By Howard Meyerson
Chilean-born biologist Alvaro Jaramillo thinks bird watchers can get too hung up in their field guides and miss opportunities to really see the birds they are watching. Bird recognition, he says, takes place in a part of the brain, the fusiform gyrus, where face recognition takes place.
Blink. That’s a robin. That’s how it goes.
Improving identification skills requires seeing a bird holistically, not just the field markings highlighted in most birdwatching field guides.
“If you talk to expert bird watchers, they are not thinking about it. They recognize the entire sum of the parts,” said Jaramillo, senior biologist with the San Francisco Bird Observatory, author of the book “Birds of Chile,” and the keynote speaker at the 2013 Tawas Point Birding Festival scheduled for May 16-19 in Iosco County.
“The key is to get more experience, to see birds more and have them become embedded in your consciousness,” said Jaramillo, also an expert on North American birds.
“As a community of bird watchers, we really have it in our heads to always carry a bird book and think about field marks. But in a sense that keeps people from moving to the next level. New birders are so busy looking at the book and the arrows (that point out markings on birds) that they are not looking at the bird and how it moves.”
Watching birds in the backyard is a great way to get started, Jaramillo said. It doesn’t take looking for a California condor. The secret, he said, is doing it daily, letting those visual impressions become embedded.
“Common birds are the ones that train the brain to be ready for unusual birds,” Jaramillo said. He will present more on the topic in his keynote talk at 6 p.m. on May 17 at the Tawas Bay Beach Resort, an event that is open to the public. Jaramillo also will teach a class on the “Natural History of the Thrush Family” on May 18 and lead a private tour of Tawas Point State Park.
The Tawas festival is one of 11 birding festivals scheduled this year, starting as early as April 26 with the third annual Thornapple Woodpecker Festival in Middleville. The season ends in October with a delightful Bellevue-area event, full of art, music and sandhill cranes, called Cranefest.
“You can see all of the Michigan woodpecker species at the Thornapple festival, and they have will have an interpreter dressed up like John Audubon,” said Jonathan Lutz, executive director for Michigan Audubon Society. “The focus there is on the red-headed woodpecker.”
And having a good time, of course.
Other bird-fest season highlights include a special dedication for a new land acquisition at Whitefish Point Bird Observatory near Paradise, located on Lake Superior. This is the 25th anniversary of the organization’s “Spring Fling,” the festival that draws birders from all over. The point is a major stop-over area for migrating birds.
Banding hummingbirds also sounds like fun at Birds Blooms and Butterflies, a festival held in August at the Dalhem Center in Jackson County.
“It’s one of the highlights of that festival,” said Wendy Tatar, program director for Michigan Audubon. “But they do that only in early morning. By noon, it gets too hot and stresses the birds.”
Another interesting event that has been gaining popularity is the “Biggest Week in American Birdwatching.” It is held in May by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Oak Harbor, Ohio. Birders go out and identify birds all along the Magee Marsh boardwalk and/or sign up for any of 10 classes from “Birding by Ear” to the “Basics of Identifying Shorebirds” or “Appreciating Spring Warblers” or raptors.
The northwest Ohio event has become an alternative for many who once frequented the popular Festival of Birds at Pointe Pelee National Park in Leamington, Ontario. Word is, they got tired of the border hassles.
“I hear as many people go there now as Pointe Pelee,” Tatar said.
Whether you are interested in cerulean warblers or sandhill cranes, this year’s lineup likely will have something to offer, whether for families, beginning birdwatchers or experienced veterans. Be sure to get out and enjoy one or more of them.
The choice is yours, of course, whether to leave the field guide behind.
2013 Bird-watching Festivals Calendar
26-27: Third Annual Thornapple Woodpecker Festival, Middleville Village Hall. See woodpeckerfest.webs.com.
26-28: Spring Fling, Whitefish Point Bird Observatory. See wpbo.org.
3-12: The Biggest Week in American Birding, Black Swamp Bird Observatory, Magee Marsh, Oak Harbor Ohio. See bsbobird.org.
3-20: Festival of Birds 2013, Pointe Pelee National Park, Leamington Ontario, near Windsor. See festivalofbirds.ca.
10-12: Keweenaw Migratory Bird Festival, Copper Harbor. See keweenawimbd.org.
16-19: Tawas Point Birding Festival, Iosco County, a Michigan Audubon Signature Event. See tawasbirdfest.com.
29-June 2: Leelanau Peninsula BirdFest, billed as Piping Plover Country. See mibirdfest.com.
31-June 2: Cerulean Warbler Weekend, Barry County, a Michigan Audubon Signature Event at Otis Bird Sanctuary. See ceruleanwarbler.org.
17: Birds, Blooms and Butterflies Festival at Dalhem Center, Jackson. See dahlemcenter.org.
21-22: Lake Erie Metropark Hawkfest: metroparks.com. For details, call 734-379-5020.
12-13: CraneFest, Michigan Audubon Signature Event, Bellevue, Calhoun County. See cranefest.org.
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Great post! We just moved into a home with an amazing view of a valley filled with trees. So we’ve taken up bird-watching as a great activity that keeps us involved in the outdoors even when we are in the house.
Duncan: Good for you. I have six feeders in my backyard and never lack for entertainment what with squirrels maurading the feeders too.