In a lot of ways, birding brings me back to myself.
It works on several different levels. At its most basic, birding is a way for me to get some fresh air and do something enjoyable for (relatively) free. Even better, it’s a way to enjoy the outdoors and get away from the burdens of technology and social media. And lastly birding for me is the best way to fully appreciate Mother Nature.
The Birding Experience at Pea Island
The sheer number of bird species (and every bird!) in any given region is staggering, and having the tools to be able to identify even a fraction of them is super satisfying. One of these tools is knowing where the birding hotspots are, or areas in the country where you’re most likely to see the biggest variety of birds, depending on the time of year. One of these hotspots I recently discovered was Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. It’s also now one of my all-time favorite hotspots.
Pea Island is a well-known hotspot in the Eastern US. Birders from literally all over the US and even abroad come here, especially for the fall migration.
To say that there are a staggering number of birds and bird species here is an understatement. Seeing it with your own eyes is an altogether different thing. There are thousands and thousands of Northern Pintail ducks gathered in the marshy coastal waters, sitting out in the open for all to see. There are also thousands of Double-crested Cormorants all flying in the same direction for long minutes on end, as far as the eye can see.
In the bushes that grow in the sand dunes, Yellow-rumped Warblers constantly dart in and out, their bright yellow rumps flashing just long enough for you to know what they are. Killdeer roam in several different places, from mowed lawns in the campground we stayed in, to the coast of the beach itself. They share it with three new species of shorebird I had not seen before—gray, long-beaked Willets, cute little Sanderlings, and the even smaller and cuter Semipalmated Plovers.
What in the heck are those birds? This is the most important question in my opinion because it fuels my curiosity to find the answer.
Identifying birds can be pretty easy, really hard, and everything in-between. But no matter how daunting it might seem to a newcomer, there actually are a few basic but super important tips that will help you narrow down your choices.
- Setting. Before you decide to take your binoculars to the sky, do some research to get a general idea of the birds in your area. Also note the geography and terrain of where you’re at (grassy meadows, deep woods, marshlands, etc.) and the time of year.
- Appearance. This one sounds obvious and self-explanatory, but there’s an easy way to do it to the greatest advantage. Note the relative size of the bird and its shape. Note any color and any distinguishing marks you can see clearly. If you’re still unsure and you’ve got more time, try to note everything about the bird’s bill and its legs/feet (size, shape, and color). This is a big one when the bird is totally new to you.
- Behavior. What is the bird doing when you’ve spotted it? This is also helpful in eliminating other species that may look similar. Note what activity the bird is doing, like eating berries or singing from a high tree branch. Also, note how it might be acting. Is it chasing other birds away? Taking care of its young? Is it doing something extra odd and fascinating you’ve never seen before? (When shorebirds feed, they often appear to be chasing after the receding tide on a beach; they’re actually waiting for the water to reveal tiny crabs and worms!) This type of behavior can be critical in identifying birds for newbies.
Birding for me is a great experience each and every time. Every day is different and every hotspot is different. Perhaps the best thing is that everyone can choose to see and identify as many or as few birds as they want…it all depends on what kind of challenges you’re up to. Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is a great place to stretch your wings!