MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Someone messaged me recently with a birding-related question that I, in retrospect, did not give enough thought before answering. She asked, "What's the best gift for a birder?"
I jotted off some suggestions without giving it much thought: Binoculars, birding books, feeders or birdhouses.
But frankly, depending upon the birders who would be getting the gifts, those might be horrible suggestions. In reality, the only correct answer is: First, it depends upon the birder; then it depends upon the giver's budget.
That's because there are all types of birders -- people who never venture from their backyard can still be avid birders, and others travel far and wide to see rare birds in foreign lands. Some birders love to photograph the birds they see; others just identify and list them. And there are all types of gift-givers -- those who want to spend just a few dollars on a friend, and spouses or children who want to give a really big gift to a loved one.
But regardless of the budget, it's best to know the birder and the level of his or her involvement.
(Note: See a variety of my recent birding photos here.)
With that in mind, here are a few suggestions. I'm focusing on a range from inexpensive to a few hundred dollars, because that's what I believe would best fit most readers' interests.
-- The backyard: Even avid birders who travel widely in search of exotic birds usually have feeders and birdhouses in their yards, but even here it helps to know the birder. Hummingbird feeders are a popular item, and they tend to need to be replaced periodically. Bird feeders can range from the elaborate to the simple; I lean toward the simple. Bird houses are problematic ; for instance, Blue Birds need a house with a specifically sized entrance, large enough for the Blue Bird but small enough to keep out other birds. Know your birder, and do a little research before buying.
-- Optics: Every birder needs binoculars, and I recommend buying the best you can afford. Avoid the mini-binocs with a small field of view. Rule of thumb: If it can fit in your pocket, as some advertise, it's not good for birding. But large binoculars get heavy to carry and to hold to your eyes for long periods. I suggest mid-sized binoculars , seven or eight magnification, and certainly no more than 10 . Here is a good guide for binoculars:
Spotting scopes: I would recommend not getting a spotting scope for a birder unless they have given you a specific wish list, for two reasons. First, spotting scopes are expensive; you need to spend in the range of $900 at least to get one suitable for birding. Second, even if you spend that much or more, the scope needs to fit the birder's needs.
Cameras and lenses: I yearn for a particular $10,000 lens, but I'll probably never get one, and even if I did I would constantly worry about lugging something that expensive out in the field. As with other optics, buy the best you reasonably can afford. A serious bird photographer should build around a good digital single lens reflex camera, adding lenses as they can afford them. However, many birders use "superzoom" cameras with a built-in lens that can magnify 40 or 50 times. These are good at getting decent identification photos, and are lightweight and easy to carry in the field. As with spotting scopes, it's probably not best to buy cameras or lenses unless you have a specific "wish list" from your birder.
-- Reference books: Field guides to birds are essential tools for any birder, regardless of interests or experience levels. As a relatively new birder, I love field guides, so I have a shelf full of them. But I admit that is overkill. If your birder already has a large field guide, consider getting them a smaller one that can be carried on field trips. But make certain that the field guide is appropriate; someone who birds only close to home in Alabama has little need for a field guide that focuses on the birds of the western United States, for instance.
Also, some field guides use paintings instead of photos of birds. Both have their strengths -- paintings allow the artist to focus on identifying features of birds, while photos show the birds in their natural settings. I like having at least one of both kinds.
Some suggestions: Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America uses paintings, and there is a smaller edition that targets birds of eastern North America. The New Stokes Field Guide to Birds of the Eastern Region uses photos. The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America uses photos, and is small enough to carry on field trips. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America uses drawings and also is small enough for field trips.
-- Bird memberships: A nice gift for birders who like to get out into the field could be a membership in a birding organization in Alabama. They are inexpensive, and the two I list here have organized field trips during the year.
Birmingham Audubon (birminghamaudubon.org) has a wide range of field trips at locations throughout the state. Many birders from areas other than Birmingham belong. In addition, the group sponsors lectures and classes on birding and other nature subjects.
The Alabama Ornithological Society (www.aosbirds.org) has several field trips associated with its spring and fall meetings on Dauphin Island and winter meetings at other locations around the state. The meetings also feature knowledgeable speakers on a variety of birding subjects.
-- Adopt a Bird: The Alabama Wildlife Center in Oak Mountain State Park rehabilitates injured and abandoned native Alabama birds. To help with this great work, consider "adopting a bird" in a child's name. The child gets an adoption certificate with a color photo of the chosen bird species and an acknowledgment of your gift. But do it soon if the gift is for Christmas; the process takes 10-14 days. Details at: www.awrc.org
Finally, there is an easy answer to issues that arise when you don't know what the birder already has and needs -- a gift card. A gift card to a book store would allow a birder to order what they want. There are Wild Birds Unlimited stores in Hoover, Huntsville, Auburn and Mobile with a wide selection of feeders and houses.
-- The Alabama Ornithological Society will hold its winter meeting at the Guntersville State Park Lodge Jan. 27-29. Field trips will visit Guntersville State Park, the Guntersville Waterfront, Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, and the Guntersville Dam area. The Friday workshop leader and Saturday night keynote speaker will be Marshall Iliff , a Cornell Lab of Ornithology eBird project leader. Details at: http://www.aosbirds.org/documents/WinterMeeting2017.pdf
-- The Birmingham Audubon Society has a wide-ranging slate of programs and field trips on tap, including its 81st Annual Birmingham Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count on Friday, Dec. 23.
In addition, the new schedule has been announced for the 2016-2017 Audubon Teaches Nature programs at Oak Mountain State Park. These are wonderful educational programs on a variety of nature issues, from birds of prey to alligators and other reptiles to geology and paleontology. The next scheduled program will be Birds of Prey: Masters of the Skies on Sunday, Jan. 22, at the Alabama Wildlife Center. There are showings at 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. The programs are free, but there is the usual fee for entering the park.