Saturday, June 18, 2005

How I got started birding

It is hard to pinpoint a time when I first became interested in birds. I suppose I always have, in a way. When I was young I had bird books and went on lots of nature walks. My mother kept bird feeders that attracted multitudes of birds, including the occasional hawk. And in college and beyond I would make note of birds I had not seen before, and I would always look them up. I remember the first time I saw a brilliant blue indigo bunting, but I made no note of the date or location.

I did not become really excited about birding as a hobby until the summer of 2003. After a vacation during which I saw several bird species I had never seen before, I resolved to start getting out to DC's parks more, to get more exercise and to see what natural phenomena could be observed locally. On my first trip, an early morning foray to East Potomac Park in late July, I spotted a woodpecker clinging to the side of a tree. Like most woodpeckers I had seen to that point, it had a black back with white spots and a light belly. After closer inspection I saw it had a yellow belly - it must be a yellow-bellied sapsucker! I went home and checked my Sibley, and in my initial naiveté, I neglected to notice that juvenile downy woodpeckers may also have a yellow belly, and that a sapsucker sighting in July would be highly extraordinary in my corner of the world. In retrospect, this bird was almost certainly a downy woodpecker, but I have held onto this memory. First, the idea that I could see birds I had never seen before right here in this city excited me, and encouraged me to go out and look for more. For this I am thankful. Second, I keep this example in mind when I am too quick to identify a bird or stretch a sighting. A second and third look can do much to prevent misidentifications.

I find it funny that my initial excitement and involvement with birding was spurred in part by a misidentification. Since that time I have seen plenty of other yellow-bellied sapsuckers; they are plentiful in the Washington area during the winter months. Later, when I became wiser about expected bird ranges, I deleted that "first" sighting from my life list and replaced it with another YBSA sighting at the right time of year.