This story was first published in KCUR’s Creative Adventure newsletter. You can sign up to get stories like this delivered to your inbox every Tuesday.
Interest in bird watching has increased over the past two years. The activity has an easy entry point but can turn into a lifelong passion. It is also a hobby that welcomes a wide range of participants, who can watch birds casually or pursue their goals with zeal.
The only thing birdwatching requires (after birds, of course) is stillness and observation. Charming, curious, and sometimes aggressive birds offer insight into a world that operates from a completely different perspective and mindset than our own.
Birdwatching also attunes the ornithologist to the environment, linking it closely to the weather, seasons, and time of day, as well as the song, sight, and movement of birds.
Recover this link with nature. There are many places and resources for beginners or experienced birders, including field guides, websites, and clubs. Check out our previous bird adventure and read on to find out how you can connect with our feathered friends.
Birdwatching in the yard
Take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count, which started on Friday and will continue until February 21. It’s a great excuse to spend some time outdoors (however, if you have strategically placed bird feeders, you can participate from the comfort of your window seat) while participating in a global initiative.
GBBC has been in action for 25 years, but if you’ve never participated or even seen birds before, watch the webinar and check out the suggested Merlin Bird ID app, via the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. eBird (also from Cornell) is another popular app to help you identify and record the birds you see.
Record your sightings and submit your results to help capture (metaphorically, of course!) bird populations around the world. If you don’t have a backyard, you can observe from another accessible space, such as a nearby city park. Join KC Parks at the Trailside Center on Holmes Road to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count on a one-mile hike along Indian Creek Trail (multiple times Feb. 19-21), led by a Missouri Master Naturalists volunteer .
As you get to know your local birds, visitors will stand out. Many birders keep lists of the birds they observe. According to the US Fish & Wildlife Services, there are about 500 species of birds that live in or visit the Midwest, just 5% of the estimated 10,000 species in the world.
Another important counting day is Global Big Day, which coincides with World Migratory Bird Day. Last year, GBD broke records for participants and bird sightings. This year, it takes place on Saturday May 14, from midnight to midnight.
Urban Bird Watching
Just because you might be stuck in the city doesn’t mean you’re devoid of birds. While most birds prefer wilder spaces, many have adapted to human environments and made them their own.
Rock pigeons, robins and crows are ubiquitous and easy to identify. Peregrine falcons have found respite in the crevices of skyscrapers. Cliff swallows build mud nests under bridges. Canada geese occasionally bring traffic to a halt near Brush Creek, red-tailed hawks are often seen riding the updraft above the UMKC Volker campus, and red-headed vultures frequent the skies above highways.
Although starlings are considered pest birds, there is no denying the mysterious beauty of a whisper, seeming to float and move against the city skyline. In reality, the herd is trying to escape a predator, but it’s still a sight to behold. See this video taken near the River Market.
It might be cheating, but you don’t need to travel to Antarctica to add penguins to your roster. Join the Kansas City Zoo for their March of the Penguins, February 19-20 and 26-27. You can also observe penguins almost anytime via the KC Zoo Penguin Cam. (If you check in at night, you’ll see them sleeping, which is legitimately cute.)
If you want to see a wide variety of birds, you can travel to different biomes: wetlands, grasslands, forests and more. Avid birders travel the world, but there’s plenty of variety close to home, especially with Kansas City located along many species’ flyway.
Between March 1 and June 1 in the spring, and August 1 and November 15 in the fall, check BirdCast to see which migratory birds pass through the area.
You do not know where to start ? KC Birding Walks shares likely birding locations, organized by region, and some of the types of birds you might see in that area.
Within an hour of town, nature reserves, conservancies and wildlife refuges provide safe environments for birds to rest and refuel, including the Swan Marsh National Wildlife Refuge (south of Louisburg, Kansas ), the Baker Wetlands (Lawrence, Kansas), Green Hills of Platte Wildlife Preserve (Parkville, Missouri), Smithville Lake (Smithville, Missouri), and Loess Bluffs National Wildlife Refuge (north of St. Joseph, Missouri).
Some places, like the Marais des Cygnes, provide checklists for the types of birds known to frequent their acres, what time of year to see them, and how common or rare they are – including the Great Heron, Giant Egret, plus a variety of warblers, woodpeckers and more.
Unfortunately, many bird species are endangered, mainly due to human encroachment. According to the American Bird Conservancy, a leading conservation group, 11 bird species were added to the extinction list in 2021 by the USFWS, and nearly three billion birds have been lost since 1970. .
For local birds and annual visitors, there are ways to improve the environment and attract a variety of birds. Join the Missouri River Bird Observatory at the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City at Lake Jacomo for a series of free outdoor seminars on “Seven Simple Actions to Help Birds.” The next one is March 19.
The Eastern Bluebird is Missouri’s state bird, but for decades it was endangered. Mill Creek Streamway, a 17-mile trail in Johnson County, is part of the National Bluebird Trail, with more than 60 birdhouses. From Nelson Island at the north end of the trail, you can also spot bald eagles fishing in the Kansas River during the winter.
Lakeside Nature Center in Swope Park rehabilitates injured animals and exhibits a variety of birds that cannot be released back into the wild. They also have instructions for encouraging and protecting Chimney Swifts, if you are lucky enough to have their nest in your chimney.
You can also help birds that are just passing through on their arduous migrations. The National Wildlife Federation shares the American Bird Conservancy’s top 10 tips. There is also pressure to reduce light pollution in cities, which disorients nocturnal migrants.
Birdwatching is often a solo endeavor, but the best way to learn is to join experienced birders in the field. Local birding clubs organize field trips around the metro, many of which are free. Dedicated bird supply stores can help you with field guides and feeding supplies. There are also online communities, which allow people to share their bird photos, get help identifying an uncommon bird, and alert people to rare birds in the area.
This winter, birders spotted snowy owls in the region, in a rare irruption far south of their arctic climate, though sadly these sightings are becoming more frequent as climate change alters their habitat.
In early March 2021, the Kansas Birding Facebook group alerted members to a colony of blue herons — with 12 nests — along Indian Creek Parkway in Overland Park. Organizations include the Burroughs Audubon Society of Greater Kansas City, the Kansas Ornithological Society, Jayhawk Audubon, and the Missouri River Bird Observatory. Burroughs also houses a Nature Library which is free to visitors for internal use of the collection.
There are plenty of tips for getting started with birdwatching, but before you buy an expensive pair of binoculars, spend hours studying a field guide, or download an app, there’s an easier way to get started. Go outside. Sit quietly. Listen to the birds and try to distinguish the different cries. Pick just one or two prominent birds and study their markings and mannerisms. The more you get to know the birds in your neighborhood, the easier it will be to expand that knowledge as you continue your birding journey.
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