- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Tom Beal of Glenn Dale only has eyes for the birds.

“Birds are endlessly fascinating,” says Mr. Beal, 48. “You always see something different. It’s very hard to be a mammal watcher. You only see rabbits and squirrels.”

An avid bird-watcher since 1980, he especially likes to observe the winged creatures in Patuxent River Park in Prince George’s County and Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Kent County, Del.

Although some birders simply use their eyes to sight their subjects, advances in technology, such as the Internet and digital photography, have given the average hobbyist a few extra tools. With or without gadgets, birding remains a relaxing activity for all ages, which indirectly supports conservation efforts through activities such as bird counts.

Along with professionals, “citizen scientists” will take part in International Migratory Bird Day on Saturday, says Janet Millenson, president of the Maryland Ornithological Society in Baltimore. The event, headquartered in Silverthorne, Colo., focuses on the journey of migratory birds between breeding grounds in North America and wintering grounds in Mexico, Central America and South America.

“Professional and amateurs go out and count birds,” Ms. Millenson says. “They keep track of how many hours they are out and how many miles they cover so that their information can be compared to [that from] people in other parts of the country.”

Other bird counts involving citizen scientists occur throughout the year, including the Christmas Bird Count, which is organized by the National Audubon Society in New York City, Ms. Millenson says. The event records the early winter bird populations across America.

Bird-watchers — professional and amateur alike — have been captivated recently by sightings of an ivory-billed woodpecker in the Big Woods of eastern Arkansas. The bird hasn’t been spotted in the United States for more than 60 years.

At the end of last month, the journal Science, through its Science Express Web site, published an article listing appearances of the woodpecker, Ms. Millenson says. Video footage of the bird also is posted online.

“It has been said that it’s the equivalent of finding Elvis,” Ms. Millenson says. “It’s just extraordinary. Something feared extinct is found alive and well. It’s wonderful, wonderful news.”

While the data about the ivory-billed woodpecker involved a yearlong search by professional scientists, everyday hobbyists can contribute to the field, Ms. Millenson says.

“It’s one of the few sciences left where amateurs can make a contribution,” Ms. Millenson says. “… A lot of our members are scientists, but our membership really runs the gamut from high school students to ministers, teachers, doctors and government workers.”

The first few hours of the day are the best time to observe birds, says Steve Noyes, volunteer naturalist at the Patuxent Research Refuge in Laurel. By 10 a.m., the birds usually quit feeding until dusk.

“As it gets warmer, they are not going to be active,” Mr. Noyes says. “It’s only us humans that insist on going out in the middle of the day on a hot day. Wildlife has more sense. They use the time to rest and stay cool.”

When observing birds, certain features help distinguish one from another, says Kristen Berry, president of BirdPac in Southeast, a nonprofit organization dedicated to birds and bird enthusiasts.

Many birders carry field guides with them, which distinguish stripes around the eyes, the type of feathers, the different colors on the body or the shape of the animals. Other onlookers differentiate the wings, bill shapes, how the bird perches on a tree or how the bird flies. Although some birders buy expensive binoculars, they aren’t always necessary, Mr. Berry says.

“You can just walk through Dupont Circle with your eyes or ears and be a bird-watcher,” Mr. Berry says. “If you’re vision impaired, you can still enjoy birds by being an audible bird-watcher.”

The best bird-watchers spot the creatures by identifying their songs, says Mike Kasper, president of the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia in Southeast. Many birders memorize the songs from recordings.

When they hear the tune while birding, they easily can identify the creature, Mr. Kasper says. Gadget-loving watchers might carry all the calls and songs of birds on an IPod.

“Sometimes, you get really frustrated with not being able to see the birds,” Mr. Kasper says. “If you can listen for them, that really helps you find them.”

Tagging birds can be helpful in identifying them, says Joseph W. Witt, wildlife biologist with the Potomac River National Wildlife Refuge Complex in Woodbridge, Va. On Sundays, Wednesdays and Saturdays throughout April and May, Mr. Witt bands birds with other volunteers.

After the birds fly into a net, a person weighs it and records the type of bird, approximate age and sex of the animal. The aluminum band on the leg is given a specific number.

“It helps you keep track of who comes through and how well they’re doing,” Mr. Witt says. “It’s like a human census.”

Along with the Internet, other technological advances have assisted birders, says Charles Hagner, editor of Birder’s World Magazine in Waukesha, Wis.

Digital photography is one of the most exciting parts of bird-watching, he says. A hand-held digital camera placed up to the eyepiece of a spotting scope gives astonishing pictures.

In other instances, professional scientists place cameras on nests to monitor birds for a longer period of time. On occasion, this footage is broadcast on the Internet.

No matter how people observe birds, the activity is basically about training the eye, Mr. Hagner says. Many birders keep a list of the animals they have identified.

“Go slow and give yourself some time,” Mr. Hagner says. “There are more than 920 different species of birds seen in North America. Some of the birds are only seen in the South or East. You couldn’t just sit down one night and learn all the birds.”

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