Wild Things…
By Karen Vizzi
    Attention all closet birdwatchers … it’s time to step out
into the light and be counted! Not too long ago, the idea of birdwatchers conjured up pictures of little old ladies in straw hats and nutty professor types, dressed in “geek” gear. Today, 
people of all ages and walks of life are participating in this exciting and educational sport. It is estimated that over 60 million people in the United States are now actively watching birds… and there’s no better place to start than in your own backyard.
     If the heartbeat of the wild garden is the myriad of critters it attracts, then birds are it’s year-round lifeblood. Birdwatching is a natural extension of wild gardening and is actually much easier to do in the dead of winter when leafless trees provide unobstructed views of these amazing animals.
     But exactly why do people birdwatch? Some people are just attracted to the thrill of  identification. Some people create Life Lists as a way of “collecting” without harming. Some do it for the educational experience and there are lots of fun conservation projects to which the average person can make important contributions. And if you’re really competitive, the ability to recognize birds also gives you a keen edge in the ornithology categories on Jeopardy!
     I happen to love dressing in my “geek” gear to go birding (the cool way of saying birdwatching) but not all of the available equipment is required for a beginner. There are however, a few necessary items.
     First, a good field guide is essential for learning to identify birds. But be sure to select one that includes our geographic area. A guide to the birds of the Rio Grande Valley may have pretty pictures but is not likely to be helpful identifying the birds of Western New York. Also, try to choose a guide that shows the birds doing something more than just perching. Illustrations of flight, feeding, nesting, etc. will more closely replicate what you actually see in nature. There is a new field guide out called All The Birds of North America from the American Bird Conservancy that is excellent. I also highly recommend Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman.
      Next comes binoculars. Although you will be able to appreciate many birds without them, there is nothing like getting up close and personal. A good pair of binoculars can turn birdwatching from a mildly interesting diversion into a life-long obsession. Binoculars are also very important for spotting distinguishing marks and characteristics necessary in the identification process. I suggest a good pair, because I have personally wasted a lot of money on some not-so-good pairs. If you think you are going to enjoy this activity, then buy as good a pair as your budget will allow. A few things to keep in mind when making your selection are weight, power and range. Binoculars that are too heavy will be uncomfortable to use, so be sure to test drive them first. Power (magnification) is important, but bigger is not necessarily better. Lower power binoculars tend to have better light gathering ability, making the image clearer. For most amateur birdwatching, 7x or 8x (magnification number) is sufficient. Also, many models have special features to accommodate eyeglass wearers, so be sure to ask the salesperson for a demonstration. And finally, I highly recommend binoculars that are “close focus” for the backyard birdwatcher.  Close focusing is essential for watching birds that may be on a feeder just a short distance from your window. They are also perfect for butterfly watching in the summer.
    BIRD BRAINERS: Suet is much appreciated by birds on the winter menu. You can buy commercially prepared cakes, or make your own. In a saucepan, melt one cup of lard (no substitution) plus one cup of chunky peanut butter. Remove from the heat and add ½ cup each of sugar, cornmeal and flour. Jazz it up by mixing in raisins (or any dried fruit), chopped nuts, shredded coconut and bird seed. Pour into a sheet pan, chill till solid, then cut into blocks and serve!
    BUTTERFLY BULLETS: Already an avid birdwatcher? Why not kick it up a notch and add butterflies to your repertoire? An outstanding book to read now (while we’re waiting for the snow to melt) is Handbook For Butterfly Watchers by Robert Michael Pyle.
    LET IT BE: Save those wood ashes from the fireplace!
They can be used on this year’s vegetable garden to discourage rabbits and bean beetles. If sprinkled around plants, they are also useful in deterring slugs, but need to be reapplied after rain.

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