How the Pandemic Helped Me Become a Better Birder

Things We Take for Granted Can Bring Us Such Joy

Reading Time: 8 minutes

I looked at my bird list for 2020 and realized COVID-19 impacts even that facet of my life.

Seems like a minor thing considering what our country and the world are going through with the pandemic.

COVID-19 is changing our lives as we sit back and eagerly anticipate the new normal.

But there’s a bright side to all this.

I read that interest in birdwatching is soaring.

Downloads of bird identification apps are up, and bird field guides are in demand.

Coronavirus restrictions are forcing people to look out their windows, and they’re becoming fascinated with birds.

As more people become bird nerds and take time to learn about them, they’ll fall in love with birds.

Carolina Wrens are small, but very vocal birds and have one one of the loudest songs per volume of birds

It’s thrilling to see so many people picking up binoculars, hitting the trails, sharing photos of their adventures, and connecting with nature.

Or, in some cases, reconnecting with nature.

Things we appreciate and enjoy we fight to save, and nature is gaining many more allies during this pandemic.

For Now Long Distance Bird Sightings are a Thing of the Past

But since I’m already connected with nature, the coronavirus is a buzzkill for my bird sightings.

COVID-19 is halting all bird events and festivals.

My long-distance field trips like visiting Cape May for Spring Migration or Raptor Weekend at the Rhode Island Audubon are off.

Spring and fall migration bird festivals, the Hawk Festival at Greenwich Audubon, or Hawk Mountain Sanctuary is now just thought.

And my personal favorite, Owl Be Home for the Holidays at Wild Birds Unlimited in Connecticut with our friends at Christine’s Critters.

I miss being able to get out and interview fellow bird watchers for intoBirds.

And seeing my birding friends, falconers, and their stunning birds of prey.

Every week and month that goes by, I’m reminded of all the fabulous events we’re missing and the wonderful people we aren’t seeing.

And now looking at my bird list thus far in the year, and I wonder what could have been?

Birds of prey are all around us and if you’re lucky, they just might drop by for a visit in your yard. This Red-shouldered Hawk stopped by for a quick visit before heading into the woods

Forget the Bird List, Practice the Art of Birdwatching

Now that birdwatching gives people a reason to get outside, the trails are packed.

Bird hot spots are so densely populated I’ve been enjoying the birds in my backyard and in my local bird patch more than ever before.

The numbers of birds I see is limiting compared to getting out and traveling to other regions.

I feel like my bird list for 2020 is in a slump, so as a pick-me-up, I decided to pay more considerable attention to the birds I always see and otherwise overlook.

I’m honing in on the bird’s feeding and nesting behaviors, calls and songs, quirks and other little subtleties I’ve been missing.

My Sibley Field Guide is getting quite a work out.

In other words: I’m genuinely birdwatching.

I’m not obsessing about seeing just another bird on my checklist, but I’m developing a keen appreciation for the birds around me.

It makes me realize how much I take for granted each day, and value the birds I’m coexisting with each day.

Here are 30 of my favorite observations

1 – Once a Great Blue Heron grabs a fish with its powerful bill, it tosses the fish repositioning it, so it’s head first and easier to swallow whole.

Sometimes this happens in one motion, but since I’ve been counting, it takes 2-3 repositions before the prey goes down the pipes.

Great blue herons may move slowly, but these birds can strike like lightning to grab their prey. They hunt by stealth and have endless patience as they watch and wait for prey.

2 – When a Snowy Egret dips the tip of its bill in the water, it mimicks an insect on the surface and then catches the fish that come near.

Hawks That Use Gnomes as Camouflage

3 – Red-shouldered Hawks are not the menacing birds most think they are and instead help protect a farmer’s crop by eating so many voles and mice.

4 – Cooper’s Hawks are adept at using fences, hedges, sheds or houses to hide their approach when hunting songbirds.

They hide deep in trees, in piles of leaves or behind structures. One Coop even used a garden gnome to surprise-attack songbirds.

A Coop’s sudden burst into the open is like a feathered missile overpowering the smaller bird.

Lately, the songbirds are successful retreating to the bushes for safety thwarting the Coop’s attacks.

But I’m seeing the Cooper’s Hawks take more Mourning Doves than any other bird. The doves just take longer to get airborne, and the Coop is on them.

Cooper's Hawk giving us a quick look before it runs into the bush to attack the songbirds
Cooper’s Hawk giving us a quick look before it runs into the bush to attack the songbirds

5 – Mourning Doves overtake the bird feeders by sitting in them, gobbling up seeds, and thwarting other birds from visiting the feeder.

The doves cause great havoc at the feeders and drive away the cardinals, grosbeaks, catbirds, and Blue Jays from my bird feeders.

It seems odd because doves symbolize peace, but can be aggressive defending their territory.

Doves also are wary of humans and spook easily, causing other songbirds to fly off quickly and hitting windows and structures.

Kestrel’s False Face

6 Turkey Vultures fly lower than Black Vultures, who fly higher and often follow Turkey Vultures to  find food. Turkey Vultures have a great sense of smell and fly lower hunting by scent.

Black Vultures follow Turkey Vultures, who lead them to “food.”

7 – It’s easy to get faked out by an American Kestrels’s false face.

A false face is the bird’s intricate color pattern on their heads, where they have two false eye spots on the back of their head, creating the illusion of a face.

The kestrel’s false face fools predators and thwarts potential attacks. And confuses humans.

American Kestrels have an intricate color pattern on their heads that looks like two false eye spots on the back of their head creating the illusion of a face

9 – Tall wading birds like cranes, herons, egrets, storks, spoonbills, and ibises look like they are bending their knee backward, but what we are seeing is the bird’s ankle bending backward.

Below a bird’s ankle is an extended foot bone, leading to the toes. A bird’s real knee is hidden by feathers.

9 – Birds are light as a feather. No, really, a bird’s feather weighs more than its entire skeleton.

10 – A Ruby-throated Hummingbird, which weighs less than 0.2 oz., beats its wings more than 52 times a second to hover in front of a flower.

I feel like I lose 10 pounds watching a hummingbird hovering.

11 – American Goldfinch are picky eaters when visiting feeders with sunflower chips. They pluck 3-4 chips throwing them on the ground before finally selecting a chip to eat.

This pleases the squirrels lurking on the ground below them, ready to pounce on the chips they reject.

Talking to Your Catbird

12 – Bald Eagles build the most massive tree nest I’ve ever seen, and they’re easier to spot than other nests.

13 – If you “talk” to your Gray Catbird, it will talk back to you.

By talking, I mean, mimicking its mew call, and it will make the call back to you.

14 – Birds can hear dripping, sprinkles, or splashes of water from far away.

When we clean our birdbaths and change the water, birds land on the birdbath for a drink or bath within seconds.

Luigi, our Gray Catbird, hears the water from wherever he is and flies in for a quick bath.

15 – Hairy Woodpeckers always announce themselves as they make their way to the bird feeders with their peak call (check this), and continue until they jump on the feeder and start eating.

16 – Red-bellied Woodpeckers circle the suet feeders 3 times darting back and forth between trees before descending on the suet feeder.

And if disturbed by another bird, the woodpecker leaves and starts the process all over again.

Red-bellied Woodpeckers are cautious approaching suet feeders and do a few flybys before settling on the feeder

17 – The Gray Catbird has a thunderous song. They’re louder than even the Carolina Wren.

Staying on a Crow’s Good Side

18 – Not all birds bathe in water. Some take dust baths.

19 – Blue Jays are incredibly intelligent and have an array of calls ranging from sci-fi-sounding piping notes and ringing squeaks to music twee-dees, to caucus calls and clicks.

Most impressive is their Red-shouldered Hawk imitation.

I hear the call, run outside to see the hawk, and staring down at from a branch high up in the tree in is a Blue Jay hoping I’ll throw it a peanut.

The jays certainly keep you on your toes, and help you get your daily steps in.

20 – Mourning Doves like to sleep with one eye open, and they can put half of their brain to sleep while continuing activity with the other half.

It’s called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep (USWS).

I know, it sounds like a dream come true for humans, but birds sleep differently than humans and can be three-quarters asleep.

Mourning Doves like to sleep with one eye open so they are three-quarters asleep
Mourning Doves like to sleep with one eye open so they are three-quarters asleep

21 – I’m always friendly to my backyard crows when they visit because they recognize us by our faces and associate us with good or bad experiences.

These birds are so intelligent that I’d hate to be on their bad side because I have a black car.

So I go out of my way to be kind to them and lavish them with peanuts.

Birds Enjoy Sunning

22 – Birds are like humans and enjoy sunning.

Sunning for birds means spreading their wings out and fluffing their body feathers to expose the maximum amount of their plumage and skin to direct sunlight.

I’m enjoying seeing Mourning Doves and Blue Jays sunning on intoBirds’ beach in the grass close to the pine trees.

Mourning Dove and Blue Jay sunning

23 – A Tufted Titmouse will not eat seeds right at the bird feeder. Instead, they carry them away from where they find it and consume it on another perch.

Selecting the seed involves sorting through 2-3 seeds before settling on the right one to eat.

24 – Northern Mockingbirds like to sing at night. Maybe it’s their way of having the airwaves all to themselves.

25 – Northern Cardinals are such sweet birds.

From feeding their mates as part of courtship to caring for their fledglings, these birds are lovely family units.

Humans can learn a great deal from cardinals.

How Many Birds on Your Bird List Take Dust Baths?

26 – Eastern Towees don’t run, they hop.

27 – Birds don’t sip water. They bow down, scooping water into their mouths.

28 – Yellow-rumped Warblers have cute butter butts.

Yellow-rumped Warblers are the best known and most frequently encountered wood warblers. The eastern male is blue-gray with a white throat and belly, black streaking on the back, a black face patch, two white wing bars, black bib, and yellow spots on the crown and shoulders with a trademark yellow rump patch

29 – Male Bobolinks look like they have on a backward tuxedo.

30 – Cowbirds make a percolator sound when you chase them off bird feeders.

My best observation is that birds are nonstop.

We might be on hold while we figure out how to get past this pandemic, but the birds persist.

They go on singing, nesting, and migrating and staying busy every minute of their waking day.

As much as I’m connected with nature, by observing the same birds and discovering new fascinating behaviors, it’s like falling in love again.

With the same with birds.

The birds you take for granted because they’re always there or didn’t seem important enough now you see in a new light.

And you love having them around again.

It's a privilege having Northern Cardinals in my backyard all year long and you never get bored of seeing them
It’s a privilege having Northern Cardinals in my backyard all year long and you never get bored of seeing them

Bird List Coming Up Short, But Appreciation Grows

I have a greater appreciation for those things that have gone unchanged by the pandemic, and birds and nature are high on my list.

Yes, my bird list for 2020 is suffering and will come up short.

And I miss the bird festivals and seeing the birds and people I’m accustomed to seeing, but I’m hoping our new normal is as good as the old one.

And I’m grateful this pandemic is helping me be a better birder.

I appreciate those things that go unchanged in life: the sun rises, stars twinkle, the moon illuminates the heavens, and the birds sing.

As I look up and see a bird cheerfully singing or having the freedom to fly to wherever it wants to go, I can only hope that someday soon I will once again be free as a bird.

Until then, I’ll keep enjoying my backyard birds and bird patch, follow guidelines, stay out of crowds, and wear my mask to protect others.

Let’s all coexist!


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