Birding 101: What Is Birding?

HOw do you explain birding to non-birder friends and family? How do you make them realize that its fun, fulfilling, challenging, exciting, and more?  This is an attempt to explain the strange appeal of birding. This article  first came out in the October 2013 issue of Animal Scene magazine.

A Strange Species Called Birder
by Sylvia Ramos

Animal Scene, October 2013

Animal Scene, October 2013

Quick, name a famous birder! If you’re like most Filipinos, your mind drew a blank at that question. Or perhaps an image of a white-haired grandfather sitting on a park bench came to mind. And he probably wasn’t from the Philippines. Birding is very popular in the USA, Europe and the UK. Filipinos however have only a vague notion about what birding is all about. What is birding? Is it a sport? A hobby?

The surprising answer from Audubon USA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service is that birding is not just a sport. It is the number one sport in America with 51.3 million birders in the United States alone. Birding is also considered a hobby, an activity, and simply what birders do.

Birding is also referred to as birdwatching. This term is less popular nowadays though because it gives a limited sense of what birders do. The term “birdwatcher” gives a passive image of a person simply observing a bird. Most novice birders start out this way. In the beginning, birding can be as casual and incidental as looking whatever bird happens to land in your backyard. Or perhaps watching a bird that just happens to catch your eye while you are out walking the dog.

So what do real birders do? More serious birders go beyond merely watching birds. Most birders study the birds’ appearance, calls, and habits so they can find and identify birds in the wild. They go on birding trips specifically to look for birds. Some take photographs, make videos, or record calls. Many keep lists of the birds they have seen. They submit records of their observations to national bodies that are responsible for keeping track of bird populations. The observations of amateur birders comprise a big part of the database of world bird knowledge and help in making conservation programs. You can even make a career out of birding as a professional bird guides or ornithologists. And most of all, birders have fun! 51.3 million American birders can’t be wrong!

You don’t have to be in North America or Europe to enjoy birding. There are 673 bird species found in the Philippines. Of these, 234 are endemic to the Philippines. This means they are unique to the Philippines and cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

Birding in the Philippines has its unique rewards and challenges. The wild plants and animals of the Philippines are among the most beautiful and also the most under-documented in the world. There is still a lot of work to be done to fill in the gaps in knowledge and there are very few people doing studies. Birding is one of the few hobbies that can give you the satisfaction of making a contribution to scientific knowledge. In the Philippines there have been 48 new species documented in field observations that were not previously included in the country’s most widely used bird guidebook Guide to the Birds of the Philippines by Robert S. Kennedy and others.  Of these new records, 26 were contributed by birders, 8 by scientists, 5 by bird photographers, and 4 by citizens reporting to the DENR.

Slaty-backed Gull surrounded by Philippine Ducks. This is only the second documented record of Slaty-backed Gull in the Philippines. Photo by Sylvia Ramos

Slaty-backed Gull surrounded by Philippine Ducks. This is only the second documented record of Slaty-backed Gull in the Philippines. Photo by Sylvia Ramos

First photo record of Gadwall in the Philippines. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

First photo record of Gadwall in the Philippines. Photo by Sylvia Ramos.

Birding is exciting. It is like being on a hunt, but without the killing. Birds are naturally wary of people. So you need to use your wits and all of your senses to see a bird well. As an added bonus, birding will also encourage you to travel to parts of the country that you never would have thought of visiting. The areas that have a lot of birds also tend to be the under-developed, remote areas that are difficult to access. These are also sometimes some of the most beautiful spots in the country. Then when birders share their “war stories”, they help spread appreciation for nature and wild birds among Filipinos Eventually, this could lead to less hunting, less habitat destruction and more conservation.

Birding in the Philippines is challenging. Many foreign birders have described birding in the Philippines as a race against time. Habitats are continuously being destroyed and birds are hunted to near extinction. Birding in the Philippines has a “now or never” quality because you never know how long the birds will be able to hang on. There are also a few areas where birds abound because they are protected. These range from privately owned resorts to some of the well-managed national parks.

How do you start birding? It helps to have the right tools. While you can watch birds without any equipment, there are some items that you can use that will make your experience more pleasant and fruitful. These are: a pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a blank notebook.

A pair of binoculars will allow you to appreciate the details of the bird’s feathers. Birds come in an amazing variety of colors and patterns. There are birds with bars, spots, and stripes. Even the type of feathers in the bird varies — from the small downy feathers around the eyes to the large, stiff flight feathers on the wings. Some birds even have bristles! The usual binoculars for birding have a magnification of 8×42. In this example, the first number refers to the amount of magnification and the second number refers to the amount of light that can enter the lens. There are many articles on the Internet on how to choose a good pair of binoculars. Any type of binoculars, even an inexpensive pair will do for a start.

Nikon Monarch 10 x 42 binoculars. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

Nikon Monarch 10 x 42 binoculars. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

A field guide is a book used by birdwatchers to identify birds. It shows photos or paintings of the birds, its diagnostic features, and descriptions of typical behavior and calls. There are two field guides of the birds of the Philippines that are still in print. “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines” by Robert Kennedy and others is the definitive field guide of Philippine birds.  It is considered the “bible” of Philippine birdwatchers. The other book is “A Photographic Guide to Birds of the Philippines” by Tim Fisher and Nigel Hicks. This book covers 215 out of the 600+ Philippine birds. While it is convenient to have a book that can be carried around and referred to while out birding, it is also possible to just get information from the Internet. Two reliable sources are that have online photographic guides are Philippine Bird Photography Forum  and the website of the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines . PBPF is also on Facebook as Philippine Bird Photography Forum – FB group. You can also refer to the personal websites of bird photographers such as Romy Ocon, Tina Sarmiento Mallari, and this author’s website Tonji and Sylvia’s Birdlist.

Travel weary copy of “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines”. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

Travel weary copy of “A Guide to the Birds of the Philippines”. Photo by Tonji Ramos.

A field notebook and pen are useful items to have on hand when you go birding. If you see a bird that you want to identify, you can quickly jot down or even draw the details of the bird while they are still fresh in your mind. Then, later when you get home you can look up the bird online or in a guidebook. If you do this often enough, you will soon have records of the birds you have seen. Later on, if you decide to join a formal organization like the Wild Bird Club of the Philippines, you can submit your birding records to the club and they will become part of the official database of Philippine birds.

Are you ready to challenge yourself? Birding is more than your grandfather’s leisurely stroll through the garden. It’s an exciting way to learn about more about nature. It is both mentally and physically challenging. It makes traveling around the country more meaningful and purposeful. It’s even an opportunity to contribute to science! Try it, open your eyes to the world of birding and be amazed at what you discover!

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One thought on “Birding 101: What Is Birding?

  1. Pingback: November 2013 | e-BON

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