Bird Watching in Your Backyard & Beyond

Karolina Popovicova is prepared for a day of birdwatching.

Many are discovering a lively world just outside their windows as the interest in birding soars

Writer: Edna Troiano. Photographers: Karolina Popovicova and Tiffany Farrell.

Like many Southern Marylanders, Karolina Popovicova found herself stuck at home early last spring. But as her world shrank, she took up new hobby — backyard birding — and discovered a lively world just outside her windows.

As Popovicova became familiar with more birds and learned about their lives, her fascination grew. She was surprised to realize that the birds recognized her and knew she provided the food. As more birds entered her yard, other small animals also came, providing an even livelier setting.
Her biggest thrill? Rescuing a bird caught in a spiderweb.
Bird watching, Popovicova explains, has the advantage of being a hobby people can pursue not only in their backyard, but wherever they are — on vacation, running errands, traveling the world.

Scarlet tanager.

STARTING OUT
Even if you’ve never been particularly interested in birds, you probably can identify a few.
Almost everyone recognizes the American robin, with its bright rust-colored breast, and the cardinal’s vivid red feathers make it a standout everywhere. In addition to the birds who call Southern Maryland home, many others fly over our region as they migrate. With over 450 species of birds, Maryland is a birders’ paradise.
You’ll want to identify new birds as they come to your yard. Guidebooks, in print or online, can help you, but until you choose a guidebook from the many options, you can also try the web. Just type a brief description in the search bar. If you type “small grey bird with crest on head,” you’ll discover you have a tufted titmouse. Local professionals at Wild Birds Unlimited stores in Charles and St. Mary’s counties can offer guidance.

Tiffany Farrell, president of Southern Maryland Audubon Society, holds an owl chick. Photo courtesy of Tiffany Farrell.

USING AUDUBON RESOURCES
A beginner might think that the Audubon Society is only for experienced ornithologists, but the Southern Maryland chapter is a newbie’s best asset. When it’s safe for groups to gather, they will once again have field trips, including trips for beginners. But Tiffany Farrell, president of the Southern Maryland chapter, says that birders are eager to share their passion and welcome new birders to all field trips and events. The group’s website (somdaudubon.org) has a wealth of information and is worth exploring. And be sure to check out its most popular feature, an eagle webcam. By late spring, they’ll add an osprey cam. Farrell suggests making birding a family activity. She recommends starting by feeding birds in your backyard, aided by a guide and binoculars. The greatest threat to birds is loss of habitat, primarily due to development, and while you can’t stop development, you can create a more welcoming environment. Farrell suggests adding native plants and nesting boxes. She also recommends keeping a brush pile which offers cover or habitat for birds and other wildlife. And do keep your cat, a major predator, indoors.

Red-winged blackbird.

EXPANDING YOUR KNOWLEDGE
As you add to the list of birds that frequent your yard, you may decide that you want to know more than just names.
Birds are no birdbrains; some are amazingly smart.
Crows like to play games and can recognize people’s faces, even when they wear masks. Robins are called the “harbingers of spring,” but not all of them migrate, so the pair you see in your yard might join a huge flock in the woods in fall and winter. The more you learn, the more interesting the life outside your window becomes.

 

Dark-eyed junco.

LEARN THE BASICS
Feeding
Like all animals, including humans, birds have simple needs — food, water, shelter. However, figuring out what kind of food birds need is a little more complex.
You’ve probably noticed robins along the ground, maybe even seen them pull a worm out. But robins also love fruit and berries. Hummingbirds thrive on the nectar they sip from flowers and feeders, but they get the protein they need from the insects they catch on the wing.
And some birds are ground feeders while others are not.
As a beginner, you’ll need some advice from the pros. Fortunately, Barb Whipkey, owner of the Wild Birds Unlimited stores in La Plata and Lexington Park, can lead you through the process of selecting a feeder and bird food.

Male and juvenile red-bellied woodpeckers

Many people buy birdseed from grocery stores because it’s less expensive. Whipkey explains that the seed found in grocery stores contains as much as 73% filler seed, like sorghum, that songbirds don’t eat, so it actually wastes money. The birdseed at Wild Birds Unlimited is blended to appeal to the top 25 birds in Southern Maryland, eliminating waste.
But if you’re at the not-sure-about-birding stage, stop by the store anyway; Whipkey and her team love taking about birds, so you’ll get lots of information, even if you don’t buy anything.
Most birders enjoy watching hummingbirds, which return to Southern Maryland around the middle of April. You can know when to expect them by tracking an online migration map. To attract them, get a hummingbird feeder, add nectar (1/2 cup sugar dissolved in 2 cups water) and enjoy their acrobatics. You’ll need to keep the feeder clean, and please, don’t add red dye — it’s dangerous for their health, and they’ll find your feeder without it.
Watering
Supplying water is easy. You don’t need a special bird bath. A simple, easy-to-clean bowl or dish, preferably large enough for birds to bathe in, will work just as well.
To keep birds healthy, feeders and water containers must be cleaned periodically. Whipkey recommends cleaning feeders once a month by washing them with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water, rinsing them thoroughly, and letting them dry before refilling.
Water containers should be cleaned weekly. If the container looks clean, it can simply be rinsed, but if the water looks cloudy or dirty, it will need the same treatment you give your feeders.
Sheltering
And then there’s the matter of shelter. Even though most of the birds coming to your yard will nest somewhere else, they still need cover from hawks and other predators. Placing feeders in trees or shrubs, or at least away from large open spaces, will provide some cover while the birds feed.
Feeding them too close to your house, however, may result in window strikes.
Farrell says that birding “opened up a whole new world” for her, a sentiment many birders echo. So the next time someone tells you to stop and smell the roses, suggest they stop and observe the birds.•


 

White-throated sparrow and a male northern cardinal.

Want to learn more?
Southern Maryland Audubon Society: somdaudubon.org

 

Wild Birds Unlimited:
58 Shining Willow Way, La Plata; 301-934-1444
46400 Lexington Village, Suite 106, Lexington Park; 301-863-2473

Wentworth Nursery:

30315 Three Notch Road, Charlotte Hall, MD 20622; 301- 884-5292

1700 Solomons Island Road Prince Frederick, MD 20678; 410- 535-3664


 

Tufted titmouse.

SOMETHING TO CHIRP ABOUT

 

La Plata (townoflaplata.org) is excited to be named the first Bird City in Maryland. The Southern Maryland Audubon Society was a key player in getting the Bird City designation for the town. Along with SMAS, the Port Tobacco River Conservancy, Conservancy for Charles County and the town were recognized for the efforts taken to implement sound bird-conservation practices by offering public recognition to those who succeed in enhancing the environment for birds and educating the public about the interactions between birds and people and about the contributions birds make to a healthy community. Learn more at marylandbirds.org/bird-city-maryland.