Becoming a Better Birder

Sheridan Samano, author of Best Birding Hikes - Colorado's Front Range offers her insights into birding and what keeps her coming back.

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How did you start birding? Could you describe your initial experience?

“In the early 90’s, I was a student at Texas A&M University in its Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences program. Ornithology, the study of birds, happened to be one of the first majors course I took. In that class, we had weekend field trips to area birding spots. I vividly remember seeing, really seeing, a Bald Eagle for the first time. It was perched in a tree near a reservoir. We observed it for several minutes before it flew from its perch. My mouth dropped when I saw its wingspan as it flew away. I had no idea Bald Eagles were that big.

During another outing in the same class, we were birding along a rural road that had a field bordered by barbed wire fence. Our TA (teaching assistant) for the lab, asked us if we noticed anything on the fence. When we looked closer, we saw grasshoppers impaled on some of the barbs. The Loggerhead Shrike, also called the Butcher Bird, impales its prey and leaves it for later consumption. Those grasshoppers were a shrike’s future meal. A masked bird that impales its prey – how cool is that? It only took a few more sightings like that and I was hooked on birding. I’ve been hooked ever since.”

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Out of everything you come across on the trail, what keeps you coming back to bird watching?

“Every outing is different. There are a few trails close to my home that I’ve started visiting on an almost weekly basis. Birding provides the opportunity to observe how the landscape changes with the seasons and how the birds present mirror those changes. That in itself is enough to keep bringing me back. Add to that the chance to see something you’ve never seen before each to you go out and you have a hobby that provides pleasure for years to come.”

What are the top three tips you would offer to any beginning birders?

“1. Practice! As with any new skill, practice and you will get better.

2. Slow down. Don’t rush through a bird walk. Spend time observing a bird’s behavior and try to find as many clues as you can that will help you recognize that bird faster the next time you see it.

3. Set yourself up for success. Don’t try to learn every Colorado bird at once. Spend time in birdy locations (every trail in the book falls into that category) so you have a better opportunity to find a variety of species during each outing.”

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What makes these hikes such great places to practice birding?

“When I first started writing this book, I planned to include trails from all of the major habitat types along Colorado’s Front Range. As I started scouting trails, I found that the trails with the greatest diversity of species skewed toward foothills elevations close to water. All 25 trails have more than 100 species recorded at that location. This relates to Tip 3 above – spend time in birdy locations. The trails were also selected based on the quality of scenery they offer. Even if you don’t see many birds during your hike, you’ll still enjoy a beautiful Front Range trail.”

What makes your book different from other birding literature?

“This is the first book in Colorado that features specific Front Range trails for birding with an emphasis on the common birds likely to be encountered. Past books gave locations, but not specific trails for hiking. Each chapter also includes a Featured Bird section as well as information intended to spark the reader’s curiosity and aid in identification of species common to that habitat. By the time the reader birds all 25 trails, they’re going to be a better birder.”

Are there any misconceptions about birding?

“Two come to mind – one is that birding is only for older individuals. It’s an activity that can be enjoyed by folks young, old and everything in between. I love when my two boys (8 and 10 years old) join me for a bird walk. The second is that it’s boring. That’s so far from the truth. Birding opens up a whole new world waiting to be discovered. If you start noticing the birds, even a walk in your neighborhood or drive to the grocery store becomes more interesting.”

What is the best trail in Colorado to practice birding?

“I don’t think there’s one best trail in Colorado. There are lots to choose from around the state. One of my favorite spots is Walden Ponds in Boulder and I absolutely love the scenery of the hike at Mueller State Park. Walden Ponds is an excellent four-season birding spot – waterfowl in the winter, Osprey and Great Blue Herons in summer, and Bald Eagles year-round. Mueller is best from late spring to early fall. Clark’s Nutcracker, one of my favorite Colorado birds is a resident there. If you’re interested in seeing a specific bird, find out what habitat it prefers and bird there. My hope is that the reader will find a few trails that quickly become birding favorites for them.”