We like to go birding in the winter (yes, there really are plenty of feathered friends in Maine to admire), and spotting new birds in the early days of spring makes this time of year extra special.
My family has a Birdsong Identiflyer we like to take out on our birding adventures. It's a hand-held device that has specially encoded cards with bird songs. My 11-year-old covets this hand-held gadget and has become quite proficient at identifying birds by their songs. A common joke in our house at this time of year, while the bird songs are played incessantly on the Identiflyer to "quiz" family members, is that the family cats could probably identify the bird songs as well (Toddy, our blind cat, has been listening to the songs for years so this particular tool is, of course, very handy for him).
But out on the trail, this little gadget is immensely helpful when used in conjunction with our Peterson "Field Guide of Eastern Birds." It gives the kids a way to interact with the birds they see and ensures that even with the limited knowledge of bird species Fino and I have (we've been learning with the kids), the kids feel confident in the accuracy of their identifying skills.
My 12-year-old also has a passion for photography, so one girl identifies the song while the other takes a photo of the bird. Fino takes a closer look with the binoculars and I typically flip through the Peterson guide to confirm the species. Each person has a "job" and that makes birding a whole lot more fun to do as a family.
Packing for a birding adventure in late winter at our house is a bit cumbersome, though. We have the usual backpacks and snacks, then tack on the addition of the Birdsong Identiflyer, our Peterson guide, a notebook to record our sightings, a small bag of bird feed, binoculars, a digital camera with an extra memory card for our photography enthusiast, and four pairs of snowshoes (once the snow was so deep in April on a western Maine trail system, we had to abandon our hiking/birding plans when we got there because we didn't bring snowshoes with us).
Even though our birding adventures take a bit of extra planning, once we find a spot to watch the birds, all our gear is put to good use.
On a recent birding and snowshoeing adventure at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth (they have snowshoe rentals for a nominal fee if you don't own them), we discovered that the best place to watch the birds was actually at the Visitor's Center bird feeders.
The reason? Snowshoes are not the most stealthy mode of transport through the woods.
The girls were certain the noise we were making through the crusty snow on the trails was scaring all the birds away. (And truth be told, snowshoeing is not a go-to activity at our house. The girls think cross-country skiing should always be the method of choice for snow, but sometimes snowshoes are the best, or only, means of transport on the trails in late winter when snow conditions aren't conducive to skiing but it's still too deep for hiking boots.)
I had to agree with their assessment of the snowshoe noise situation, so we sat down near the bird feeders at the Visitor's Center and waited.
It was then I remembered another downside to snowshoes: Trying to get up in the snow from a sitting position while wearing them.
At first I tried sitting on my knees, but after 15 minutes, right when the birds were flocking in larger numbers to the feeders, my legs started to go numb. I tried to quietly shift position but it was detected by the birds and they all flew away. I was duly reprimanded by the girls for "scaring everybody off."
But it wasn't like I could take off my snowshoes easily, either. The shoelaces I tied onto my bindings (I constantly step out of them on the trail so I was trying to avoid this problem with the shoelace workaround) were tied securely (i.e., a double knot) and covered in wet snow. In ensuring I didn't have my usual binding problems, I created another one entirely. But once I settled into a more comfortable position, the birds came back.
And although this scenario was a role-reversal from my family's early days of birding when the girls were younger, I think this bit of unintentional payback was not such a bad thing.
The day we visited Gilsland Farm, we identified six bird species and saw more than a dozen different birds during the hour we sat watching the bird feeders there. My Identiflyer operator noted the species (and was pleased she heard her favorite song from the mourning dove – "ooahoo, coo, coo, coo") while my photographer captured them with the camera for her scrapbook. This was considered a resounding success of a birding trip by everyone in the family.
If your family is interested in birding in early spring, the Audubon centers around the state have a variety of programs, from weekly bird walks to child- and adult-oriented workshops, to help get you started.
And if you want to do a bit of birding at home (and avoid the snowshoes), set up a bird feeder in your yard and place a pair of binoculars and a Peterson's guide (or other bird identifying resource) near a window for easy access. The kids will love it and the bird sightings will confirm that spring really is on its way.
Originally published on March 5, 2009 on Kid Tracks blog at RaisingMaine.com/kidtracks