I'm no serious birder. I don't own a spotting scope or a camera with a foot-long lens. Nor am I a "life lister" as depicted in The Big Year, a recent comedy about competitive birdwatching.
But I do love seeing birds while I'm out hiking in the mountains, walking on the beach or hanging out in the backyard. I also enjoy taking their photos with my point-and-shoot camera, even if the pictures are less than coffee-table-book worthy.
I've come across some cool birds while out on the trail this year: a bald eagle (right) who stared me down from his branch overhead, a sooty grouse who wandered into my picnic spot, and a bird I'd only seen a couple times, a beautiful western tanager with brilliant orange and yellow feathers.
Above: Sooty grouse (left), western tanager (right)
More than once, gray jays (a.k.a. camp robbers) gathered around my group and waited for that opportune second to steal a piece of sandwich or trail mix.
Probably the most fun to watch (and to say) was a water ouzel, a songbird that actually feeds underwater in fast-moving streams. It stands on the rocks and bobs its head up and down before plunging in to snatch up mayflies and other insects. Because of its funny bobbing motion, it's also called the American dipper, but I prefer the name water ouzel. It could be a character right out of a Dr. Seuss book.
Some cool birds have passed through my own backyard too. I once watched a Cooper's hawk eyeing tasty little birds at the feeder, and an osprey actually flew over my house with a fish in its talons! (I live near salt water where these big raptors—also called fish eagles or sea hawks—hang out.)
Now that it's almost winter, I've made sure my feeders are full for the usual visitors, including chickadees, goldfinches, juncos, Steller's jays, and, of course, "LBJs" (little brown jobs).
You, too, can get to know your backyard visitors by simply putting up a bird feeder and seeing who shows up. Winter is a particularly good time to do this since food is harder to find.
Or you can take it a step further by helping to count and observe bird populations with thousands of other "citizen scientists" this winter. Across the country, volunteers are counting the birds in their backyards, schools, workplaces and in the field. The information they record helps conservation efforts of organizations like the National Audubon Society.
Here's how you can participate:
Join Cornell University's Project Feederwatch which takes place between November and early April.
Take part in the National Audubon Society's 112th annual Christmas Bird Count in communities across the country. The count runs mid-December through January 5.
Or, try out the annual 4-day Great Backyard Bird Count in February.
Here's a look at some young citizen scientists at work:
Are you a birdwatcher? Share your favorite bird encounters and photos.