How birding has made me a better outdoorsman

I’ve always had an interest in birds.

Both sets of my grandparents had feeders in their yards, and when I visited I always enjoyed watching the flurry of activity that came with the approach of hungry birds.

In college, I put my own feeder up in the side yard of the house we rented my junior and senior years. I spent many an afternoon at the kitchen table tapping away at my laptop, pausing occasionally to observe the latest visitors.

When my wife and I bought our first house, I quickly hung up a feeder on one of the old laundry line posts.

There’s a certain pride that comes with being able to accurately identify an assortment of bird species. I appreciate that ability in a person the same way I watch in awe as one my friends, who is a forester, can readily rattle off types of trees by simply looking at the branches strewn about the forest floor.

As a numbers person, I enjoy keeping a tally of the species of birds that frequent our feeder. On occasion, I’ll go out and snap a few photos to share on social media or keep for my own enjoyment. I’ve found this to be a great way to prolong the excitement of duck season long after hunting has ended.

Recently, I’ve taken to logging my bird sightings through ebird, a fun app that provides data to those who track bird patterns and habitats.

As I continue to look for more ways to enjoy the outdoors, birding has become a part of my weekly regimen.

Reflecting back on my birding experiences, I’ve realized this new-found commitment has helped my sharpen some of the skills that assist me when I’m hunting and fishing.

Take the bird identification piece, for example. That skill translates well to waterfowling. Identifying birds on the wing is a crucial part of being a successful duck hunter. Spend an afternoon attempting to differentiate between species of sparrows and all of a sudden picking out the types of ducks in distant rafts doesn’t seem so difficult.

Birding will quickly teach you how to identify birds through methods other than strictly the appearance of feathers. Calls, wing beats, flight patterns, and other mannerisms can also help you solve the identification puzzle. The more time you spend looking at birds, the faster you will be able to pick up on indicators of this type.

Having somewhat of an understanding of bird patterns has also made me more aware of the season changes occurring around me. This, in turn, has altered the expectations I have surrounding the timing of my hunting and fishing excursions.

We humans have a way of labeling the seasons. The calendar hits a certain date or the weather turns in a certain direction and, in our minds, the season has changed. But that’s not always how the animals see it.

Identifying seasonal shifts is a critical part of hunting or fishing success. But too often we revert back to our definitions of seasons, rather than deferring to the signs shown to us by the expertise of the birds whose very survival is dependent upon an adequate migration.

I’ve found that winter isn’t truly over in Wisconsin until I’ve gone several days without seeing a dark-eyed junco. Conversely, fall isn’t in full swing until the last of the robins have made their way out of the area. This happens on a different timeline than the one we assign to the seasons.

It doesn’t matter what we think the weather is doing, it’s how the animals we are pursuing react to the patterns. Now, am I saying you’re going to go out and shoot a Booner the next time you sit in your deer stand because the birds in your yard are acting a certain way? No, not by a long shot. But understanding bird behavior offers a glimpse into the world the way the animals see it.

Remember earlier when I said I use birding to extend my duck season? Well it turns out that hunting ducks with a camera can be just as much fun as hunting them during the season.

Spending time looking for ducks during the winter and spring months has exposed me to species I would never dream of seeing during the hunting season without having to drastically shift my locations.

What normally holds wood ducks, mallards, and other puddle ducks in the summer and fall can become a diver haven for bluebills, goldeneyes, and mergansers once the weather turns cold.

It’s incredibly informative to watch how the birds interact with one another, note their behavior patterns, and the times of day they are most active. If you play your cards right, you’ll get a chance to watch this play out. I’ve even been known to give myself the full hunting experience, complete with camouflage and decoys, but I’m armed with my Nikon instead of my Benelli. Trust me, the experience can be just as fulfilling and beneficial.

Finally, there is one more way (so far) that birding has made me a better outdoorsman. It has forced me to get out and scout, even when I don’t realize I’m doing it.

Many of my birding journeys take me to pieces of land I wouldn’t spend time on otherwise. That has led me to discover a host of new fishing and hunting spots that I never would have checked out.

Both of the King Salmon I caught during this year’s run came from a spot I found while out birding, a place I never would have considered otherwise.

So grab a pair of binoculars and check out the bird scene around you. You may just pick up a helpful tip or perspective that will benefit you the next time you’re out hunting or fishing.

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