Confessions of a struggling birder

Today’s blog comes from Carlin Thompson, a discovery leader at Sandbanks Provincial Park.

My name is Carlin, and I’m a struggling birder.

As an Ontario Parks Discovery leader, I am surrounded by colleagues with a passion for the natural world — which I share.

Many share a specialty in identifying birds — which I do not.

These are my confessions.

1. I hesitate to call myself a birder

I am a birder… or am I?

Or am I a birdwatcher? Or just someone who casually observes birds?

My inability to own one of these titles stems from my discomfort with my own lack of expertise. I’m surrounded by experts and am inspired by them, but have often felt reluctant to “talk birds” in fear that my own ineptitude would shine through.

One park staff and one visitor look through binoculars.

Birders love to share their knowledge. I have gleaned a lot from these people, but I have also missed out on a lot by not sharing my interest and talking shop.

With the growing popularity of birding, it’s easier than ever to find a community of like-minded people. Connect with your fellow birders at a local field naturalist club, or join a Facebook group. These are excellent ways to ask questions and celebrate your sightings.

I’ve been working in Discovery for seven years and it’s time to own it… I am a birder!

2. I lack the required focus

You often hear passionate birders dreaming of their “Big Day” or “Big Year.”

Observing serious birders with their lists and seemingly singular focus gives you the impression that the activity demands foregoing all else.

I’ve found that birding actually goes well with other activities. You can observe and identify birds whenever you are outdoors, or outdoors adjacent for that matter.

Washing breakfast dishes? Check out that Blue Jay at the feeder outside the window!

Driving to the grocery store? Do you see those Turkey Vultures circling the field?

Taking the kids to the park? Get a load of that Osprey nest atop the parking lot lights!

Simply being aware of birds adds a whole new dimension to the every day. Not to mention the seamless pairing of birding with other natural pursuits like fishing, hiking, cross-country skiing, and more.

The truth is, I will never have the singular focus to forsake all else in the name of spotting a specific species — and I’m okay with that.

Birding enriches all of my experiences with the outdoors.

3. I suffer from an inflated ego

Shakespeare once wrote, “what’s in a name?”

To even dare question the importance of names, it is clear Shakespeare was not a birder or a parent of small children constantly asking “what’s that?”

Child looking at an egg.

A question asked only slightly less in my household than “but, why?”

I am currently the resident bird expert in my house (if nowhere else), as a direct result of being able to identify our neighbourhood birds.

The easiest way to start birding is to familiarize yourself with the birds in your own backyard. Learn their name, observe their behaviour, and get familiar with their call. You’ll be amazed at how you grow to enjoy their visits.

Child looks up at trees.

As a mother, it’s an ego boost to always have the answer to “what’s that?” The truth is, I’m at serious risk of being surpassed by my 6 and 8-year-old sons. Their insatiable curiosity is rapidly outpacing my ability to stay ahead.

4. I can only identify a portion of the birds I see

I have downloaded the apps — there are some really great ones!

I have a favourite field guide, dog-eared from use.

I’ve even taken bird ID courses with the Cornell Lab.

bird on branch in tree

And yet while out in the field, names escape me. The truth is, I love to watch birds, not identify them.

Even common species exhibit interesting behaviour when given more than a passing glance.

Whether you’re reclined in a chair on your balcony, or deep in the woods on a park trail, you can readily watch birds go about their daily lives: nesting, feeding, hunting, mating, and more.

To name a bird isn’t to know it.

But if you’re like me and would still like to name it, keep carrying those books, checking those apps, and take pictures to identify later.

I read somewhere that birding mainly involves patience, careful observation, and a willingness to let the wonder and beauty of the natural world take over. I’m here for that!

If you are too, give birding a try. The nuances of shorebird identification may escape me, but I am a work in progress, struggling to improve my skills, and that’s okay.

Looking for more birding resources? Join iNaturalistUpload your bird sightings to the Ontario Parks project, or have a community scientist help you with identifying the species.

Or, take part in Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas. It’s a five-year survey project, and the more community involvement, the better!