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“Birds are everywhere,” says Karl Brummert, executive director of Denver Audubon. He’s not kidding: There are at least 513 bird species in Colorado. But if you’re not a trained ornithologist, how often do you actually notice all those birds that call the Centennial State home?
Honestly, I knew next to nothing about our state’s impressive bird population—until I visited Chatfield State Park with Denver Audubon and watched experienced birders identify 30 different species over the course of four hours. My mind was blown, and my eyes—and ears—were opened. In the days since, I’ve noticed newfound feathered friends, well, everywhere.
I’m not the only one with ornithomania these days. Interest in the outdoor hobby has boomed during the coronavirus pandemic, the New York Times reported this spring. On May 9, birders partaking in Global Big Day, an annual event, set a world record by logging more than two million bird observations on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird platform—the most sightings recorded in a single day.
The practice of birding (which is not the same as bird-watching) “gets you connected to nature,” says Brummert, an Audubon master birder. It also “slows you down and helps de-stress a little bit,” he adds—two things we all need more of right now. At the same time, the hobby can be an exercise in delight. “It can start to be fun when you start to put that puzzle together of, What bird is that?” says Brummert. “It’s a treasure hunt.”
And yet another benefit of birding: A very low barrier to entry. All you need are a pair of good binoculars, a basic field guide, and some beginner know-how. Here are Brummert’s tips for first-time birders in Colorado.
Pick a Prime Location
You don’t need to trek deep into the wilderness for great birding—there are many hotspots in the greater Denver area, including Cherry Creek State Park, South Platte River Greenway, City Park, Wheat Ridge Greenbelt, Bear Creek State Park, Meyer Ranch, and the Audubon Center at Chatfield State Park.
Other good bets: Barr Lake State Park, Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Red Rocks Park, Waterton Canyon, Roxborough State Park, Castlewood Canyon State Park, and Genesee Mountain. For prime birding locales in other areas of the state, contact local Audubon chapters. You can also start by simply examining the birds in your own backyard. Wherever you go, get out early: the best time to bird is in the morning, says Brummert, when birds are most active. My recent birding field trip, for instance, began at 8 a.m.
Get a Simple Guide
Eager beginners may be tempted to buy the most dense birding book available, but Brummert suggests starting with a simple, easy-to-navigate pamphlet, like Denver Audubon’s “Denver Birds” pocket guide, which contains only 140 species. You can find similar pamphlets at bookstores and nature centers across the state. Another tip: Buy a guide with drawings, as artistic renderings often show specific features on birds that real-life photographs don’t always capture. You can also download an app—like Merlin Bird ID, Audubon Bird Guide, or Sibley Birds—for interactive help.
Buy Good Binoculars
Quality binocs are a must-have, but with an array of brands and price points, how can you choose the best kind? Brummert advises buying the most expensive binoculars you can afford. Go too cheap, he warns, and you could end up with specs that narrow your view and don’t focus well. You can get a decent pair in the $200 to $400 range (Eagle Optics and Vortex Optics are among the more popular brands.) Check out the stock at The Front Range Birding Company or Wild Birds Unlimited, two bird-centric stores with locations in the Denver metro and Boulder areas.
Observe and Record
Successful birding requires patience and a willingness to “stay in one spot for a little longer than maybe you would want to,” says Brummert. While you’re standing or sitting in place, scan the edges of trees, the perimeters of lakes, and the space between the horizon and the ground. Look for movement and notice anything that seems out of place. Once you spy a bird, study it for as long as you can, noting its size, shape, beak, coloring, behavior, and habitat. Then, consult your pamphlet; if you’re able to ID the species, write down the name and where you spotted it, as that can help you better commit the sighting to memory.
Open Your Ears
Birding is as much about sound as it is sight, so pay attention to all surrounding noises. If you’re near a road or in the city, try to tune out manmade cacophony and instead focus on natural sounds, which may be coming from the sky, the vegetation, or even the roofs or crannies of buildings. Then do your best to differentiate them, and learn which birds make which sounds. You can train your ear by connecting specific bird noises and songs to everyday din. The red-breasted nuthatch, for example, sounds like a tiny horn whereas the white-breasted nuthatch chirps like it’s laughing at you.
“Don’t feel like you have to identify every single bird that you see,” says Brummert. “Start out with some of the easier ones.” (Those “easier birds,” in my experience, include the rufous hummingbird, the catbird, and the American robin.) From there, work on your observation skills and build your knowledge base bird by bird. Realize this process may take time. One birder I met at Chatfield told me she birded consistently for 10 years before feeling like she’d graduated beyond beginner status.
Follow Basic Etiquette
If you spot a bird or arrive at an area where you expect to encounter them, be as quiet and still possible—especially if you’re around other people. Also, respect the bird by keeping your distance, just like you would with any other type of wildlife. “The great thing about birding is we have binoculars to get us close,” says Brummert. Lastly, while it’s definitely OK—and, in fact, encouraged—to feed the birds in your backyard, refrain from doing so in public. “Just be content to observe them,” says Brummert.
Bird With Others
One surefire way to become better at birding is to go with experienced people. In the upcoming weeks and months, Denver Audubon will likely host more small group birding field trips—like the free one I attended—as long as there isn’t a major spike of COVID-19 cases in Colorado. The nonprofit also offers educational programs for adults. Visit denveraudubon.org and subscribe to their email list for the latest info, and if you live outside the Denver metro area, contact your local Audubon chapter to learn about upcoming events.