It doesn’t feel much like winter here, but anyone who traveled for the holidays can confirm that it certainly is wintry in other parts of North America.
We use the term “snowbird” to describe people who leave their homes in colder climates to spend winters in warmer, southern areas. Migratory bird species are the original snowbirds.
California is part of a long migration pathway extending from Alaska all the way to the southern tip of South America. Referred to as the Pacific Flyway, it is the route taken by millions of birds that travel all or some of that distance following food sources, going to breeding grounds, or just getting away from harsh winter environments. California’s Central Coast is in the middle of the Pacific Flyway, providing resting and feeding areas for thousands of migratory birds every year.
People gather along migration pathways to watch birds. Birds are fun to look at because they come in a tremendous variety of shapes, sizes and colors. At this time of year we might see black oystercatchers on the rocky coast, western bluebirds in the grasslands and goldfinches at bird feeders. Gulls show up on our beaches in big numbers, and we see more ducks and shorebirds in the winter as well.
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Morro Bay hosts the Winter Bird Festival on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, including a plethora of field trips, workshops and lectures about birds. Some of the trips come to the North Coast, so if you see a group of people looking at something through their binoculars, there is a good chance they are looking at birds.
Bird watching is one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the U.S., with more than 50 million people engaging in some kind of bird watching pastime. Americans spend more than $40 million a year on binoculars, cameras, bird feeders, field guides and travel.
If you’ve driven around town looking at scarecrows during the Scarecrow Festival, bird watching is a bit like that — except birds move around a lot more. This makes it much more difficult, and more compelling. Just when you get a good look at a bird, it flies away.
Binoculars help to us see birds at a distance. A field guide provides information about the tremendous variety of bird shapes, sizes and colors. Bird watching skills range from beginner to expert, with most birders falling somewhere in between. Some people keep track of the species of birds they see and record their sightings on a list. Others are not so diligent and just enjoy looking. Birding is both visual and auditory — some people learn to identify birds by their calls. Animal behavior is important too — bird species definitely have their own personalities.
We live in one of the best birding areas in the world, so you don’t have to go anywhere special to try it. All that is needed is an outdoor setting, such as a park or backyard. Being able to sit quietly for long stretches of time is a plus, which explains why people with limited mobility often make good birders. Bird feeders attract birds and draw them closer, enabling a better view.
If your list of New Year’s resolutions includes finding a hobby that takes you outside, engages your senses and provides limitless opportunities for learning, bird watching may be for you. If your friends ask how you got interested, just say a little bird told you!
Michele Roest’s column appears quarterly and is special to The Cambrian.