Birders keep eyes on the skies

If you've seen the 2011 comedy "The Big Year" where two birding enthusiasts try to defeat the diehard world record holder in a yearlong bird-spotting competition, you marvel at the passion behind the pastime.

The three birders rush here and there, crisscrossing the country, to see rare sighting like a pink-footed goose and a blue-footed booby. They even board a plane to Attu Island, one of the easternmost points of Alaska, and bunk with other birders, hoping to catch rare sightings.

Even though there is no official competition like that, nationally known birder and author David Sibley relates to the experience.

"Keeping track of lists is one really popular aspect of birdwatching — how many species you've seen in your life, in the current year, in a day, in your state, or county or yard — and that can get pretty competitive," says Sibley, author of several books, including "The Sibley Guide to Birds" and "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America," both biblical references for any level birder. His newest book, "The Sibley Guide to Trees," connects with his love for feathered friends, he says.

Sibley, 50, shares his enthusiasm and experiences when he gives the keynote program for the Eastern Shore Birding and Wildlife Festival Oct. 5-7 at Cape Charles, just across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

"Most of my birding has been in North America, studying the birds that are found here," says Sibley, 50, who lives in Concord, Mass.

"I've made a few trips to exotic places like Ecuador, Kenya, Thailand, but I have actually never counted my total life list. It's probably over 2,000 species."

Sibley's interest in birds stems from his father who is an ornithologist. At age 4, he started drawing birds and began keeping a list of birds he saw when he was 7.

"Birding plays to the strengths of kids," he says.

"It's all about pattern recognition and keen senses. Kids pick it up quickly and very well, and I think it's great training for all kinds of skills beyond just learning the names of birds — reading your surroundings, understanding weather, deductive reasoning, trusting your senses, etc.

"Parents put a lot of emphasis on sports, music, and other activities that teach valuable life skills, but going outside and studying nature gets overlooked, even though it's every bit as valuable, and for some kids it's just the right fit."

When he goes birding, Sibley uses Swarovski binoculars and telescope, 8.5 power and 30 power, respectively. He always heads into the field with paper and pencil for sketching and notes.

His favorite birds are the long-eared owl, red-breasted nuthatch, raven and roadrunner — all for their big personalities.

"I really like the colorful birds like warblers, and graceful birds like swallow-tailed kite, but it's character that leaves a lasting impression," he says.

For beginning birders, he suggests you study a field guide at home and get the best binoculars you can afford. Go out with other birders and learn from them; the first 25 species will be the hardest to identify on your own, he says.

"Really watch birds and ask questions," he says.

"What is the bird doing and why? How does the shape or the color pattern change as the bird moves, etc.? Keep a journal, sketch or at least take notes. That's the best way to make a habit of looking closely."

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Getting started

The Hampton Roads and Williamsburg bird clubs offers bird walks and other free educational programs for members and the public; learn more at and Steve Living of York County, a wildlife biologist with Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and birding festival committee member, suggests bird watchers look for these migrating birds this fall: