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From back yards to fields to woodlands

By Ben Calwell, Metro Reporter
Bird watching -- “birding” to aficionados -- is an enjoyable and challenging outdoor activity. Useful gear includes binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses.
Brown thrasher (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)
Eastern towhee (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)
Blue-gray gnatcatcher (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)
Eastern meadowlark (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)
Northern mockingbird (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)
Scarlet tanager (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)
Yellow-throated warbler (Photo by Arnold Huyghebaert)

The challenge and joy of bird watching can begin in your own back yard or a nearby field or woodland.

Just by venturing outdoors it’s possible to spot a variety of species common to the area -- or even to spot the occasional rare bird that causes veteran birders to have trembling hands and unsteady binoculars.

Avid birder Steven Richards, director of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Studies at West Virginia State University, has taught bird-watching courses through WVSU’s Continuing Education program. Richards earned a doctorate in Natural Resource Management and Ecotourism Studies and has led birding tours in the rainforests of Southern Belize.

“Part of the fun in watching birds in one’s own yard is the possibility of finding a rarity,” Richards said.

Richards said it’s important for bird-watching enthusiasts to take into account various environmental factors that dictate where and when birds are likely to be found.

“Beginners are tempted to think that all bird species in their guidebooks are to be found at any time and in all places. Although strays and unseasonal records do appear on occasion, birds are not uniformily distributed at all seasons and in all places,” Richards said.

Still, he said, birds, like people, have minds of their own and can show up in places where they’re not expected.

They can turn up anywhere, “including your own back yard,” he said.


The best way to attract birds to your yard is to provide food, water and a suitable habitat for nesting, foraging and sheltering.

“Water is an essential element often missing in back yards and gardens. All living organisms require water, and birds are no exception,” Richards said. “Even more effective, the sound and motion of running water is a magnet for birds.”

And make sure your yard habitat provides a variety of trees, shrubs and flowering plants. “Sterile” lawn environments aren’t conducive to attracting a variety of birds, Richards said.

Birds, Blooms & Butterflies by Design in Hurricane has developed pre-designed, 32-plant native perennial gardens for songbirds, pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds that be ordered for both residential or commercial clients, said shop owner Rob O’Quinn.

“We have partnered with a local lawn and landscape company to provide land prep and installation, if needed. Otherwise, the one-quart plants can easily be planted by the client,” O’Quinn said.

O’Quinn’s shop, near the entrance to Valley Park in Hurricane, carries a variety of bird feeders, bird seed and other unique products for birding and nature enthusiasts. O’Quinn said birds can be fed year-round, not just in the wintertime.

“The Cornell (University) Lab of Ornithology scientists state, ‘Keep the restaurant open year-round and offer a variety of seeds and suet,’” he said.

Summer is a great time for backyard bird watching.

“Depending on where you live, you may be visited by rose-breasted or black-headed grosbeaks as well as several species of orioles and hummingbirds that will be hundreds or thousands of miles away later in the year,” O’Quinn said.

Birds, Blooms & Butterflies by Design carries many types of bird feeders, including ground-feeding trays or platform feeders; elevated feeders, such as hopper feeders and tube feeders; and suet feeders.

“People who are new to backyard or balcony bird feeding sometimes wonder about what kind of bird feeder to get, where to put it and what seeds to provide. Most of them hold seeds, but others are designed to hold packets of suet or fat and still others provide sugar water or nectar -- a favorite of hummingbirds.”

O’Quinn is happy to offer advice on what types of feeders or bird seed would be good for a customer’s backyard environment. For more information, visit

Once a feeder is in place, it’s important to keep it clean.

“Clean feeders at least once a month. Use one part bleach to 10 parts water or white vinegar and water and then let the feeder fully air dry. Keep seed stored in a cool, dry place and watch for mold,” he said.

There is pleasure in simply watching a variety of birds visit your yard habitat, but many enthusiasts take it a step farther by keeping records and joining organizations dedicated to birds.

“For many individuals, keeping records of their bird sightings is an enjoyable way to keep track of birding experiences,” Richards said. “Keeping ‘yard lists’ or ‘life lists’ can became a passion to be shared with like-minded individuals.”

Richards said there are many excellent birding books and field guides available. There are also birding apps for smart phones, such as Merlin Bird ID by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; the iBird Pro Guide to Birds or the Audubon Bird Guide: North America.

“Bird counts are annually conducted by the National Audubon Society and are popular avenues for active involvement with birding activities,” he said.

A good source for information about birding in West Virginia is the Handlan Chapter of the Brooks Bird Club. The Handlan Chapter is Charleston’s oldest and only organized group dedicated to the study and enjoyment of wild birds. They meet at the South Charleston Public Library on the third Monday of the month at 6:30 p.m. Visit their website at


To enhance the bird-watching experience, many birders use binoculars.

According to Richards, who has spent a good deal of time in the field observing birds, it’s important to buy a quality pair of binoculars that will last.

“Really good binoculars will last for decades and reward their owner with endless opportunities for recreational and educational experiences. Spend what you can afford for quality,” he said.

When shopping for binoculars, pay attention to the magnification rating. All binoculars feature a set of numbers that are important. Examples include 8X32, 7X35 or 10X42.

“The first number refers to the magnification power of the optics, or how large the image of your intended subject will appear compared to the image if viewed with the unaided eye. Magnification increases as the first number increases,” Richards said.

For example, 8X is more “powerful” than 7X and 10X is more “powerful” than 8X.

“Anything smaller than 7X will be unsuitable for observing birds in their natural environments, because the magnification will not be enough. Conversely, anything larger than 10X is cumbersome in the field and too heavy to carry about after an all-day field experience.”

High-magnification binoculars, such as 10X, can also amplify even the smallest movements of your hands while holding them.

“On many occasions during cold, winter mornings in the field, I have had to switch to lower-powered binoculars, because even slight shivering can influence performance. For this reason, many birders choose to compromise, picking the middle ground, opting for 8X bins. The best models offer close focus, depth of field and excellent field of view while enjoying good magnification for quality field experiences.”


For backyard bird watchers who catch the bug and want to raise their birding to the next level, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources lists areas in the state that are good choices for bird watching. Among them are:

Kanawha State Forest

Location: Off Route 119, four miles south of Charleston

Featured species: “warbler waves,” red-shouldered hawks, thrushes, Acadian flycatchers, redstarts, cerulean and hooded warblers

Greenbottom WMA

Location: Route 2, Greenbottom, Cabell County

Featured species: shorebirds, waterfowl, flycatchers, tree swallows, prothonotary warblers, blue grosbeaks, harriers

Stonewall Jackson Lake State Park/WMA

Location: Off I-79, south of Weston, Lewis County

Featured species: waterfowl, osprey, field and scrub species

Canaan Valley State Park

Location: Route 32 south of Davis, Tucker County

Featured species: flycatchers, Nashville warblers, field birds, raptors (check with naturalist at nature center for specifics)

Area: Cranberry Glades

Location: Routes 150 and 55, west of Marlinton, Pocahontas County

Featured species: flycatchers, Northern warblers (check at visitors’ center)

For more areas, go to:


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