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A hummingbird at my feeder last week. Marie Nitke/FOCUS

Winging it: getting into the hobby of bird watching

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There are a lot of perks to living in the country, but I think my favorite thing about it is the bird-watching.

Growing up in Wisconsin, I always lived in town, and birds never really got my attention. The ones with orange bellies were robins, I had heard. That’s about all I knew. Not exactly a treasure trove of knowledge on the subject.

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Then I moved here.

Rural Ottertail, to be more specific. In a place that some would refer to as “the boonies.” Our home (mine and my significant other, Dan’s) is next door to an organic dairy farm and otherwise surrounded by woods and wetlands, with ponds and lakes and the Otter Tail River nearby, and prairieland not far away.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just moved into a birder’s paradise.

Since I wasn’t accustomed to watching for birds, it took a while for me to notice just how many of them were around – and how many different kinds.

It was the calls that first caught my attention – demanded it, really. Anybody who lives in the country, and keeps their windows open day and night in the summer like we do, knows just how noisy birds can be. Some sing, and it’s lovely. Others trill, and it’s tolerable. And some screech like banshees, and it’s enough to drive a person crazy.

From the multitude of constant sounds I heard last summer, our first summer here, I quickly realized that, while we sometimes felt far from civilization, we were far from alone. In fact, sometimes the singing, trilling and screeching was so loud and encompassing, it sounded like entire armies of birds had us surrounded.

It was impossible to ignore those sounds, and that got my mind moving. I decided it was time to learn more about these creatures who made such music to my ears.

A true beginner, I started simply by watching. Right away, I noticed the wide variety of birds around. Most of them I couldn’t identify, not by a long shot. But the eagles, hawks, geese and swans were familiar, so that was a start. Down the road was an osprey nest, and those were fun to watch, especially as they’d fly back to the nest with a freshly caught fish.

When Dan and I would kayak, we’d excitedly spot herons and cranes. Around the house, I started noticing woodpeckers, bluejays and other birds that are easy to identify because of distinguishing colors or behaviors. When a little blue and orange bird starting showing up at our bedroom window day after day, I searched online and learned he was an Eastern Bluebird. We called him E.B. and looked forward to his visits.

And, of course, I always recognized those orange-bellied birds, the robins.

Soon, I put up a bird feeder – the first one I’d ever had, and got giddy as a little girl the first few times I saw birds there. I got that same feeling again after putting up my first hummingbird feeder.

When the weather got cold and a lot of the birds started moving on for the season, I needed to redirect my new hobby elsewhere, so I decided to build a birdhouse as a winter project.

For Christmas, I asked Dan for binoculars so I could get a closer look at some of our feathered friends. He did me one better, and got two pair (a large pair for home and a small pair for kayaking) plus a birding book.

Since then, I’ve been paging through my “Peterson Field Guide to Birds” on an almost daily basis, trying to get more familiar with the birds of our area so I can get better at identifying them.

With the guide, I was able to learn that the little birds that nested in my birdhouse are tree swallows. And the cute, noisy brown and white bird who loves to hobble up and down our driveway is a killdeer. I was able to start differentiating between the different kinds of woodpeckers and sparrows, and I learned that Baltimore Orioles can, actually, live in Minnesota and not just Baltimore. Who knew?

My most awe-inspiring sighting so far just happened last week, when a big pileated woodpecker, sporting his signature bright red ‘mohawk,’ briefly landed on my feeder, then moved on to a tree just a few feet from me. Serious birders probably aren’t that impressed, but for a beginning birder, a pileated woodpecker is quite a sight.

After that, I went out and got another feeder. And then another. I’m on the verge of becoming a “crazy bird lady,” but I’m okay with that. I can look out my window and identify a white breasted nuthatch, or a brown creeper, or a downy woodpecker, or any number of other birds that I wouldn’t have had a clue about two years ago.

By the end of this summer, I hope to recognize many more than just that old familiar orange-bellied bird, the robin.

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Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson (formerly Nitke) came to the Perham Focus after several years as the Education and Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Herald-Review of Grand Rapids, Minn. She lives in rural Ottertail with her husband, Dan, and their spunky yellow lab, Louisa.
(218) 346-5900 x228
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