My sister Sarah moved to St. John's last summer.
She landed a short-term contract at The Rooms, and for a glorious 12 weeks, called Newfoundland home. Around this time she became a birder. An enthusiastic, passionate, keep-a-list, occasionally-wear-a-Tilley-hat bird-watcher.
At first, I didn't get it.
In fact, I teased her a little about the whole thing. For a pastime that should be relaxing, it seemed a little intense. It also seemed like a hobby that you didn't really turn off or take a break from.
One time, while looking for her debit card at The Ship Pub, she emptied the contents of her purse onto the table. Lo and behold, there were her binoculars. Sarah had brought them to the bar on the off chance she might spot an interesting bird on the walk down.
Last July, she met me at the Bonavista Film Festival and openly wept when we went to see the puffins in Elliston. Teasing your little sister isn't nice, but I had never seen anyone moved to tears by panicky, adorable little clown birds before. Sometimes during hikes, she would shush me, slowly pull out her binoculars, and spend a good five minutes trying to positively identify the bird in the nearby bush — our conversation long forgotten.
By the end of summer, my curiosity had been piqued.
Spending time with an obsessive birder is like spending time with someone involved in a never-ending scavenger hunt. You become better at being still by proxy. You learn to notice small things.
The 'gateway bird'
Years ago, as an undergraduate student studying biology, Laura King was offered a summer position tracking songbirds.
"Warblers were my gateway bird," said King, now president of Nature NL.
"They are colourful, migratory, and they breed in Canada, but are only here for a few months each summer. It was always pretty amazing for me to think of their split lives between Canada and, say, Costa Rica, or somewhere in South America, wherever they go – and the distance covered by a tiny animal that only weighs about nine grams."
It was a similar start for Dave Brown, of Birding Newfoundland, who began guiding birders and photographers in 2010.
"I took an elective biology course at MUN in ornithology when I was 20. The lab portion of the course was the identification of the birds of Newfoundland," he said.
King believes birding checks off many of the boxes that folks are looking for in an ideal hobby.
"Many of the common themes that I hear – I want to get active, I want something fun to do with my friends, I want to have adventures, I want to help my kids learn about nature, I want a challenge in life, I want to get outside more, I want to connect with something larger than myself – are all so easily accomplished with birding," she said.
Birding can be a solo activity, but there's a community out there.
There are easy-to-find groups and Facebook pages dedicated to birding in the province. Nature NL itself hosts free, online bird learning events, with a series starting up again this fall for people to learn to identify species.
Getting started: Gear
Birding can start out as a low-tech hobby.
For the last few months, I would just walk my neighborhood with a notepad, field guide, and my own eyeballs. I saw some beautiful birds with no money invested, but now that I'm getting more excited, I've begun to price some binoculars.
There are affordable used ones to be found in thrift stores and antique shops, but Brown recommends investing in a good pair.
"You can get good quality affordable binoculars from Vortex and other brands for around $300," he said.
When it comes to field guides, both Brown and King prefer the Sibley Guide series. King also noted that If you prefer to start simpler, the book Birds of Newfoundland is also excellent and has all of the province's most common birds.
Later, when you become more passionate, good quality outdoor clothing might become a must. Similarly, spotting scopes will allow you to zoom up to 60 times magnification and are the most important tool for viewing sea birds at coastal locations and shorebirds.
Start slow and keep it cheap while you're learning and invest as you become more passionate!
This is a big concern of mine. I've heard of apps that contain mating calls that bring birds closer to you, and that idea didn't sit well with me. King agrees.
"For me, it's a bird-first policy," she said.
Nothing gets a birder's heart pumping like sifting through a flock of feeding warblers in September, hoping to find a rare gem. - Dave Brown
"I don't like to chase down birds, I like to be quieter and err on the edge of caution if I think I might disturb a bird. Personally I'm not a fan of 'calling in' birds — where you might make or play sounds to bring the bird closer – I just think they are doing what they want to be doing that day, and we never know how stressed exactly it makes them to have a 'fake intruder' in their territory that day."
Brown also encourages people to have respect for the birds and their habitats.
"We should only approach birds as close as is needed for identification," he said.
Finding feathered friends
Brown loves the Avalon Peninsula in the late summer and fall for spotting his favourite species.
"At this time of year, birds are staging to migrate and form large feeding flocks. Birders flock to this area in search of rare birds who will find company with our local birds. Nothing gets a birder's heart pumping like sifting through a flock of feeding warblers in September, hoping to find a rare gem from the southern U.S. that was carried north with a storm or just flew in the wrong direction," he said.
King thinks St. John's is an excellent place for birdwatching and even participated in a 'Big Day' in St. John's last year, the term for a birding marathon that can last all day and all night, for the Great Canadian Bird-a-Thon.
"We wanted to draw attention to green birding, so last year we did a Big Day on our bikes just to prove that you can see lots of birds without a car," she said.
"The car is often the first tool we think of when we want to go see birds. But what birds can you see in your own area, just by walking? How many birds can you find by bike?"
Want to learn, or watch more?
For a break from birdwatching, Brown recommended sitting down with the classic documentary The Life of Birds narrated by David Attenborough, and The Big Year starring Steve Martin and Owen Wilson.
"A Big Year is when a birder sets out to see how many species he/she can see in a calendar year starting Jan 1. You could write an entire article on big years alone," said Brown.
"I did a Newfoundland Big Year in 2011 and saw 273 species, which still stands as the Big Year record for Newfoundland."
King recently watched The Birders: A Melodic Journey Through Northern Colombia and is a pretty big fan of the novel Rare Birds by Ed Riche.
"While it pokes fun at birders — as it should, we can be a bit odd — it also really shows off how birds enrich our lives and make every outdoor moment more beautiful, which is the goal," she said.