When the pandemic hit last year, birdwatchers found solace in their serene, outdoor hobby. “Birding is the ultimate pandemic hobby,” says local birdwatcher Eliza Cantlay. “It’s outdoors, easy to social distance, and accessible for all, all over the world.”
Cantlay says her birdwatching expertise has ratcheted up a few notches simply because it provided economical entertainment. “A solid pair of binoculars is the only expense, and there are plenty of decent, inexpensive pairs,” she says. “I use a bright, yellow pair my grandmother gave me while she was decluttering years ago.”
Want to get started on your way to amateur ornithologist status? Cantlay says there are plenty of tricks, tips, and techniques out there.
How did you get hooked on this hobby?
“I arrived in this life loving birds. I’ve gone birdwatching here and there over the years. The pandemic kicked it into an obsession and a full-blown passion! As a child I was obsessed with raptors (birds of prey) but I’m currently in a passerine (songbird) phase. I’m smitten with these delicate, little creatures that fly and sing beautiful songs everywhere I go.”
What exactly does birding entail?
“Birding for me can happen at multiple levels depending on my amount of free time. At home I can simply sit at my desk where I can see four of our eight feeders. Some days I can identify eight different species by ear just walking from my front door to my car. Sometimes it’s getting up at 5:30 a.m. during the migration season to go in search of warblers.
I started my Life List in October 2020 and I’ve seen 122 species so far. I’m both a wandering and a backyard birder. For birding at home, I recommend a simple hummingbird station or a suet block and cage (normally under $5). If you’re wanting to start small, Backyard Birds in North Kansas City got me started on the feeders. Watching birds is better than any version of screen time.”
Is there a birdwatching society in KC?
“There are at least three that I know of, but my favorite one is the Bird by Birds Meetup group hosted by Rachael Crawford. She’s incredible. It’s free to join and she knows so much about the many local birds. Her enthusiasm is contagious. We’ve done morning warbler walks, evening owl outings, and sometimes we go on very specific missions.
My first outing with Rachael and the group was to Jerry Smith Park at dusk to watch the bizarre mating ritual of the American Woodcock. You can’t make this stuff up. If you want to be a wandering birder, do not miss Rachael’s group!
If you’re a newbie, you can also use Cornell’s free apps, Merlin and eBird, in tandem as you bird. (Merlin is for identification help, and eBird is for logging what you see.)”
And now you’re going to school to learn more? Wait, what?
“I take online classes with Cornell Ornithology Lab. It’s a self-paced program. I just completed the course on birding by ear. As of writing this I’m in Bethany Beach, Delaware, on vacation so I just started their shorebirds course.”
Where’s a legit bird ‘burb?
“Kansas City’s metro is brimming with amazing pockets and corridors for birds! My favorites are Tomahawk Creek trail just off the Leawood Aquatic Center, Black Hoof Park, the great blue heron rookery in Lenexa and Jerry Smith Park.
Open the Merlin app I mentioned and use the sound ID feature, which is like Shazam for birds, and see what’s around Just try not to get hooked!”
Finally, what have you learned since you started birdwatching? Do tell!
“On a big scale, birds are a terrific indicator of changes in our world. On a smaller scale, did you know that crows make and leave gifts for humans that they trust? Or that hummingbirds are vicious with one another and will fiercely guard a food source? Or that a scarlet tanager sounds exactly like a robin but with a sore throat? I love all the tiny fun facts I’ve learned!”