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birding

By Cayla Rosenhagen

Cayla Rosenhagen

Over these past two trying years, more and more people have been flocking to nature for recreation and solace. It’s no wonder that birding, also known as birdwatching, continues to grow in popularity. 

Birding can be enjoyed by all and in just about any spot you can imagine.  Not only is it an engaging hobby for the whole family, but it can also be emotionally therapeutic, mentally stimulating, and provide physical exercise.  Additionally, being connected to nature makes us more attuned to our planet’s needs, and more passionate about protecting it. There’s never been a better time to begin birding. I’d like to share a few easy tips to help you get started.

1. There’s no place like home. Odds are, you have a variety of birds right where you live. Get familiar with your common backyard species that are easy to identify such as Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays.  Then start to notice finer details in other birds such as different sparrows. You will be amazed at the variety you see.

2. Get your hands on some resources to help you identify the birds you see. 

◆ Merlin is a great free app. It allows you to enter some basic info such as color, size, and location, to help you figure out what you’ve spotted.

◆ AllAboutBirds.org is a phenomenal, user-friendly website chock full of helpful birding info.

◆ Field Guides: My favorites are the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, the Crossley ID Guide Eastern Birds, and the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America.

3. Create a Backyard Bird Oasis. Make your yard a paradise for a wide array of bird species by offering various food and water sources, and shelter. 

There are many ways to feed your feathered friends, including planting native berry-and-seed-producing plants and offering feeders full of birdseed and suet. Some of my favorite native flora are Red Mulberry bushes to attract anything from Baltimore Orioles to Red-Breasted Grosbeaks, and Bee Balm flowers for Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds as well as other pollinators such as bees and butterflies. 

In addition to native plants, especially at times when they are not in season, consider supplementing your backyard birds’ diets with quality seed and suet. Safflower and black oil sunflower seeds attract dozens of species of songbirds. Hearty suet is the perfect winter treat for woodpeckers, chickadees, and more, due to its high protein and fat content. 

If you choose to set up birdfeeders of any kind, (platform feeders, cage feeders, etc.) please be mindful of where you place them. Be sure they are several feet away from glass windows to avoid bird collisions. Additionally, they should be very close to shelter, such as shrubs and trees, so birds can easily hide if a predator is nearby. Keep your feeders clean to help maintain the birds’ health.

Providing clean sources of water is equally important. Birdbaths, ponds, and water dishes are wonderful ways to ensure your backyard birds are hydrated. Use a “water-wiggler” or similar device to keep the water from becoming stagnate and home to bacteria and mosquito larvae. Think about purchasing a heated birdbath in the colder months so the water doesn’t freeze. Lastly, the water should be shallow enough for birds to stand in.

Shelter for birds in your yard can range from a pile of wood to a stone wall to leafy trees and shrubs. Birds also require good nesting materials and nesting locations. Although it depends on the species, birds often nest on tree branches, in tree cavities, or in or around manmade structures. They build their nests using grasses, twigs, found objects, and even mud. If you are looking to attract more nesting birds, namely woodpeckers, consider not removing dead trees on your property. Dead trees are home to lots of cavities where birds like to nest, and they are home to millions of insects which are a vital food source to birds and their chicks. For more information, visit 4has.org/bird-oasis.

4. Seek out Other Birders. Join a local Audubon chapter or one of the many bird-related social media groups. The birding community can be very friendly, with members eager to share their knowledge.  What’s this Bird? from the American Birding Association on Facebook has very helpful and knowledgeable members.

5. Keep a Life List. It’s an exciting challenge to keep track of all the bird species you see. The ABA has a list you can download at https://www.aba.org/aba-checklist/

6. Get involved in Remote Learning. Cornell Lab of Ornithology offers many resources (free and some with a fee) for learning about birds.  For youngsters all the way through high school, check out https://www.birds.cornell.edu/k12/, and for birders of all ages, check out Bird Academy, https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/

7. This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning eBird.org. This amazingly comprehensive website provides resources such as maps, photos, descriptions, graphs, notifications, and other data collected by birders worldwide.  Participate in community science by making your own account so that you can contribute to the findings and keep track of your life list using eBird. 

8. Optics such as Binoculars or a Monocular (I found a monocular simpler to use when I was younger) can certainly add to the experience and make it easier to enjoy birds’ behaviors and identify them. 8×42 binoculars are a popular choice among birders. The numbers refer to the magnification and objective diameter.

9. A few tips on how to Bird Responsibly. 

◆ Maintain a respectful distance when birding.  This is especially important for migratory species such as the Snowy Owl.  Remain at least a few hundred feet away from such species. There have been many unfortunate circumstances (out of not knowing or out of selfishness to get a better photo), of people getting too close and stressing out birds that require rest from their long journey. 

◆ Apply bird collision window stickers. Birds have trouble seeing the reflections in glass and often accidentally collide with windows. Adhering stickers to your windows can prevent injuries and fatalities because of this.

◆ Keep your cat indoors. Feral and outdoor pet cats kill 2.4 billion birds annually. By keeping your cat inside, you are protecting wildlife from your cat, and keeping your cat safe from vehicle collisions, parasites, and run-ins with other animals.

Whether you gaze through your kitchen window with a warm mug of coffee in hand or bundle up for a brisk jaunt through the park, our feathered friends are always there to make us smile. I hope these tips help you get started in a lifelong pursuit of birding that will accompany you wherever your travels may take you. Best wishes and happy birding!

Cayla Rosenhagen is a local high school student who enjoys capturing the unique charm of the community through photography and journalism. She serves on the board of directors for the Four Harbors Audubon Society and Brookhaven’s Youth Board, and is the founder and coordinator of Beach Bucket Brigade, a community outreach program dedicated to environmental awareness, engagement, and education. She is also an avid birder, hiker, and artist who is concurrently enrolled in college.

A northern flicker with two hatchlings at Frank Melville Memorial Park in the spring. Photo by Patrice Domeischel

By John Turner

When it comes to cavities it’s all about the type. A large cavity in your molar? A trip to the dentist because it’s a problem you need to have treated immediately. A deep cavity in the road you travel on the way to the dentist? Worth a phone call to the superintendent of highways before it destroys tires and rims. 

But cavities in a living white oak or dead pitch pine in an unused back corner of your property? Priceless assets appreciated by many species of birds, mammals and insects that nest or roost in them. This point is emphasized by the fact that more than 60 North American birds, mammals and reptiles use tree cavities of various sizes to roost or nest in, underscoring their fundamental importance in maintaining ecological balance. 

Cavity-using bird species include black-capped chickadees (a tiny bird beloved by many), titmice, nuthatches, screech owls (fairly common in the woodlands of the Three Village area), all species of woodpeckers, a few ducks, several species of bats, gray and flying squirrels, raccoons, opossums, mice and several species of tree-climbing snakes. Add to this many dozens of insects including bees that use cavities too.    

Cavities are such coveted features that species often compete for them. I once watched a several-days battle take place at my house between two woodpecker species — a red-bellied woodpecker and a northern flicker — and a European starling, all vying for a cavity in a large red maple tree on the far edge of the driveway, observable from a second-story window. The flicker had established first rights to it but was usurped by a pair of starlings as the day went on. But with great drama the flicker fought back and the next day had reclaimed ownership. The skirmish continued and the starlings reclaimed it, but then the red-bellied showed up, evicting the starlings. The red-bellied was the final victor and subsequently raised a family in the maple tree.

Woodpeckers play a prominent role in the tree cavity rental market since they make and use so many cavities that other wildlife eventually use (others are created by decay through fungal rot such as when a branch breaks off at the main trunk). 

The bigger woodpeckers — the aforementioned flicker and red-bellied — and the hairy and red-headed are especially adept in chiseling into the live wood to make cavities, the diminutive downy woodpecker not so much. Because of the cavity-making role woodpeckers play, and the reliance of so many wildlife species on cavities, woodpeckers are referred to as “ecological architects,” helping to shape the faunal composition of local forests.  

Two cavity-nesting birds are worth mentioning. Eastern screech owls routinely use cavities and, in fact, are dependent on them for roosting and nesting. It is not unusual but always a delightful surprise to find one sitting at the entrance to a nest hole doing its best impression of tree bark. We have two different color morphs or forms — gray and rufous — and they are both cryptically colored. These small owls, which don’t screech but rather have a tremolo-like call, are probably found in every woodland patch of five acres or more in the area.   

As mentioned earlier even some ducks use nesting cavities. Wood ducks, for example, nest in tree cavities, as do hooded mergansers, buffleheads and American goldeneyes. Hooded mergansers can be seen in the pond at Setauket’s Frank Melville Memorial Park during the winter and buffleheads in places like Setauket and Port Jefferson Harbor during the same time. Goldeneyes are winter ducks that are often seen floating on Long Island Sound. But wood ducks breed here and you might be lucky enough to see these spectacular looking birds (the male meets the avian definition of eye candy) at Frank Melville Park and other freshwater bodies in the area.   

How do fluffy wood duck ducklings leave the cavity and follow their mother to the local pond to feed? You may have seen the answer on one of the nature shows on TV in which the babies, encouraged by the piping call of the parents, fearlessly launch themselves from the lip of the cavity into the air, making a 30- to 40-foot plunge to the ground below.

Many cavities are in trees that are dead or failing, although living trees sport their share. If the tree poses no danger to property or hasn’t the potential to land on your or your loved one’s head, consider leaving it in place. Not only might it become a wildlife condominium through time as it becomes pocked with cavities, it also becomes a cafeteria for wildlife. Many insects such as beetles are drawn to decaying wood, and they play a key role in recycling wood in forests, releasing nutrients and minerals to be used by living plants nearby. In the form of grubs, the beetles and other insects become food for birds. 

So, if a dead tree, containing nesting cavities, presents a danger, by all means protect your head and house. But if it doesn’t threaten life or property, why not take a small step to protect your little area of planet Earth by leaving dead trees in place? You might even be rewarded by the call of a screech owl.   

John Turner, a Setauket resident, is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.