If you spent any amount of time in downtown Durham this summer, you may have seen a collection of fold out chairs, long-range camera lenses, and binoculars along Madbury Road as birdwatchers from across the country flocked to catch site of a pair of nesting Mississippi kites.
After receiving coverage in several local newspapers, the nest became a must-see to birdwatching enthusiasts, also known as birders. Committed to the study of birds, also called ornithology, the birders in Durham over the summer were just a small sample of a nation-wide population. Whether they have dedicated their lives to this hobby, or are just devoted enthusiasts, there are currently over 50 million birders in the country according to the New Hampshire Audubon Society. These numbers beg the question, why do so many people enjoy birdwatching?
“I have learned to appreciate nature just by watching birds. They have inspired a sense of awe in me, and just seeing them fly has made me appreciate how amazing mother nature is,” said Zachary Orringer (‘18), who has experience watching birds native to New England.
Others, like 45 year birder Richard Kinney of northern Texas, enjoy watching birds for the science. “My favorite parts of birding are the migration patterns. I am amazed that each spring and fall these birds show up at the same place and at the same time,” he explained. “However, among the things I am discovering, is that there is a slow but definite movement of birds from the south to the north.”
Kinney’s observations draw on one of birding’s most beneficial impacts: analyzing the environment.
“Maybe you notice that the cardinals you once saw at your birdfeeder haven’t been there for years. Obviously, this is a sign that something has changed in the ecosystem and it could show pollution or loss of habitat in your area,” explained Oyster River High School science teacher Celeste Best, who has enjoyed watching birds since taking two years of ornithology while in college.
She continued, noting, “birds aren’t keystone species. They aren’t at the top of the food chain, but they are an important lower level species that are indicators of healthy or not healthy [ecosystems].”
This importance is also recognized by organizations such as the New Hampshire Audubon Society, which collects environmental impact data through a Backyard Winter Bird Survey that runs during the second weekend of February. In the survey, users can contribute to the Audubon’s research by reporting the number and variety of species that they witness across the state, all of which becomes data that is used to coordinate future projects.
Other local birdwatching labs include the Cornell Lab of Ornithology at the Isle of Shoals, the Squam Lake Science Center in Holderness, and the Vermont Institute of Natural Science. All three of these educational stations rely heavily on the public’s love for ornithology, which can work to inspire a sense of community participation. “The use of citizen science, and birdwatching in general, is a way to be involved,” added Best, who now routinely watches birds with her family.
“Birdwatching also is a chance to meet people with different points of view and cultures. On trips I have met people from South Africa, Sri Lanka, England, Sweden and Japan, just to a name a few,” said Kinney, who primarily enjoys watching birds by the northern coast of Texas.
Joanne Loving, who has been watching birds for over 65 years out of Cape May, New Jersey, has done some bird-related traveling of her own. “I have identified birds in southern Kenya and Hawaii, and am headed to Iceland soon where I plan on taking my bird book and binoculars,” said Loving, whose once-casual hobby has since turned a lifelong love of birding. She continued, adding, “I’m just a curious person and birds are curious to watch. They are truly incredible.”
Even for those who don’t migrate around the world on elaborate trips, birding can still play an important role in a person’s life. Like Best, fellow Oyster River science teacher James Thibault was also exposed to birding in college when he got a chance to work with the president of the New Hampshire Audubon Society. “I was previously completely unaware of the breadth of different species that there are. Sure, you can look out a window or at a birdfeeder, but I was amazed at how many different types of birds that are actually out there… I had never noticed them before learning how, when, and where to look.”
Aside from spotting new species, birding, “is a chance to get some exercise and see the nature around you,” said Kinney. “I would recommend that all beginner [birders] should get a field guide and start studying; it’s that easy.”
The activity’s ease is another reason why birding appeals to so many. “All you need to birdwatch is a reliable book and patience. The camera and binoculars, those are optional, and only needed if you want to remember what you see,” said Loving. “Birding is what each person makes of it, whether that’s just sitting outside in a chair and watching for a few hours or planning out a whole day to walk around and see as many species of birds as you can.”
Regardless of the approach birders choose take during their observations, a sense of community between the enthusiasts is clear. “Birding has also turned into all kinds of games that you can play with other birders. I know people that do challenges where they take a plot of land and compete to see what they can find,” said Kinney.
Alongside friendly competitions, many birdwatchers share their photos and other findings through social media platforms such as Facebook and at a variety of community-based events. Fundraisers such as the New Hampshire Audubon’s Birds & Beans Coffeehouse provide spaces for nature lovers to unite while simultaneously gathering funds to continue supporting the state’s bird population.
Combining campaigns such as Birds & Beans with birdwatching’s accessibility gives the hobby a sense of openness to people of all ages and abilities. “We can all take the time to get a basic book and to sit quietly in our yards while listening and watching,” said Loving. “Everyone should try it at one point in their lives.”
If listening and watching are not enough to satisfy you until warm weather rolls back around, the next Birds & Beans Coffeehouse is to be held on January 24th at the MacLane center in Concord, New Hampshire. Who knows, maybe next spring you’ll be joining the flock on Madbury Road to catch sight of one of Durham’s own Mississippi kites.
Written by Devan McClain, Photos by Howard McClain