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March 9, 2013

Experts offer tips for local bird-watching

By Nelson Bradshaw
The Daily Star

---- — For some, it’s a way to get hands-on with the study of natural science. For others, it’s a way to bring beauty into their lives. And for many, it’s a social activity that brings them together with other like-minded individuals. Whatever the reason, bird-watching is an activity with widespread appeal, including among many area residents. 

The cool, crisp weather of fall sent many local birds on their annual journey south, but some local species, such as cardinals, starlings and chickadees, remain during the cold months. The food they have been getting from local feeders has been a vital source of nourishment. In addition, feeders bring birds right up to a person’s living room or kitchen window, close-up and personal. 

For some bird watchers, their interest takes them beyond the backyard in search of more diverse species. 

Father Michael Cambi, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Stamford, has been watching birds nearly all his life.

“My father turned me on to bird-watching when I was a kid,” he said. “Pretty early I got my first pair of binoculars.”

Cambi said he doesn’t regard himself as a bird expert, but he does take his hobby seriously. He keeps heaters running in his backyard in cold weather to welcome visiting birds, and often takes birding trips alone or with a friend. 

He said he likes to observe and identify birds, with a keen interest in raptors (hawks, eagles, vultures, and owls), and an appreciation of warblers. Cambi said there are hundreds of different warbler songs, of which he knows many, but is far from mastering the whole list. 

Identification depends on visual and hearing cues. In Cambi’s case, the skill is mostly visual.

“Some (birds) I can recognize by their in-flight profile and by the way they flap their wings while flying,” he explained. “I can recognize some by their songs. But my brother is much better at that than I am. He has a CD that he listens to over and over again.”

Cambi’s brother may be on the right track, according to one local bird expert. 

Andrew Mason, co-president of the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society, said that bird songs are preferred as a means of identification to visual spotting, because birds can hide themselves way up in a tree and out of sight.

“A lot of the bird identification surveys done in the spring and summer are actually by sound, by the bird’s calls,” Mason explained. As foliage returns to the branches of deciduous trees, spotting a bird by sight gets even more difficult. 

“Once you know all the warbler songs, you really know what is up there,” Mason said. 

While many enjoy bird-watching as a solitary pursuit, it’s also an activity that can be shared. 

Cambi said he has gone out in search of birds in the company of his friend, Al Martel, a life-long birder who is retired from the state Department of Environmental Conservation and living in Grand Gorge.

Like Cambi, Martel says that he is not a bird expert, but unlike his friend, Martel did not express an interest in one particular species over another. Instead, Martel seems to celebrate the variety that comes with the close of winter. 

“Spring migration people will soon be saying, ‘I saw red-wing blackbirds at my feeder.’ Like a lot of people, I enjoy the spring birds, especially the warblers as they come back in spring,” Martel explained. 

The bald eagle is another bird that interests Martel, but for different reasons. 

“When I was with DEC back in the late ‘70s, we used to, and still do, monitor the bald eagle,” Martel remembered. “At that time it was extremely exciting to see an adult bald eagle. I can picture one in my mind as I am saying this, one I saw over the Schoharie Reservoir in Prattsville. It was the first year I was here.”

Since that time, the bald eagle population has grown, making sightings like the one Martel recalls somewhat more common. Anyone wanting to see eagles or other raptors in the local area has a valuable resource in the Delaware-Otsego Audubon Society’s sanctuary. 

“We have an open house at our sanctuary in the fall, in October, which is nearly at the peak of the hawk-watching season,” Mason explained. “That’s a very good opportunity to introduce people to raptors in particular.”

Even if raptors aren’t your thing, the chapter offers other endeavors to interest birders of all feathers, Mason explained. 

“For other species we do a bird count, called a Christmas count,” Mason said. “It is actually part of a nationwide count, done in December. We survey birds in circles, 15 miles in diameter. That’s also a pretty good introduction for newcomers. We usually send them out with some experienced birders to look for birds and count them.”

For more than 100 years, the Christmas Bird Count has been compiling data on bird populations in what Audubon calls “the longest running citizen science survey in the world.” The data is used by researchers and conservationists as they study bird populations across the country. 

As an official chapter of the national Audubon Society, DOAS is involved in local and national Audubon issues and activities. The nonprofit organization advocates for conservation issues and seeks to educate the public about the importance of birds and other wildlife. 

Whether as an advocate, a scientist or just an interested spectator, there are plenty of roles that a local bird-watcher can play.