water from your water bottle (you did bring water, didn’t you?).

Never wipe the lens with your wool sweater, nylon shirt cuff, or the outside of your jacket. Use cotton cloth. But, you say, the only cotton I’m wearing is my underwear. Right. You need privacy or a cotton hankie.


Learn to tell a companion where the bird is. Don’t be the person who can summarize directions only as “over there.” Pretend you are facing a clock (this works well for trees): Top is 12, bottom is 6, left and right are 9 and 3. “The bird is at 2 o’clock.”

Use eye level, knee level, just above or below the horizon or whatever. That is a helpful clue.

Distance can be a bugger to explain. Not everyone can visualize distance in feet. You can describe distance with a common item, like broomsticks or a loaf of bread (really).

The bird is eye-level one broomstick to the left of the tree trunk at 2 o’clock. Sounds silly, but it would work. (You might want to explain your system first.)

Which tree? Don’t identify trees by species. “In the hackberry” is no help to most of us.

Learn more

Join a bird club. Minnesota has several Audubon chapters. Go to http://mn.audubon.org/about-us/find-chapter.

Enjoy opportunities for classes and field trips.

Birding with a birder is a good idea. Birders love to share.

Relax. This is supposed to be fun.


Read Jim Williams’ birding blog at startribune.com/wingnut.