While the average person can distinguish a bluebird from a cardinal and a duck from a goose, bird-watching hobbyists, called “birders,” revel in the vastness of the avian world.
“There’s a real excitement when you’re out birding,” says Myrlene Staten, membership chair for the Monticello Bird Club. “It’s like a great game of hide-and-seek.” The 165-member club, established in 1986, meets monthly at the Ivy Creek Natural Area and offers something for everyone—presentations by notable speakers, bird walks, field trips to natural areas and then some.
More than the activities, it’s the camaraderie of fellow birders that draws people to the community, and the love of sharing what they’ve seen of the Earth’s 10,500 species. Many in the club are certified Master Naturalists, but it’s a recreational pursuit accessible to people at any level, starting right in their backyard. It can be as simple as a stroll through the woods, looking up, or a thrilling hunt for more exotic species.
“There are degrees of birding,” says Doug Rogers, MBC president. “Some people focus on hearing the bird calls, some like to spot the birds with binoculars, and others try to photograph what they find.” (Rogers’ specialty is capturing images of birds in flight.) Many birders keep a “life list” of every species they’ve ever seen, including location and time of year, and they note the number of “life birds” (first time seeing a bird species) spotted on a particular outing.
Staten, who was attracted to birding after observing a gorgeous tropical motmot in Costa Rica, says it’s a holistic activity that appeals to young and older folks alike. “It’s a stimulating hobby in so many ways—you’re listening, watching, getting exercise—and it helps to study birds to know what you’re looking for, so it keeps you mentally sharp as well.” She takes online classes and reads bird books to be able to quickly identify what she sees.
Few birders will name an absolute favorite, but Rogers contemplates the existential. “If I wanted to be a bird, I’d be one of the gulls,” he says. “When you see them soaring, it looks like they’re having a really good time.”
Sixteen-year-old Baxter Beamer, president of the Blue Ridge Young Birders Club, says the breadth of the hobby is virtually boundless. “I haven’t tried a form of birding that I don’t like,” he says. “There are so many ways to get into it.”
The club is for birders up to age 17, run by and for the youth members, and provides an entry point for learning about bird species and conservation through meetings, field trips, camps and competitions.
Beamer especially favors hawk-watching and is an official counter for the Rockfish Gap Hawk Watch at Afton Mountain. “They let us sit up there and we bring teles- copes and binoculars and cameras,” he says. “It’s a major flyway for raptors.”
The club is also involved in local bird-related issues, such as lobbying the Brooks Family YMCA to mitigate the recent problem of birds crashing into the large glass walls of the building.
Ezra Staengl, a 14-year-old who has been a club member since he was 9, won a bronze medal in the 2017 American Birding Association Young Birder of the Year competition using photography and writing from his birding blog, Birds and Buds. “In second grade I read about the decline and comeback of the peregrine falcon, and I realized that they lived right in my area,” he says. “I love falcons, and now I see quite a lot of them.” LM