S2, E29: A Skeptic’s Guide to Birding

In this episode of Unpacked, learn how a reluctant birder fell in love with the sport—and how you can, too.

Confession: I’ve never been a big birder. But in this episode of Unpacked, I go deep into the wild world of birdwatching. Here’s how it could change your life.


Aislyn Greene, host [in field]: It is 7:48. I am about to go birding for the first time. I have no binoculars. I have no idea what I’m doing.

Aislyn: I’m Aislyn Greene and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel this week. And this week I’m trying to convince myself to become a birder.

Dominik Mosur: I started bird-watching, or birding, in 2001. So, I guess, 22 years.

Aislyn [in field]: It’s a long time.

Dominik: Yes, about almost half of my entire life—

Aislyn [in field]: Oh, my gosh.

Dominik: —it’s been spent bird-watching.

Aislyn: That is Dominik Mosur, a volunteer trip leader for the Golden Gate Audubon chapter. I’m standing at the entrance to the Randall Museum, where Dominik—or Dom, as my soon-to-be-fellow-birders call him—begins his monthly Birding the Hill tour. It’s a cold, foggy August morning. And on top of that, there’s a weed wacker whacking away nearby, and I gotta be honest, it’s bumming me out. I’m here because, as I mentioned, I’m trying to become a birder.

And just for a little background, my longtime former manager here at AFAR, Jeremy, is a big birder. And, hoo would we tease him about it so much. I mean, in a loving way. (I think? I hope? Jeremy, you know we love you.) I liked his passion for, you know, our avian friends, but I just couldn’t get excited about them, beyond the broad “Birds are good, let’s keep birds.” I mean, I like to hike. I like to be in nature, but birds were just, kinda, background noise? But then I moved to a floating home in Sausalito, and every day, seriously, all I see are birds. There are geese honking overhead and nesting nearby. Gray herons pecking at the mud. Gulls flying by and leaving their marks on our cars.

It’s not like all of the sudden, it changed my perspective on birds, but I noticed them in a way I hadn’t before. And yet, when we started to plan this episode, I wanted to get an expert to do it. You know, someone who could woo you into trying the sport, woo ME Is birding a sport? Hmm, question for another time. But the expert didn’t work out. And I realized that if the idea is to make a case for birding to nonbirders, then wouldn’t I be the perfect candidate?

So, come along with me on my journey. For you, dear listener, I climbed a hill, listened to maybe a thousand different bird calls, downloaded bird apps, and interviewed experts—even my bird-loving aunt. Am I a convert? Well, stick with me and find out.

Now, back to that weed wacker.

Aislyn [in field]: So how long have you been going to these walks?

Birder: Um, it’s probably like my fifth time or something.

Aislyn [in field]: What do you like about them?

Birder: Dominik is a fount of knowledge, wisdom. He knows everything there is to know about birds in my experience. And he’s a really, he’s a good teacher. He answers all questions. He takes all questions. And even though it’s a small space, you know, we find so much to observe and listen to and see and, um, it’s great. Here’s my friend. It’s her first time.

Aislyn [in field]: Oh, I’m also a first timer. Hi, how are you?

Bo: I’m Bo.

Aislyn [in field]: Oh, I’m Aislyn. Nice to meet you. I’m also a first timer.

Birder: Oh good, oh good.

Aislyn [in field]: And I love that you’re wearing bird earrings.

Aislyn: There’s a sense of giddy anticipation in the air as people continue to arrive. There are about 11 in the group, and we range widely in terms of gender, race, and age. As Dom gathers the group around and starts to talk, finally the weed wacker stops.

Dominik: Hey, everyone, welcome to the first Friday walk. August is the end of the breeding season where we will be looking for the last of the juvenile birds still in their baby plumage. We’ll also be looking for possibly some new arrivals, new migrants, um, that are already starting to show up.

And, as long as the weed wacker doesn’t come on again, we’ll work on sound ID because the reason why we don’t call this bird-watching, but we call it birding is because we are looking for birds and listening for birds as well. We’re trying to detect birds any way we can. And a lot of that takes place through our ears.

Aislyn: Dom then has us close our eyes and listen for 30 seconds. At first I don’t hear anything but a blissful silence. And then: a twitter, a chirp, a lower pitched chirp, a whistle-like twitter. And a car horn.

Dominik: Most birds have very distinctive, individualized calls. And so a house finch, it may look a lot like a purple finch, but it sounds completely different. A song sparrow and a savannah sparrow have completely different calls. So by learning their calls, we will learn, uh, how to find them.

Aislyn: And so the walk begins. Our group of 11 includes three little girls. As we start to walk down a slight hill toward a grassy area with tennis courts, I notice that each of the girls has a pair of wooden binoculars. Even the kindergarteners have binoculars! I feel so naked. But no matter, because we’ve just spotted our first important bird: a red-tailed hawk.

Dominik: Him and I, we made a little deal. I said, “Hey, you stay in that tree until the group arrives. Because it’s foggy and we need to see a red-tailed hawk.” You see on top of that first tree? At the top of the playground, you can see he’s just perched up there. It’s an adult red-tailed hawk. He looks a little wet.

Aislyn: As we continue on the walk, we head past the tennis courts and toward a community garden. The world just kind of comes alive. Suddenly we’re seeing birds everywhere.

Dominik: There’s also a, uh, mockingbird, a hooded oriole. Um, we’re gonna get a little bit closer so that you all can see a little bit of this. But listen for that chatter.

Aislyn: We also see something that is very iconic in San Francisco.

Dominik: Here’s a parrot coming our way, everybody. Look, there’s a red-masked parakeet. Two of them. Look at those choppy wing beats.

Aislyn: Choppy wing beats! I’ve never in my life thought about such a thing. I’m starting to understand what Dom meant when he told me about how bird-watching had opened up his eyes to the world.

Dominik: I used to love hiking and observing nature. And then when I discovered that, in addition to just enjoying sort of the general views and the open space, there’s hundreds of different birds to be seen and identified and learned about, it just kind of like—it, uh, it made the world look completely different, a lot more interesting. There’s no dull moments when you’re a birder.

Aislyn: Birding the hill is, of course, an urban bird walk. We are in the middle of San Francisco. And it is true that as you start to pay attention, these layers reveal themselves. What could feel like a very normal grassy park where, you know, people come and throw balls for their dog and play tennis is suddenly alive with sounds and sights.

Dominik: I like urban birding because of how accessible it is as far as being able to observe nature in a densely populated place. The birds don’t seem to be too bothered by our activities and, uh, are able to kind of adapt to existing in small spaces, small parts. And, uh, as long as we’re not actively trying to interfere with their lives, they just kind of keep doing their thing in the middle of large cities like San Francisco.

Aislyn: And Dom says that all birds count. Even the ones we might roll our eyes at or shoo away while we’re eating lunch.

Birder: Oh, here we go. What’s that big one?

Birder two: What’s that? Oh, a pigeon. Rock pigeon.

Dominik: Hey, don’t laugh. This is actually a really good point. One time, I called out, uh, starlings flying over the park. I said, “Hey, everybody, look at the starlings.” And one of our walk participants said, “Ah, I don’t look at starlings. They’re not a native species. Who cares?” Two months later she emails me and she says, “Hey, I think I may have seen purple martins over Golden Gate Park.” And I said, “Are you sure they weren’t starlings?” She said, “No.” And I’m like, “Well, go back and look again.” And then the next day she said, “They were starlings.” I’m like, “That’s why you look at starlings.”

Because starlings look like other birds. And we want to know what they all look like. And if you know what a rock pigeon looks like, then you’ll know what a band-tailed pigeon looks like after a while. So, yeah, we don’t, we don’t, uh, we don’t discriminate here. All birds are equally important for us to study.

Aislyn: As we’re walking, I’m starting to think: This is just like learning a foreign language. There is a mass of sound around me, but I can’t parse out any meaning. And that can be frustrating, as one of the kids on this hike is realizing.

Little girl: I can’t find it. Mommy, I can’t see it.

Aislyn: But that first moment where you realize you can ID a word or a phrase, oh, it’s so satisfying.

Little girl: I see it, Mama. There’s some birds up there. There are some birds up there. Hi, Jiggly!

Aislyn: So we say goodbye to Jiggly, and Dom tells us getting better—learning this language—is all about practice.

Dominik: If you’re looking at a bird up close and it starts to fly away, follow it for as long as you can. Get familiar with what it looks like at different distances and angles. That way I can look up there in that eucalyptus tree and scan and say, “Oh yeah, there’s seven house finches.” And it’s not because I have magical eyesight like some kind of Marvel superhero; it’s because I’ve been looking at house finches from 5 meters, 10 meters, 50 meters, and 100 meters. And so eventually you develop that experience and that confidence to be able to identify birds at what seems like an incredible, magical distance.

Aislyn: And what else do you need to know or have to become an expert birder? We’ll find out after the break.

Kara Cook: I’m Kara Cook. Um, I am the rooftop biologist for the Southwest region in Florida. In case anybody is wondering what a rooftop biologist is, shorebirds and seabirds that nest on gravel rooftops in Florida.

Aislyn: Isn’t that a cool job? But Kara, who lives in Tampa, says she wasn’t a born birder.

Kara: I actually took an ornithology course in the senior year of my undergrad at the University of Missouri. So it’s been about nine years that I would consider myself an actual birder. I grew up in more of a rural area so we had birds kind of in our yard a lot, and so I kind of grew up with them, but I really didn’t get into, like, birding until college.

Aislyn [interview]: Nice. And what was it about that class that changed things?

Kara: Oh gosh, um. I just, it was just so eye opening. Birding just, it gets me outside. It gets me in nature, which makes me feel better. It makes me feel less stressed. And you never know what you’re going to see when you go out. It’s kind of always like a surprise.

Aislyn: Kara said something during our chat that literally gave me goosebumps. I had asked her how birding has changed the way she sees nature.

Kara: It’s really just made me a lot more in tune with my surroundings. I’m always listening and looking for birds, whether it’s like walking into Target or, you know, if I’m at the beach for fun, I’m always just, like, looking for those things. But I also just find it really kind of awe inspiring because some of these birds are traveling thousands and thousands of miles, and they’re stopping in front of me to forage or, you know, do whatever. And I just kind of like—it’s almost like a little magical moment.

Aislyn: That was honestly the lightbulb moment for me. The idea that, through a twist of fate, I could encounter a bird that’s in the middle of a thousand-mile journey. I mean, how incredible is that? So honestly if nothing else has convinced you to give birding a chance, I hope that that kind of serendipity does. But our conversation wasn’t just about magical nature moments. I mean, those are cool, but Kara had some great advice to share, in terms of how to get started and the kind of gear you need. (It’s not much.) You can probably guess the first tip—it’s what all those birders on my hike had around their necks, even the little kids.

Kara: Just like a basic pair of binoculars is super helpful. You don’t have to go out and spend like hundreds of dollars on binoculars. You can just do like a pair of 8x42s or 8x30s and it’d be perfectly fine.

Aislyn: If that sounds like Greek to you, same here. But I learned that it’s pretty simple. In the examples that Kara shared, “8 by or 8x” refers to the magnification power, so anything you look at through them will appear eight times closer. And “42” refers to the size, in millimeters, of the objective lens, which are those ET-like lenses at the end of a pair of binoculars. The larger the lens, the more light can come through. Kara says you can get a basic pair of binoculars for about $40 to $50. But before you spend the money, check out your local library.

Kara: I found this really cool program that some libraries do this. You can loan a birding backpack at some libraries. It basically has like a field guide and like one or two pairs of binoculars in it.

Aislyn: OK, so now you have your binoculars. Kara suggests two more things. First, buy or find a field guide for your region. We’ll link to an example of that in our show notes. And second, download a couple of apps.

Kara: Merlin is probably one of my favorites. So it really is super easy for anyone to use. Let’s say you have a bird that you’re not sure what it is, but you can kind of go through these prompts and, like, put in what are the three primary colors that you saw on the bird? Is the bird, is it, like, bigger than a cardinal or smaller than a goose? And then what kind of behavior is it doing? Is it, like, on the ground or sitting on a wire? And also you plug in your location and then it’ll spit out like a couple lists of what it most likely is.

And then there’s also an audio recording option. So if you hear a bird like singing, you can tap the record button on there and listen to its song.

Aislyn: Kara also likes eBird, which Dom was using to track out bird sightings on my bird walk on the hill.

Kara: It’s more for keeping your own lists, and it’s more of a citizen-science type app that you can contribute your sightings.

So if you go to a park and you list all of the birds that you see while you’re on your walk, you could submit that and it kind of goes into their database and you can add audio or photos if you want. But then it kind of generates your own, like, species list.

Aislyn: She says one of the best parts of eBird is the fact that it has a hot-spot map. As a beginning birder, it’s a great way to figure out where the birds are hanging out. There’s one piece of equipment though that you really don’t need to have.

Kara: You don’t have to have a camera to go birding.

Aislyn: But there’s a reason that you might see birders out there with them.

Kara: I’ll just say if you do have one and it has like a decent zoom on it, just snap a picture of the bird and kind of use that as a reference where you can go back and look in a book or a guide when you get back and you can be like, “Oh, OK, this is that bird,” if you weren’t able to ID it in the field.

Aislyn: Once you have all of this equipment. And you’re ready to go. You’re pumped up. You want to go out on your own. What exactly do you do? How does one bird?

Kara: I typically move pretty slow because I’m looking and listening for birds. And that’s OK. Like, you don’t have to, you know, rush. I recommend kind of being quiet, you know, as you can, like not having like loud conversations and stuff on the phone. But you know, being quiet and I think just being kind of more in tune to sounds. Listening for the birds calling can kind of help you see which trees they might be in or where they might be at. It can, can kind of be more of like a—almost like a meditative type thing.

Aislyn: Kara says that if you’re starting out and you don’t live close to beaches or vast, green spaces, just go to your local park. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed on your own or you would just rather be led, which is great, you can always do what I did and join a tour.

Kara: Find, like, a local Audubon chapter or a birding club. Those are really good ways to meet other people that might be new and that are learning. Or if you want to kind of have, like, a mentor, um, talk to you and just kind of learn more about the birds in your area. And they usually take you to places that are in your region that have good places to see birds.

Aislyn: Or, instead of going on a tour, look for projects that you can get involved in. In Tampa, where Kara lives, there are monitoring projects for everything from scrub jays to raptors. Joining a club or a project is also the best way to meet other birders, who Kara says, are usually super nice.

Kara: It just feels like a big community, honestly. You just meet so many people that are interested in the birds and interested in nature usually. And it’s just a lot of fun to go out with people that are like-minded and just enjoying what birds are showing up today.

Aislyn: It’s something my aunt Cheryl agrees with. Cheryl also lives in Florida and she is a big birder. She volunteers at her local wildlife sanctuary where she actually worked for 20 years.

As I was wrapping up this episode, I thought I should give her a call and see what she has to say. And as we were chatting and I was filling her in on what I was doing, she started sharing about one of her favorite birds.

Aunt Cheryl: Chimney swifts are just little tiny black birds that are basically my very favorite bird in the whole world. They are, they’re kind of cigar-shaped bodies. Little black wings. They fly like the Blue Angels. They eat thousands of mosquitoes. And then they nest in chimneys. That’s why they’re called chimney swifts. They’re sweet birds, actually, to each other. If there’s one that maybe doesn’t feel so good, or it’s a little bit younger, or whatever, the bigger ones may come over and put their wing over the body of the other. They’re just very caring little birds.

Aislyn: I googled chimney swifts, and I have to say: They really are amazing! They do everything while flying, including eating, drinking, and just maybe, mating. Wow. And one of the things that Cheryl does in addition to work with birds, is that she loves to join the annual Audubon bird count, which happens every February. She echoed what Kara said. She said that it’s almost like a meditation for her.

Aunt Cheryl: On the day that I do the bird count, it’s like, that’s what I’m thinking. I’m thinking birds. And I don’t think of anything else, I don’t see anything else. I don’t feel bad, I just feel. . . . It just gets me out there.

Aislyn: That’s the way I’ve always felt after a good, long hike. And during the hike itself. And Cheryl believes that that meditative feeling can create these bigger links for us with the world.

Aunt Cheryl: I think if you can get outside and you can look up rather than down, you’re going to start seeing a lot of other things that are out there that are really cool. And then people get more attached, I think, to their world, basically.

Aislyn: And the more we connect to the world, the more we want to protect it. Right?

Aunt Cherl: If you see these big long lines of geese and hawks and things flying over, I think, you know, I want to make sure that where they’re going is going to be good, but also when they come back, I want to make sure they still have the places that they need to nest for the summer.

And, uh, you know, they just need the food, the water, the shelter. That’s what they need. And a lot of those things are, you know, sometimes going away.

Aislyn: So we’ve gone from a quiet birding walk on a foggy San Francisco morning to possibly saving the world. Such is the power of birding! And like Dom said to me at the beginning of my very first walk.

Dominik: I think it’ll change your life, if you let it.

Aislyn: Did it change my life? Am I a birder now? It’s still too early to really know for sure. I have not yet bought binoculars, but I did download the Merlin app and the other day on my daily walk, I saw this little brown bird fly out of a small tree. So I stopped to watch. As it flapped its wings, I noticed that it had blue feathers on the underside of its wings. I pulled out Merlin and plugged in the descriptors, and felt pretty satisfied when I think I ID-ed it as a female western bluebird. My first bird in the list!But I think the larger shift I’ve made is an appreciation for the awesomeness of these millions of birds going about their lives, often unbeknownst to us. They, too, are travelers crossing great distances, just like us. Like Kara said, it’s a little bit of magic.

Speaking of Kara, I also have a much greater appreciation for the true bird geeks of the world. The people who are watching, and counting, and protecting these magnificent winged creatures. So if even after all this poetry and advice, you can’t or won’t give birding a shot, I’d say: Make a donation to the Audubon Society, or another wildlife organization, and call it a day.

Thanks so much for listening and going on this journey with me. I will keep you posted as to my birding progress. We’ll link to a birding resource on AFAR.com in our show notes, as well as to the Merlin birding app. If you want to find your local Audubon chapter, visit.audubon.org. And if you’re in the Bay Area and you want to take a walk with Dom, visit randallmuseum.org/birding-the-hill. Or you can follow him on Instagram @dominik.mosur. We’ll see you next week.

Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. The magazine is @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. We also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at unpacked@afar.com.

This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.

And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.