A Beginner Goes to Bird Fest
by Brooke Allen, Community Engagement Director at Indiana Dunes Tourism
This week begins my second month at Indiana Dunes Tourism. As the new kid, I look for ways to learn more about the dunes area. I approached my boss with the idea of actually attending the annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival, rather than just setting up a welcome table. “Go for
it! I think you’ll have fun,’ she said.
I had to research. After all, many folks who come to the festival are seasoned birders; there were even international groups attending. Best to not look like a complete fool, I thought. Not wanting to spend a fortune at a bookstore, I started with a book provided at the festival: Dr. Ken Brock’s “Birds of the Indiana Dunes.” Upon settling in one evening with a borrowed copy, I was horrified by what I found; there were NO PICTURES! (gasp!) Don’t misunderstand, I’m not afraid of reading – I’m a former English teacher. But when I opened that book and saw 12 different seagulls listed with their scientific names and no photos, I knew I was out of my league. A quick trip to the local library left me feeling better. I picked up “Birding for Beginners” which said in the intro to simply “do your best and have fun.” Sigh, ok – much less intimidating.
So I began the festival with a few key terms and concepts but remained mystified with identification. I downloaded the Audubon app, attempting to identify birds in my front yard. Have you ever tried to tell the difference between two types of sparrows? No? It’s not easy. I mean, I think they were sparrows…still not really confident… My husband wasn’t so sure about my new hobby as I stood with the iPad at the kitchen window, arms in the air, exclaiming loudly in frustration, “How am I supposed to tell the difference between these stupid birds?!”
It became clear that the festival would be a big learning experience for me. If nothing else, it was time outside the office, but I was hoping to walk away with a little more knowledge than my failed sparrow experience. Using the Birding Festival brochure, I planned out my four days, immediately circling any programs with the word ‘beginner’ in the description. I crossed out a few and chose others instead when I saw that they had up-close encounters with birds because, well, they just sounded cooler. Plus, I could maybe see a bird poop in the Visitor Center, and I thought that would be pretty funny. Someday I’ll grow up.
DAY ONE began with greeting the masses of birders arriving at the Visitor Center – more than 400 people. They practically inhaled copies of Dr. Brock’s book, one woman even explaining she felt ‘completely lost’ after she misplaced her last copy, calling it the ‘birding bible’. I kept
my previous reading failures with the book to myself. I felt even worse when an eight year-old (yes, eight) picked up a copy and said, “Wow! Look at all this data! Cool!” I’m not kidding. I was totally missing something with this book.
DAY TWO included greeting more folks, but I snuck away from my booth to see the Raptor Experience presentation. Standing less than a foot from a barred owl is an experience I won’t forget. Something about looking into its huge eyes made me understand why owls are considered wise. Really, there just aren’t words to describe it. (I did also see a bird poop on the floor.) That evening, I attended the Wine and Waders workshop where I made a lovely canvas painting of a Black-Crowned Night Heron. Even if my bird identification skills weren’t so great, I was pretty great at sipping wine and making crafts. Score! I stayed for dinner at the Birds and Brews event and was treated to the bird calling competition. Our superintendent of the National Lakeshore, Paul, received third place for his wild turkey call (complete with a strut to the microphone).
DAY THREE I jumped from field trips to presentations all day. My morning hike at the State Park was successful, including sightings of 25 bird species, one of which was a Summer Tanager. My leader, Tiffany, was awesome. She helped point out birds, explained spotting tips, and even made sense of my field guide with me. I also stopped in to see the Young Birders program and watched Brad Bumgardner band a Tufted Titmouse. He even showed folks how to tell if it was a female bird by ruffling her tummy feathers. (Perhaps I should have done ALL the young birder stuff; it was in my learning area) The keynote presentation and dinner Saturday evening were also excellent.
DAY FOUR was a rough morning. I was exhausted. These birding folks know how to have a good time, and I wasn’t sure about doing it all again. I was rewarded, though, with another field trip where I learned about bird photography and saw a warbler actively building a nest. I even identified a Towhee bird without anyone else helping me!
I’m going to tell you the truth; I still can’t tell the difference between two types of sparrows. But my time at the birding festival did teach me a few other truths:
1. Birding is an activity that takes time to master, but birders – no matter their age or skill level – are eager to teach newcomers. They’re a passionate group who believe in passing down their knowledge to anyone willing to soak it in. I met so many kind people over the course of four days who took me under their wings (pun obviously intended).
2. Any hobby that brings people closer to nature is one worth pursuing. Birding develops our understanding of ecology, habitats, and the complexity of Mother Nature’s beauty. I might not know the difference between certain bird species like a pro, but I can tell you that watching them intently provides a clarity about the importance of conservation.
3. Finally, bird watching forces us to slow down. In a world where most of us need to do a better job of taking a deep breath, experiencing our surroundings, and connecting with the outdoors, I can think of no better hobby to find a few moments of solitude and reflection.
After all is said and done, I’ll admit: I’m a birding convert! A few potential dates to see the fall migrations are already penciled-in on my calendar. I’ve bought new guidebooks and my own set of binoculars. And get this: I’m already using Dr. Ken Brock’s pictureless book to record my sightings and plan for future excursions. Someday, I’ll be completely in love with all the data. Until then, happy birding, friends!
How about you? Are you a new birder or an experienced one with advice? Leave us a note in the comments below!
What’s next? Check out our birding page to learn about scheduling your own adventure and watch our video below!
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