Steps you can take to enjoy bird-watching as you travel in your motorhome.
By Gerald C. Hammon, F275831
Bird-watching is certainly much less expensive than golf. And binoculars and field guides take up much less space in your motorhome than golf clubs. For that matter, when you are waiting patiently for your golfing partner to find his or her ball in the rough, you can probably get in some good bird-watching, since birds enjoy golf courses almost as much as golfers.
Actually, there are very few places you might go where you can’t do a little bird-watching. That’s why it goes so well with motorhome travel.
Why are birds so fascinating? Some are rather plain, but others can rival flowers and butterflies with their beauty. Blue jays can be unabashed camp robbers when food’s about, but they evoke our mercy when they plunder, simply because of their beauty. Wood ducks are common in many states, yet a male wood duck’s plumage shimmering in the sunlight can inspire admiration from anyone. Warblers can be the bane of experienced bird-watchers, simply because they move around so fast. But when you do catch sight of one in your binoculars, you’ll wonder how so much color can be packed onto such a tiny body.
Grab your binoculars
Avian expert John James Audubon didn’t have the benefit of binoculars when he created his bird paintings; then again, today we frown upon shooting birds to identify them, as he did. While some birds are readily identifiable without them, binoculars enable you to see that bird singing on the top branches of a nearby tree.
The best binoculars for bird-watching can focus on objects very close to you and have objective lenses that gather plenty of light, because the bird you want to see may be perched only 10 feet away in deep shadows. You don’t want to have to walk backward for 15 to 20 feet to get your binoculars to focus. A wide field of vision helps, too, when you are trying to focus on a bird flitting through nearby trees. The magnification doesn’t have to be high. In fact, as we age, high magnification can work against us, because it is more difficult to hold the binoculars steady. Magnification emphasizes every movement, so that instead of a crisp image, you get a blurry, moving image of something. Fixed-focus binoculars are worthless for birding, for you can bet the bird you want to see will be closer than the faraway point at which these binoculars focus.
You can spend quite a bit of money on binoculars. We have birding friends who carry binoculars valued at nearly $1,000. But if you want to find out if bird-watching is for you, you can start out with a pair of binoculars you bought to take to the football game. They may not provide as sharp of an image as you’d like, but you will still see the birds.
A pair of 7 x 35mm or 8 x 40mm lenses can make most birders happy; these are common arrangements for magnification and light gathering. The higher the first number, the greater the magnification. The higher the second number, the greater the light-gathering potential. The trade-off is that the higher the second number, it’s more likely that the binoculars will be heavy. You want to enjoy yourself as you go, not carry a millstone around your neck. If possible, choose wide-angle binoculars. The wider field of vision will help you find the bird.
Get a bird guide
Selecting a bird identification book is easier than selecting binoculars. Four or five very good ones that are on the market will help you to identify that brilliantly colored oriole or that long-billed curlew. Peterson Guides (by Roger Tory Peterson), such as A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America, focus on different parts of the United States and Canada. If you primarily travel in a particular geographic region, you might choose one of these guides.
Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman is specifically written for newer birders and has received high acclaim from experienced bird-watchers. It covers the entire United States and Canada, as does the equally well-received National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.
Stokes and Audubon field guides use color photos instead of drawings. While this may seem advantageous, I have not found it to be so, and don’t advise selecting either of these as your first birding field guide. Experienced bird-watchers often carry the new widely acclaimed The Sibley Guide to Birds. We do; but, frankly, it is big and heavy! You want something you can fit in your pocket when you are starting out. Even the otherwise excellent National Geographic guide can be a bit oversized for pants pockets. Try the Kaufman or Peterson guides. When we don’t feel like packing the Sibley around, that’s what we do.
Once you have identified several types of birds, watching and enjoying their behavior comes to the forefront. Ever wondered about those saucy, deep-blue birds that gather around your campsite out West anytime food is in evidence? They’re Steller’s jays, common along the west coast and in the western mountains. Has a bird with black bands around its neck ever screamed at you while running away with one wing dragging behind? That’s a killdeer, common throughout North America in fields and along streams, lakes, and shorelines. The killdeer’s broken wing act is calculated to draw predators (including you) away from its nest.
Get with it
One of the advantages of combining bird-watching with RV travel is that your motorhome makes a marvelous bird blind. We can sit up front in the coach and watch the activity without spooking the birds. A little seed and a bowl of water will bring them near. They don’t seem to realize we are even there, peering out at them through the windshield. Good friends occasionally visit us with their motorhome. When they do, they park it so they can look out their windshield at our yard bird feeders. They’ve seen some interesting Southwestern birds that way.
We’ve been bird-watching for more than 40 years. Many of our motorhome trips are made to locations where interesting or different birds can be seen.
All of us who travel in RVs know the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle. Bird-watching keeps us from being RV couch potatoes. It gets us outside where we not only enjoy the birds, but the flowers, animals, butterflies, reptiles, and all that goes with nature. We transform the idea of physical activity into a time of pleasure.
Our binoculars weren’t cheap, and we even own a spotting scope to see distant shorebirds and ducks. But we haven’t spent nearly as much on equipment as an avid golfer might. And no one charges us $50 to $100 a day to go out and see the birdies.
Perhaps the only dangers to birding are an occasional bout of “warbler’s neck” from straining to see birds at the tops of tall trees, a mosquito bite or two, and, oh yes, there was the time I got so fascinated by a warbler in a brush patch in New Jersey that I failed to notice I was standing on a hill of red ants. The trade-off for such infrequent hardships are memories we have of seeing a bald eagle sail majestically over Mount Vernon; of pileated woodpeckers, large birds with a bright red crest, hammering huge chunks out of an old fencepost in Minnesota; and a stunningly beautiful eared trogon, a relative of the superlative resplendent quetzal of Central America, flying from tree to tree in a campground in the Chiricahua Mountains of Arizona. We have delighted at the black-chinned hummingbirds that fight for control of our home feeders, and watched as families of scaled quail marched across a New Mexico campground in the early-morning hours.
Bird-watching is a very forgiving hobby. You can indulge in it casually, checking out a bird that occasionally captures your curiosity, or you can turn it into an obsession if you choose, chasing new bird species from state to state and province to province.
At times you’ll see birds you simply can’t identify. Even the best birders admit that happens to them as well. Spotting a new species is always a thrill, but so is seeing a beautiful bird in the right setting, even though it may be “common.”
So, throw a pair of binoculars and a bird guide in your coach. Now you are equipped to go birding, no matter whether you are on the coast of Maine, the shores of California, or the heartland of America.