Río Embudo Birds

Observing: Basics

Look and Listen!

There are two principal tools for observing birds: your ears and your eyes. With either, you can have a very rich bird-observing life. Visually, birds are endlessly interesting. The same is true for bird sound.

Everyone observes birds on a casual basis. It is inescapable! Sometimes a bird flying overhead or an interesting bird-sound catches your attention and causes you to stop and look or listen. In the next moment, two questions often arise:

Who is that?
What are they doing?   or
Why are they doing that?

Let's formalize this a bit:

Ears and Eyes lead to the two main birding modes:
Birding by sight;
Birding by sound.

Curiosity about the Who question leads to the area of Bird Identification.
Curiosity about the What and Why questions lead to the area of Bird Behavior.

Birding by Sight:

Standing quietly, let your gaze "broaden" so that you are looking at the whole scene rather than having your focus on a single object. The human mind and eye are very good at perceiving movement and pattern against natural backgrounds. If a bird moves, remain still and change your focus to the point of movement. If the bird is not immediately visible, don't be in a hurry. Keep watching the place where the movement occurred. The bird is probably still there. Sometimes a bird may be moving around inside a stand of willows or other shrubery. You may not be able to see the bird, but you will be able to see the branches shake as the bird moves from place to place. Eventually the bird is likely to become visible.

If you are walking, walk slowly and with the same kind of "open" focus. Let your mind process the patterns. Even a small songbird up high in the leaves can trigger a shift in your attention simply because it does not quite fit into the pattern of the leaves. A bird on the top of a Juniper on a mesas or on a rock along a ridge will be very apparent.

Birding by Sound:

If you want to get close to birds,
imagine yourself as a hunter-gatherer
whose life depends on getting close
and move accordingly.

Standing quietly or walking as quietly as possible, try to consciously process every sound you hear:........car.......dog barking....... rooster crowing......chup, chup, chup, cheese.....Who is that? Remain quiet and as the bird keeps singing, look in the direction from which the sound seems to be coming. If the bird keeps singing, begin to move closer, but move very slowly and with as little motion as possible. If possible, approach the bird at an angle, rather than walking directly towards it. Eventually you may get a view of the bird singing.

The critical thing is to investigate every sound. Even if you never see the bird that is singing, you are likely to see something else, simply because you looked more closely. I can not tell you how many times the investigation of some sound has led me to discover a nest or another bird.

My experience is that practising this kind of listening and watching sensitizes me to my surroundings. In my daily life, I am constantly walking right past all kinds of amazing activity. Sometimes I don't have time to stop, but when I do, I am always rewarded. Even if I don't see anything out of the ordinary, I will be rewarded just by slowing down and being mentally present with the natural world.

So how does one get started?

Start taking some time to observe. Usually people acquire some basic tools like binoculars and field guides. The binoculars reveal a world of detail otherwise hidden. The field guide gives you enough information to begin to sort out what you are seeing. Add a notebook to jot down questions and observations and you have all you need for years of enjoyment. (See the section on "Tools")

Another way to get started is to participate in the Audubon Christmas Bird Count (CBC) which takes place in December each year. This count groups experienced birders with novice birders. There are more than 30 locations in New Mexico. This is how I got started birding. I attended the Española CBC in 1995.

Birding by Sound:

Another way is to go on a bird walk with other local birders. Consult the Local Walks page for possibilities.

A Window on the Seasons.

The bird life in the area changes constantly. The majority of the change is driven by seasons. The birds present in a given area change with the seasons. We have year-round birds. Others are visitors that come here for the summer months to breed. While others are winter visitors seeking food in our relatively mild winter and Spring/Fall transients that are just resting and feeding while on their way to other locations. Even the year-round birds behave differently in different seasons.

If it is the second week of March, I know that sometime in the next few days I will hear the Say's Phoebe plaintive call. In the last week of May, like clockwork, the first of the migrating Western Tanagers will sound off with its signature phrase: "pittlelit". At the beginning of July, coming with the rains, will be the noisy and aggressive Rufous Hummigbird already migrating south after its more northern breeding season. During September, the number of Turkey Vultures will start to diminish and by the first of October they will be completely absent, having left to make their journey south into Mexico and Central and South America.

For me, all of this provides a richness of detail that enhances my pleasure in the passing of the seasons.

A Window on our Habitat.

As soon as you start paying attention to the details of the birds' activity, you become aware of how the birds are integrated into the environment. If you want to see a Warbler up in a cottonwood tree, don't bother looking until the leaves have come out. They won't be there. If you want to find a bird. Find its food.

If you want to find a Juniper Titmouse, look in the Junipers up on the mesa where the Titmouse will be finding insects in the bark. If you want to see a duck, walk along the Rio Grande or the Rio Embudo where they can find the water borne food they eat. The flycatchers leave in the winter because there are so few insects to be caught.

So bird watching becomes plant watching and insect watching and berry finding and "What is that flower called?" So much richness woven together so seamlessly!

Check out your backyard. Over time you will be surprised by what you have seen!