Have you noticed more people posting photos of birds on social media? It seems that because of stay-at-home orders, many of us are looking for ways to pass the time, and looking more at the nature that’s around us. Jason Ward knows a lot about this. When he was 14, Ward saw a peregrine falcon eating a pigeon from his window in the Bronx.
“It was National Geographic brought to life right in front of me, and that changed the course of things in a lot of ways for me, because it let me know that I didn’t have to travel to lands far and away to be able to enjoy wildlife,” Ward said.
Now he hosts the “Birds of North America” documentary series on YouTube, is an educator and advocate for diversity and inclusion with the Atlanta Audubon Society, and is an enthusiastic ambassador for birding. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple talked with him from Atlanta, where he lives now.
LISTEN to their conversation
Kara Holsopple: Many people are at home now, and they’re noticing birds, again. What do you make of that?
Jason Ward: You know, I think that one of the few silver linings of most people deciding to stay at home is that they’re just starting to pay attention to things that they overlooked. It’s a blessing in disguise that people are starting to appreciate their backyard birds once again, and there’s no time like the present since billions of birds are migrating north. So not only do we familiarize ourselves with these backyard birds, but now we have a whole onslaught of new birds that will join the party pretty soon.
KH: So for people who are new to birding, what do you need to get started?
JW: In order to get into birding, what you need, you already have. Your eyes and ears will get you through the gate. If you can hear, and/or see some of these birds, you are already a step in the right direction. Now, in addition to that, if you want to take things to the next level, then sure, I suggest getting a pair of binoculars, maybe even a camera. Hey, you know, put some feeders in your front or backyard and enjoy the show.
KH: So how do you know which bird you’re seeing?
JW: You know, it takes time. I always tell people bird I.D. is hard. It does get easier, but it never stops being challenging, and I think that’s a part of the reason why we keep coming back. If it was really easy, it wouldn’t be as fun. Mistakes are part of the game. We’re going to misidentify a lot of the birds that we see. I always tell people to own up to it, and don’t get discouraged by mistakes. There are two types of birders, those who make mistakes and those who lie about the mistakes. So own up to your mistakes. Learn each species — maybe take a picture, maybe carry around a field guide that you can purchase anywhere, and start to learn about the native birds that are in your area. It takes time, though. I think that that’s one thing that we are lucky to have at this point in time, is the available time to just spend on a new hobby.
KH: What time of day is best, and where should you be looking?
JW: When it comes to breeding season, which we are in right now, these birds that are migrating are doing so when we’re all sleep. They’re migrating at nighttime. They’re taking these trips hundreds and hundreds of miles over our homes, and flying while we’re all taking a nap at nighttime.
Once that sun comes up, and it starts to heat up the bushes and the treetops, that gets the insects stirring. Now it’s time to feed. A lot of those birds will start to feed, to start to replenish their energy reserves, so that they can fuel themselves on the next leg of migration. That is when we’re able to bear witness to a lot of these migratory and resident birds.
“You can look on the ground for certain species, and in low bushes…on the trunks of trees, in the canopy of trees, and also, don’t forget to just look into the sky.”
The early morning is also the time where the most singing occurs, and the reason for that is two-fold. Number one, the song itself carries further. In the early morning, there is less atmospheric dust that is kicked up by the heat, and the song is able to travel nice and far, and it’s able to be a little clearer, as well. In addition to that, they could be spending time looking for food, but they’re sitting up on this exposed branch singing. That’s an indication to all of the ladies in the area that ‘I’m already big, strong, and healthy, and don’t need to waste my time feeding like the rest of these weaklings out here. Look at me. I’m here with my chest poked out, and I’m singing this beautiful song that means I’m a viable candidate to mate with.’
So I think that the early morning is the best time, and you also asked where you can look to see them. That is also a great question. During this time of year, you can look anywhere. You can look on the ground for certain species, and in low bushes. You can look on the trunks of trees, in the canopy of trees, and also, don’t forget to just look into the sky. Hawks are also migrating. Vultures are also migrating, and they’ll soar over our head in waves.
KH: There are a lot of birds in my neighborhood kind of going crazy with their song right now. How do you bird by ear? What are some of your tips for that?
JW: You know, so when it comes to birding by ear, I liken it to a family member calling your phone on a blocked number. So some people ask me, ‘how do you even recognize these songs? They all just sound like chips and chirps to me. How do you tell them apart?’ That’s when I bring up the family analogy. If a family member called you from a blocked number, and said, “hey,” just by hearing a few words you would be able to recognize who that voice was coming from. Using that analogy is similar to how I’m able to recognize bird songs. Sure, they’re all a series of whistles and chirps and clucks and chips at the end of the day, but there are small differences in each of their calls, and also their songs, that set them apart from one another.
I’ve taken a multifaceted approach to learning bird song, whether it’s downloading apps like the Audubon Bird Guide app, or whether it’s just viewing YouTube videos. But at the end of the day, there’s no substitution for actually getting out into the field.
KH: This is a strange time. It’s a sad time. It’s a scary time for a lot of people. What is bringing you joy right now in birding?
JW: It’s the warblers, at the end of the day, right? That’s the big ticket item when it comes to migration. These are the neotropical birds that spend their winter in South America and in the Caribbean.
“Put your phone down for a second. Take a walk around your neighborhood, or just sit on your porch, and listen to the bird song.”
My favorite is the prothonotary warbler. It’s this ridiculously tough word that I had to learn when I first started to bird. It’s a golden yellow bird–just the brightest golden yellow, ever. It has these slate bluish wings, as well as these really dark black eyes and dark black, straight beak. They’re experts at eating caterpillars. They live in swamp land, and they sing this beautiful song that sounds like: sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet. Just being able to see this golden shape, bouncing around in an otherwise kind of dreary swamp, never fails when it comes to brightening up my day.
KH: How can birding help people get through this time?
JW: You know, birders have always had this really well-kept secret. Birds are able to provide so much to us. They’re able to provide us with the thrill of the chase, and the thrill of discovery.
They’re able to be meditative to us at the same time. Being able to immerse ourselves in these habitats, and listen to birdsong, you know, in these beautiful environments — it’s always been calming for us.
Now, more and more people have the ability, especially during trying times like this, to allow themselves to enjoy the meditative aspect of birds and birding. Put your phone down for a second. Take a walk around your neighborhood, or just sit on your porch, and listen to the bird song. Take a couple of deep breaths, observe, and just be in the moment, and you’ll find yourself feeling a little bit better after a couple of minutes. So I think that birds can provide that for a lot of people.