Rhinelander bird enthusiast offers tips for becoming a backyard birdwatcher
According to Joanie Van Clief of Rhinelander, bird enthusiasts come in three different categories. “I consider myself a Birder,” she explains. “I’ve learned to identify over a hundred bird calls and I keep track of which birds I’ve seen in the wild; my life list is about 450.”
Then, she says, there are the most extreme people, called Listers. “They are very serious birders who will drop everything at a moment’s notice and travel great distances if they get a chance to see a bird they don’t have on their list.”
But at heart, she says, most everyone is a Birdwatcher. “Anyone who loves to see birds, hear them call and takes the time to notice them can be considered a birdwatcher.”
Since she and her husband, Bill, moved to their home on South Pine Lake four years ago, they’ve both enjoyed a bevy of feathered friends. “We have a wonderful location with the lake and are surrounded by woods,” she says. “I’ve watched birds my whole life, even living in the city, but I’ve seen a great variety here, especially during the fall and spring migration.”
For instance, she was amazed to find mourning doves during the winter months. “I’ve never lived anywhere they would stay all year,” she says. “And purple finches are new to me, too. Everywhere else you see house finches instead.”
A dozen feeders grace their yard during the winter months, but Joanie soon realized that comes to an end once the bears wake up in March. “After our first bear swatted down a couple feeders, I took them all down and cleaned up the ground underneath,” she recalls. “He came back the next day, and I went out on the deck with a spoon and pan to scare him off. He just calmly looked up at me.
“I decided to walk down the steps and move toward him,” she continues. “It wasn’t until I was about 25 feet away and he started snapping his teeth that I realized I was in trouble with only an omelet pan between me and him.”
Feeding becomes problematic in the warm weather, anyway, she says. Keeping the feeders clean and free of bacteria is difficult and without the migrating birds around, visits aren’t as frequent.
Attracting birds to the yard
This year, because of the heavy moisture levels, insects are plentiful; and though few of the resident birds feed on mosquitoes, the swarms of them are an indicator of a healthy base of insects to support the local food chain.
Local native plant specialist Brent Hanson explains the importance of insects. “While we’re trying to kill the insects in our yards that bother us, we’re not thinking about how critical they are to area birds.
“Even adult birds that live on seeds and berries need insects to feed to their young,” he says. “The nestlings require that high-protein diet to grow. Oak trees support 200 species of insects, so even though birds don’t eat acorns, oaks are critical to their success.”
Although he doesn’t consider himself an expert on birds, Brent has picked up a few things. “If you have a birdbath with a couple inches of water, that’s really too deep for most of our songbirds to utilize,” he explains. “A good way to help them is to set up a sprayer that soaks the leaves of nearby bushes. Birds can get their moisture from the water droplets on the leaves.”
To attract birds to an area, Brent recommends native trees and bushes for cover, but not too much cover. “Evergreens are important, especially in winter to block the wind,” he says. “But too much cover can allow predators to lurk nearby and scare off song-birds.” For those interested in attracting birds to their yards, he suggests a book written by Mariette Nowak called Birdscaping in the Midwest.
Tools for observing birds
Spotting birds during the summer months is a challenge, according to Joanie, but fortunately she just happens to have some expertise in optics. For years, she worked for a company that sold telescopes and binoculars in Chicago.
“Using binoculars is a skill that requires lots of practice,” she says. “It can be a real challenge to spot birds that often hop around at the very tops of the trees. We birders get ‘warblers neck’ from always straining to look up.”
Joanie explains that the two numbers on binoculars indicate the magnification and the diameter of the lens in millimeters. “To get started, look for the first number between 7 and 10, and the second number between 30 and 50. Higher numbers just make them harder to hold steady and offer a narrower field of view.”
But if anything has helped add to her enjoyment and success as a birder, it has been learning to identify bird calls. “It used to be that you’d go out with an experienced birder and learn from them,” she says. “Later you could buy a cassette tape or a CD of bird calls to stick in your car stereo and listen to over and over.”
Now that birdwatchers have jumped into the digital age, there are programs and apps all over that people can use in their computer devices to help them learn. “One of the best sources is an online site provided by Cornell Labs,” says Joanie. “They are leaders in helping citizen activists, volunteers that help with bird research.”
A fun “game” has recently been shared on that site called Song Bird Hero (reminiscent of Guitar Hero) that uses visual cues to help users learn to identify bird songs. The site can be found at birds.cornell.edu
Bird books and guides have been around for many generations, and they instigate much debate among birders, according to Joanie. “No one guide has it all,” she says. “When groups of birders go out together, we each carry our favorite and can usually find what we need in one or the other.”
Because species’ migration routes and territories can change periodically, depending on factors like habitat and food supply, updated guides are usually more helpful. There are several sites on the Internet that can be helpful in selecting a good book.
Lastly, photographing backyard friends is something that is easier now than ever before, according to Joanie. “With the good quality digital cameras out there, you can get great results,” she says. “And because we rarely print our photos anymore, the quality is only really limited by the resolution of your computer screen.”
Patience and perseverance are key factors in getting good photos. “Birders have found all different methods over the years. Someone discovered that you could put a digital camera up behind a spotting scope and it worked. Then, of course, all kinds of specialized equipment were developed. You can spend $10,000 on lenses and cameras, but there are less expensive options out there now for amateurs.”
Sue Schneider is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. Her articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Northwoods ‘boomers and Beyond magazines.
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