Tips to Better Birding

Tips to Better Birding

Common Gallinule, photo by Luke Safford

This post interviews Luke Safford, who works for the Tucson Audubon Society. On Wednesday mornings, pandemic permitting, Luke guides birders on a field trip around Tucson’s Sweetwater Wetlands. I wanted to speak to him and ask for tips on how to spot birds better.

Victoria: Hi, Luke! How long have you been guiding birding tours for the Tucson Audubon Society?

Luke: I moved to Tucson, Arizona in 2015. I started volunteering for the Tucson Audubon Society, and in 2016, I joined the staff. On Wednesday mornings I guide a group at the Sweetwater Wetlands. In the summer months we can spot forty or more different species of birds. In the winter months that goes up to about fifty, and sometimes as many as sixty, different species.

Luke Safford guiding at Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Editorial Note: the Sweetwater Wetlands, owned by the City of Tucson and managed by Tucson Water, is a water treatment facility, but it’s also an urban wildlife habitat and an outdoor classroom. However, because of Covid-19, participation in the guided tours sponsored by the Tucson Audubon Society is currently limited. You can also go on your own but you should be aware that some services, such as bathroom facilities, may not be available.

Victoria: How long have you been birding?

Luke: I started birding when I was six or seven with my grandparents.

Luke Safford in a tree at Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Dan Weisz.

Victoria: Have you always been good at spotting birds? Or is spotting birds a skill you can get better at?

Luke: To get good at birding, you need to practice. It’s like learning a new language. Even if you have the best equipment, such as great binoculars, you’re going to need to practice.

If you’re not with a guide, try going outside and sitting quietly for an hour. Listen as well as watch for movements. It’s great if you can be in a place like a deer blind, where you can see the birds but they can’t see you. Once in a deer blind I could see black-capped chickadees much closer than usual.

Black-capped Chickadee, Wikipedia Commons

Of course, I know the Sweetwater area so I know where to look. I know where the birds are and I know where they aren’t.

Victoria: Even when I see a bird, I often can’t figure out the species. Can you give some identification tips to help us frustrated birders?

Luke: New birders tend to look at the color of feathers, but that isn’t always enough for figuring out a bird’s species. For ducks, I look at the bill, both the shape and the color. For gulls, I look at the color of the legs. Size and shape are important, too. Are the raptor’s wings wide or narrow? What’s the shape of the tail?

Another thing to observe is the bird’s behavior. If it’s scratching the ground, it might be a thrasher or a towhee. If it’s a waterbird, does it go entirely into the water or does it just dip its head, like a mallard?

Another important indication of the species is the habitat. Certain species can be found at Sweetwater, which, as it sounds, has plenty of water and attracts birds that need more water. You’ll find completely different species at Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center, which is twenty acres of Sonoran desert.

Luke Safford guiding at Sweetwater. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Even experienced birders don’t identify every bird. Sometimes you don’t see enough to make an identification. Don’t stress about it. Birding is supposed to be fun.

Victoria: What does the Tucson Audubon Society do?

Luke: The mission of the Tucson Audubon Society is to inspire people to protect and to enjoy birds. We are separate from the National Audubon Society but we cooperate with them.

The Tucson Audubon Society has four main areas of activity. The first is Restoration for birds, which includes building nest boxes and removing invasive species.

The second is Conservation. This includes a lot of bird counts and bird surveys.

The third area of work is Advocacy, which means speaking out for birds and their habitats in Tucson and southeastern Arizona. The fourth area is Engagement, helping locals to get to know their birds, by doing activities such as leading walks at Sweetwater or Tucson Audubon’s Mason Center. We do other field trips, and these days, Zoom meetings.

Sweetwater Wetlands. Photo by Cory Michael Kennedy

Victoria: Here’s the link for the Tucson Audubon Society, where you can learn about the Sweetwater walks and the organization’s other activities. Of course, if you’re not near Tucson, check out your local chapter of the Audubon society.

Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Dan Weisz

“Try, and again try, till you win or till you die,” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather