MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Birding can be a daunting hobby for someone who is just starting. It's easy to spot a sparrow; even easy to recognize a Chipping Sparrow from a Song Sparrow, for instance. But toss in Field Sparrows, Swamp Sparrows, Savannah Sparrows, and Grasshopper, Le Conte's, Seaside, Fox, Lincoln's, Vesper ... well, you get the idea ... and getting serious about birding can be frustrating for many people.
All the sparrows mentioned above, and several more, can be found in Alabama at certain times of the year. And distinguishing different sparrows can pale by the challenges of telling the myriad types of wood warblers from one another, which is complicated by the fact that the plumages of many warblers vary at different times of the year.
But rest assured that if you want to take birding beyond just watching the everyday birds in your backyard, there are plenty of resources available to help Alabama birders. And if you're happy with just watching everyday backyard birds, that's OK, too. Backyard birding can still be a satisfying hobby. But even backyard birders are going to occasionally see birds they need help identifying.
As I have written before, the first step to identifying birds should be a good field guide. If you're going to have just one bird field guide, I'd recommend Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds of North America. It uses paintings instead of photos, which allows the editors to focus attention on "field marks" -- features that help to ID a specific bird. Once you have a painting-based guide, by all means add one that is photo-based. I prefer the Stokes Field Guide.
But even with a good field guide or two (or in my case, about five), you'll find you occasionally will need help. I would suggest that you find opportunities to interact with experienced birders, and you can do that in two ways -- in person and online.
Let me focus in this column on "in person." Next week I'll focus on what's available online.
There are several great organizations in Alabama that can be wonderful resources for birders. Here are some with which I am familiar:
-- Birmingham Audubon (birminghamaudubon.org): This group has been around since 1946, and you don't have to be a member to take advantage of many of the learning opportunities Birmingham Audubon offers (but I recommend you do join). The organization has a wonderful website that Alabama birders should get to know. The group has birding field trips, not just in Birmingham but around the state. The group holds classes for birders at modest fees. Birmingham Audubon also sponsors conservation and research programs.
One of my favorite Birmingham Audubon projects is Audubon Teaches Nature, held at Oak Mountain State Park. It is a joint project of Birmingham Audubon, the Alabama Wildlife Center, the Alabama Interpretive Center, and Friends of Oak Mountain. The seminars focus on Alabama nature issues -- often but not always birding. They are held monthly on Sunday afternoons. The seminars are free to members and non-members alike, although there is a small fee for access to the park. Come early and enjoy the park and tour the Wildlife Center which rehabilitates injured Alabama birds.
-- The Alabama Ornithological Society (www.aosbirds.org): A great group of knowledgeable birders who help do some serious research on birds in the state. AOS meets three times per year -- in the spring and fall at Dauphin Island, timed to see migrating birds along Alabama's coast, and in the winter at different birding hotspots around the state. Each meeting has several field trips associated with it, as well as knowledgeable speakers. Membership fees are modest.
-- The North Alabama Birdwatchers Society (www.northalbirding.com): If you're interested in getting out into the natural world on a regular basis, this group is for you. NABS emphasizes field trips, with one or two a month as the norm. While its membership is focused on the Huntsville-Decatur area, it welcomes birders from anywhere who are willing to make the drive for early morning field trips. (I live in Montgomery and belong to NABS, driving up for a half-dozen or so field trips a year.)
-- Piedmont Plateau Birding Trail (www.facebook.com/piedmontplateaubirdingtrail/): Not really a group per se, but this birding trail's leadership regularly sponsors bird walks and seminars. It's worth checking out. Recent trips have looked at Wood Ducks in Opelika and fall migrants at Fort Toulouse.
Also check out local colleges for continuing education courses that relate to birding. For instance, Auburn University Montgomery is currently offering a non-credit birding course. I'm not sure if it's too late to join the class, but it is likely to be offered again. (www.outreach.aum.edu)
Whether it is through a one-time seminar, an ongoing class, or participating in field trips, I urge readers to find a way to interact with other birders. I find birders in general to be some of the most welcoming and interesting people I know, almost always ready and willing to share their knowledge.
Next week: Online resources for Alabama birders.
-- Hummingbirds with Fred Bassett, Wind Creek State Park, 2-4 p.m. Saturday, April 9. Bassett is a Certified Master Bird Bander, who has banded more than 35,000 hummingbirds in more than 1,000 locations. He is an expert on western hummingbirds that winter in Alabama and Florida. The seminar is free, but the usual park day-use fees apply. Stay after to bird the park, an Alabama Birding Trails site.
-- Owl Prowl at Oak Mountain State Park, Friday, April 22, 7-10 p.m. The Oak Mountain Interpretive Center and the Alabama Wildlife Center at Oak Mountain State Park will co-host the event, which will start at the Alabama Wildlife Center in the park at 7 p.m. The event will start with a viewing of captive owls at the Wildlife Center, which rehabilitates injured birds. Then participants will seek to find Wild Barred, Screech and Great Horned Owls. No fee for the event, but the usual park fees will apply.
-- Alabama Ornithological Society spring meeting, Friday-Sunday, April 15-17, Dauphin Island. The meeting is timed to coincide with peak migration along the Alabama coast, Noted ornithologist Dr. Kimball L. Garrett is the keynote speaker.
Ken Hare is a retired newspaper writer and editor who now writes regularly for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at email@example.com. Email items for Bird Notes at least two weeks in advance of an event.