A few weeks ago, our apartment became home to a few more roommates: Darwin and Petra.
The young java finches will bounce, flutter about and show their rebellion by bathing in the drinking water (and vice versa). They have their own personalities that have given us wonder, entertainment and oh-so-beautiful songs — all things bird enthusiasts say are reasons to go outside the apartment for spring birdwatching.
Sure, the season might look a bit different this year, with COVID vaccines perhaps stealing the spotlight from greener grass and the promise of gardening. But the birds are here like clockwork.
In the spring, tree leaves haven’t quite formed so we can see feathered friends much better, and many are migrating back home. That leaves local birders like Susie Eaton Hopper excited.
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum public relations and media specialist says she’s “just a hobbyist” but is more and more intrigued by birds as she watches them.
“I am just in love with birds. I think they are a great monitor of how well we’re doing in the natural world and they're so fun to watch,” she says.
WANT TO TRY YOUR EYE/EAR AT BIRDING?
For those new to the birdwatching scene, Hopper and the Audubon Chapter of Minneapolis offer a few tips on how to get started.
Early in the morning is usually best. It’s when the birds are most active in song — from daybreak until 8 or 9 a.m. (our lack of sleeping in can confirm this, despite our attempt at room-darkening curtains).
The rest boils down to a few things: binoculars, a field guide, and an eBird account if you’re feeling devout.
The chapter says a nicer pair of binoculars could cost around $200. It can help make the experience more fulfilling, but Hopper says anything will do.
“I learned to get a really good pair of field glasses that are made for birding, not Uncle Bob’s binoculars,” she says of her training by local expert and Arb operations director Alan Branhagen. “If you were out taking a walk, you might hear birds but not see them at all because they are tiny in general and they are up in trees.”
It’s why she recommends learning to identify birds based on their songs.
“You stop and then you listen and then you look and it just adds so much. It’s like the music to a walk,” Hopper says.
Carrying along a field guide, available at public libraries or as phone apps, can also help you identify birds and know what to look for. Setting up an eBird account lets people — and scientists — keep track of which birds they see through the online database.
It could also help people like me, who mistakenly labeled sir Petra as a lady upon our first meeting (his glorious song later confirmed his gender as only male finches can sing).
WHERE TO BIRD
For those in the southwest metro, places along the Minnesota River seem to be rich spots for, well, spotting.
Shakopee’s Louisville Swamp and Wilkie Unit or the Rapids Lake Visitor Center in Carver are good places to start, the local Audubon chapter says. They’re all part of the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Those more keen to exploring can check out the Minnesota Bird Atlas’ interactive map. It shows areas with confirmed bird sightings like Great Egrets near Prior Lake and Savage or yellow-headed blackbirds around Chaska.
Hopper says the Arboretum itself can be a great place to try out birding.
“It’s a really uninterrupted place, so you don’t have big highways and lots of cars and there are acres and acres and acres of woodland,” she says.
The 16-some miles of trails and other distinct areas like the bog offer different habitats to see new birds. The Arboretum usually has an annual bird day, but this year it’ll go without because of the pandemic, Hopper says.
All of this seem like a little too much? The Minneapolis Audubon chapter says all you really need is a neighborhood park or backyard to see local fauna.
Or, when in doubt (but in need of bird-based happiness), your local reporter just might have a cute finch video ready to send your way.