How to get started in birding

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Cars are whizzing past me as I walk down a major artery in Orlando. Suddenly, they begin to slow and even stop; an ostentation of peacocks is crossing the street, strolling like browsers at a farmers market.

It’s not surprising to see peacocks on a busy street. Central Florida is chockablock with birds — exotic, common, wading, diving, hunting, humming, singing, running. I thought I knew them pretty well until the day I came across the crested caracara on audubon.org. The stately brown raptor has a white head and neck, a severe black crest, an orange face and a lethal-looking blue-gray beak. They are elegant hunters but also efficient scavengers. How had I missed an eagle-size bird that looks downright debonair while chasing vultures off roadkill?

In a short time, I romanticized the birds so much that I didn’t want to see them at a zoo or in an aviary. That’s like going to see someone at work. I’ve never gone into the wild looking for a bird before; it’s not my place. I’m more an air conditioning and TV type, supportive of the great outdoors without having to darken its leafy doorway. If I was going to find a caracara, though, I was going to need some recommendations on where and how to look for these birds.

I’m not the only one whose imagination has been captured by caracaras.

“I had no idea they existed. I wasn’t looking for them. I wasn’t ready for them,” said writer and musician Jonathan Meiburg, author of “A Most Remarkable Creature: The Hidden Life of the World’s Smartest Birds of Prey,” a love letter to the nine species of caracara. Ready or not, he was doing research on remote societies in the Falkland Islands when three striated caracaras landed nearby and regarded him with a curiosity and forwardness he didn’t expect from wild animals.

Meiburg ended up volunteering to work on a caracara survey on the outermost Falkland Islands, which are teeming with wild birds, “like it was thousands of years ago,” he said. “I didn’t know the world could be like that.”

I needed some quick, practical advice on how to look for birds, and I found it on the National Park Service’s Birding for Beginners webpage, which notes that birding is an accessible hobby that you can do anywhere; all you need is a bird guide, binoculars and a positive attitude. I knew where to get two of those.

A concise guide to birding in your own backyard

Bob Mulvihill, ornithologist for the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, recommended the BirdsEye Bird Finding Guide. It “updates very frequently, so you can often see what has been seen at a spot earlier the same day,” he said. He also recommended eBird Mobile from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which allows birders to log their sightings in a global database. The app has “turned the observations of birders everywhere into data that can be used for a great many important purposes,” he said.

It also showed me that the caracaras of Florida weren’t that far away — a small mercy with gas prices soaring like, well, raptors.

Before going anywhere, I practiced using my borrowed binoculars — a birding tool, Mulvihill says, that changes everything. Taking the time to learn how they work, with an in-person or online tutorial, can transform the experience. “I know when I hear the gasps that people have finally seen a bird with their binoculars very well, and possibly for the first time ever,” Mulvihill said.

It happened to me. At a local park, my partner, Doug, and I used the binoculars to spy on an adorable black-and-white warbler and green heron catching minnows. Doug is a wildlife person and is used to this kind of visual access, but I was taken aback by having such intimacy with an animal whose presence is typically so fleeting. Normally, I wouldn’t have noticed these birds unless they were perched on my glasses, as I am so used to moving through the world without really looking at a lot of it.

Before setting out in search of crested caracaras, I decided to do a trial run at a local park with a lot of flora, fauna and, best of all, shade — although Mulvihill points out that following the sun, especially in the early morning, will net you more sightings. A patch of sun warms the birds, “but more importantly, it warms their food, the insects,” he said.

Still feeling lucky, we went to the local dump, because it seemed like the logical place to find scavengers. Reader, we did. There were lots of vultures and non-scavengers, too, such as a red-tailed hawk, probably hunting rats, and an intensely cute killdeer, which was as out of place as a Squishmallow among the rusted refrigerators and mildewed mattresses.

A more experienced birder told us we stood a chance of reaching our goal about an hour south, so we headed to Joe Overstreet Landing, a boat launch in Kenansville on Lake Kissimmee. The most abundant animals on this long road into Florida’s interior were cattle, which were even grazing near the boat ramps. We saw fast-flying American kestrels, white ibis looking like the Egyptian god Thoth, towering sandhill cranes, black vultures, turkey vultures and one bull that seemed to be following us. This put me more “in the moment” than I care to be. As we hopped into the car and took off, I saw above us a huge bird with a dark body, black-and-white wing tips and a white neck. It could easily have been a caracara.

“This is your white whale,” Doug said. He wasn’t wrong.

The Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge and its Black Point Wildlife Drive, a stone’s throw from the Kennedy Space Center, were godsends. There are seven miles of dirt road that visitors are allowed to drive, bike or walk, with designated areas where you can park and look more closely at a bird or gator or walk a trail, which we did. We saw a green heron and great blue herons, lots of egrets, numerous sandpipers doing their always-cheering little dashes from morsel to morsel in the salt marsh, and many others we couldn’t identify.

Scotland’s Bass Rock belongs to the birds

On a tip that caracaras had gone south, we drove to the Ritch Grissom Memorial Wetlands in Viera, which promised the birds on a sign that told you what wildlife to expect. That sign was alongside one about it being alligator nesting season and not to go near, or even think about, alligators while in the park. Usually that kind of thing would make me decide I’d rather go to Target, but I was determined to go in. I kept walking even when I saw a little gator in the water, my stomach stiff with nerves and hope.

Here we mostly saw lots of anhingas, also called snakebirds for the serpentine look of their long necks and heads sticking out of the water. Then we saw something huge with pink wings rising up into the sky: a roseate spoonbill. I’d seen them before, but never in flight, and it looked like something from “Fantasia” with the sun shining through its bubble-gum-colored feathers. Then I saw a four-foot alligator on the bank in front of us and skedaddled like a shoplifter.

Before we left Viera, we asked a local police officer about caracaras. He said there was one that used to hang around his house trying to tear his screens down. He showed us a picture of it sitting on his windowsill.

I did finally get to see a caracara, but it was at the Audubon Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. Not finding the birds you’re looking for, it turns out, is a big part of looking for birds. On the other hand, the birds we did see, the fun we had discovering new places together and the proverbial voyage of self-discovery — me walking past an alligator like it was someone I didn’t want to talk to at a party — made for a worthy quest, and one I intend to continue. Who knows, I may even buy my own binoculars.

Like Ishmael said: “I try all things; I achieve what I can.”

Langley is a writer based in Orlando. Find her on Twitter: @LizLangley.

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https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2022/06/09/birding-beginner-tips-caracara-florida/