Spring is in the air, and so are birds. If you go outside and listen, you will likely hear them singing to attract a mate.
You are probably familiar with a couple common species, like the American robin or the American crow. But did you know Western Washington is also home to finches, chickadees, woodpeckers, owls, hummingbirds and bald eagles?
You can find all of these birds and more if you know where to look.
WHAT TO BRING
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Dress for the occasion: Wear clothing that will blend in with your surroundings. Avoid bright colors. Make sure you’re dressed warmly enough to sit and observe or sketch birds. Wear durable, comfortable shoes.
Field notebook and pencil: You’ll want a small, pocket-sized notebook to write down features of the birds you see or to do a sketch. Use a pencil, not a pen, because pencils work in all kinds of weather.
Binoculars: Binoculars are particularly useful for watching hawks, which spend most of their time coasting on pillars of warm air at great distances.
Field guide and checklist: A field guide will allow you to identify the species of the birds you see. Get a checklist from your local birding club or nature center so you will know which birds live in your area.
WHEN AND WHERE
The number of birds you see will depend of what time of day and year you go. During the winter months, when food is harder to find, birds will be active most of the daylight hours. During summer, and especially during the spring mating season, they will be out and about just after dawn and just before dusk. Spring mating season is the best time for bird watching because birds will be busy building nests and their calls will be easiest to hear. Birds also display their brightest feathers during the spring to impress their mates, so they will be easier to identify.
Good locations for bird watching near Tacoma include Titlow Park, Point Defiance Park and the Tacoma Nature Center. A guided bird walk is offered at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge every Wednesday morning. For more information and other programs, visit tacomaaudubon.org.
When you spot a bird through your binoculars, take note of its body shape and maybe make a sketch.
Next, look at the bird’s beak. Just like humans have sharp teeth for breaking and tearing food as well as flat molars for grinding food, birds’ beaks serve specific purposes. Woodpeckers have strong beaks for digging bugs out of trees, while owls and eagles have sharp, pointed beaks for tearing prey.
Then, look at feet. Think how different a duck’s feet are from a robin’s: One uses its webbed feet for swimming, while the other has four even toes for perching and walking. Hawks and eagles have sharp talons for grasping prey; woodpeckers have two toes in front and two more on either side for gripping the trees they climb.
Coloring can be a way to distinguish similar-looking birds from each other. Does the bird have a blue crest on its head, like a scrub jay? Does it have a red breast, like a robin? Does it have an iridescent green head, like a male mallard duck? Look closer: The male mallard will typically have a thin white stripe between its green head and gray-brown body. Look for the white sections on other birds, too.
Check your field guide for tips on how to recognize birds by their behavior. Some birds travel as a pair or a flock, some travel alone. Many have distinctive flight patterns.
Finally, listen for the bird’s call. If you’ve identified a bird, or know one you want to find, try looking up their call on the Internet (YouTube often has video clips containing audio of the bird call). Try to remember the call using a mnemonic device; red-winged blackbirds ask, “What’s for diiinner?” and chickadees shout “chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee-deee.” Listen for those calls when you’re in the field. Try to imitate them and see if the bird responds.
On your next bird watching trek, keep an eye out for these common birds:
Canada goose: On its migratory journey, the Canada goose stops in Western Washington in the spring and fall. Black head and long black neck with white patch on its chin. Tan or white breast and darker brown or gray back. Notice its webbed feet and flat bill.
Great blue heron: Permanent resident of Western Washington (doesn’t migrate). Lives in estuaries, wetlands and marshes. Long legs and long neck; gray-blue color with fuzzy feathers around head and neck. Long, thin bill for catching fish.
Mourning dove: Known for its sad, descending coo, the mourning dove lives in wooded areas of the Tacoma area in the summer, when it breeds. Small head and bill, plump body. Brown or tan to match their woodland habitat.
Rufous hummingbird: Common in the Pacific Northwest in the summer. Tiny, flitting pollinators that are brilliantly colored; orange and red for males and green and orange for females. Long beak for drinking nectar from flowers.
Almost all birds will eat seeds — they’re high in protein and nutrients and easier to catch than insects. Make a seed dispenser out of a rinsed-out milk jug by cutting a large square hole about two inches from the bottom, then filling it with seeds up to the hole. Try inserting plastic straws or toothpicks for perches. Nail it to a fence or suspend it from a tree in a place that’s easy to see, and keep a tally of how many and what kinds of birds you see at the feeder. Most songbirds prefer small, black sunflower seeds, but try different kinds of seeds and dried fruits and see if it makes a difference in the kinds of birds you see; bluebirds love raisins, while woodpeckers like corn.