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Birding 101: There’s no better place to learn this popular pastime

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Bird-watching. As activities go, it sounds pretty simple — find a bird and observe.

But to be successful takes some effort, know-how, proper equipment and patience. A dedicated bird-watcher might spend hours on the lookout, waiting and hoping for a glimpse of something that might only stay in view for a moment. Yet for those who have a passion for it, along with a keen eye, it’s well worth the effort.

“Take a look at this,” said Phil Turner, stepping away from a telescope he set up on the boardwalk over the marsh at Huntington Beach State Park on Friday morning. His voice is calm but his eyes have an excited gleam. A look into the lens shows why. Turner has sighted a bald eagle perched in a tree above a house all the way on the other side of the marsh.

Turner, who leads a weekly how-to course on birding at the park with his wife, Sharon, have their students come up one by one to take a look at his find. Then he invites others meandering up and down the boardwalk to have a look.

It’s an interesting find on a morning when the many varieties of birds that usually frequent the marsh seem to have somewhere else to be.

The park is one of the most popular birding spots in the Carolinas and frequently makes national top 10 lists for bird-watching locales, said Mike Walker, an interpretive ranger at the park. More than 315 species have been sighted there — more than anywhere else in the Carolinas, he added.

The list includes sought-after birding finds, such as the roseate spoonbill, which is normally seen in southern Florida, and the painted bunting, which is the most colorful song bird in North America.

But the only sightings on Friday morning were a couple of boat-tailed grackle and an egret until Turner zoomed in on bald eagle.

Looking through the telescope, the rule is to look quickly and be careful not to shift it, then move aside to let someone else look, as there’s no guarantee how long a bird might sit still for admirers. Once everyone has had a turn, they can try for longer looks. That’s one of the tips offered to beginning bird-watchers in classes like the one the Turners give and another that was recently taught at Hobcaw Barony.

Hobcaw’s claim to birding fame is the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker, but it also gets painted buntings, bald eagles and a variety of other raptors.

While the Turners’ lessons are brief and informal, the course that recently wrapped up at Hobcaw lasted a month, consisting of four 90-minute sessions, tests and a four-hour field trip allowing students to put their new knowledge to work. It was the first time the course had been offered, but Trista Hindman, the instructor and Hobcaw’s environmental educator, said she plans to offer it again.

“It’s just a neat way to connect with nature,” Hindman said of bird-watching. “It’s one of those things you can do sitting in your house or anywhere.”

People usually start in their own backyards. “They see a black bird or a brown bird, then it’s like, ‘oh, there’s a yellow one’ or ‘that one has blue,’ ” she said. From there, they develop an interest.

It doesn’t take a lot to get started, but there are some necessities, the most important being a good field guide and a pair of binoculars. The binoculars should be “the best you can afford,” Hindman and the Turners agree. Hindman recommends a magnification power of 7 or 8. Sharon Turner warns to be very aware of their weight.

“A half a pound might not seem like a lot,” she said, but for someone wearing them around their neck for a long period of time, it makes a difference. She and Phil wear harness straps that keep the weight off the neck.

Turner also teaches beginners how to use binoculars. That too should be simple, but people seem to instinctively look down when lifting the binoculars to their eyes. Doing that, they lose sight of the bird they so carefully spotted, she said. The correct way is to keep eyes on the bird and lift the binoculars without lowering the face.

For shorebirds, telescopes and a good, sturdy tripod are recommended over binoculars.

Keep a field guide handy, but don’t rush to open it, Hindman advises. As long as the bird is in view, take mental notes of its features: coloring, markings, body patterns, eyes and beak.

“Get as much information as you can and then go to your book,” she said. “Don’t cheat yourself.”

For high-tech birdwatchers, there are cellphone applications to help with bird identification, complete with the ability to download a bird’s call.

A field notebook or journal are also recommended, along with appropriate clothing for the area where bird-watching will take place. In the woods, for example, that probably means pants, close-toed shoes and bug spray.

As for selecting a watching location, “think about what the bird needs for that day,” Hindman said. “If I’m looking for small song birds, I need to find a sunny spot. If it’s windy, look for a sheltered spot. If it’s dry, look for water.”

Hobcaw and Huntington Beach each have unique features that make them fascinating spots for bird-watching.

“I think one really cool thing about Hobcaw is it’s not just one type of habitat,” Hindman said. “We’ve got maritime forest, upland forest, wetlands, marshlands and oceanfront.” That leads to a huge variety of species for birders to look out for on the 17,500 acres.

Monthly naturalist-guided birding trips are offered at Hobcaw on the third Saturday of each month through a partnership between the Belle W. Baruch Foundation and Georgetown County Parks and Recreation. Cost is $30 and registration is required.

Huntington Beach also has a variety of habitats, but its most unique feature is perhaps the causeway, which has a saltwater marsh on one side and freshwater on the other. The different types attract different birds, Sharon Turner said.

The Turners lead hour-long guided walks along the causeway in search of wading birds, waterfowl, eagles and more on Wednesdays.

For bird-watching at home, feeders and birdbaths are obviously a good draw for birds. Having running water somewhere is best, Sharon advises. The sound will attract curious birds beyond those interested in the kind of food provided in feeders.

For more birding tips, check out the programs at Hobcaw and Huntington Beach. To sign up for Hobcaw’s birding tour, call 545-3333. Classroom sessions and walks with the Turners are free with park admission.

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