‘It is the perfect pandemic hobby’
TBAS members talk about birding, Christmas Bird Count
ALPENA — Some do it for fun, some do it for fresh air, and some do it to commune with nature. Whatever your pleasure, birding is a free hobby you can do all year long at any age, and even during a pandemic.
“It is the perfect pandemic hobby,” said Andrew Wolfgang, who has been birdwatching since he was 6 years old. Now 30, the Alpena High School biology teacher still enjoys birding.
“I really enjoy it and I’ve been doing it quite awhile,” Wolfgang said. “The thing I like about it is that you never know what you’re going to find, so each day is kind of like a treasure hunt. You don’t know what’s out there. It’s always relaxing, too, if you pick the right places.”
Wolfgang moved to Alpena from York, Pennsylvania, where he was vice president of an audubon society. He also worked as a bird researcher in Montana, Rhode Island, and Maine. He’s been in Alpena for a little over a year. He has found Norway Ridge to be a nice birding spot, with all the trees and hiking trails. He likes to pair birding with other outdoor sports, such as kayaking, hiking, biking and even fishing. He said Partridge Point is another good area, as are some places north of town.
“There are migratory pathways, and these birds, they’re attracted to where they can find food,” Wolfgang said, adding that large bodies of water are usually a good place to find birds nearby. Different birds have different habitats, he noted, so, if you’re looking to find a wider variety, you would have to seek out some places in the woods, others near water, and maybe even check out your own back yard.
“It’s pretty simple, you know,” he said. “That’s another reason I love that hobby. Anybody can be good at it, and anybody can do it, and it’s free.”
In 2020, he saw “over 210 different types of birds just here in Alpena County,” he said. “Which I thought was pretty amazing … Obviously, I didn’t see everything that went through. Some other folks caught some things I didn’t see.”
In his 24 years of birding, Wolfgang said, he’s seen just under 500 different types of birds. He noted that, in order to see more types of birds, traveling is key, so this hasn’t been the best year for what’s called “the big year,” referring to listing all the types of birds you can see in one calendar year.
Wolfgang participated in the Christmas Bird Count with the Thunder Bay Audubon Society.
“It’s pretty cool that there’s already a pretty big established community of birdwatchers here,” he said.
TBAS President Karen Tetzlaff said the society has existed for over 50 years. She explained the importance of the Christmas Bird Count.
“It’s done by the National Audubon Society,” she said. “There are what we call count circles. Every group that does a count picks a central location, and you count 15 miles around that point. For us, it’s Duck Park, right in Alpena. So we go 15 miles all around.”
The Alpena count was done on Dec. 19, and the Hubbard Lake count was done on Dec. 17.
“You can do 24 hours of birding that day,” she said. “Now, there’s not much you can see after dark … This year, we did find two barred owls, which is unusual for us.”
Tetzlaff said each counter is assigned a specific area within their circle, so they don’t overlap counting.
“Generally, we try to give the same specific area to the same counter year after year, because you get to know your count area,” she said. “Then, it’s just fun.”
Some of the most popular birds you can see this time of year in the Alpena area include starlings, rock pigeons, chickadees, and cedar waxwings.
Pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, and purple finches were seen this year, as were common redpolls.
“We don’t see those very often,” Tetzlaff said. “In fact, this year is what would be called an ‘eruptive’ year’ for those types of birds. This year, because the pinecone crop in the northern regions, like in Canada, wasn’t very good, they push farther and farther south to find food.”
The Christmas Bird Count provides important information to the National Audubon Society.
“They do follow the trends,” Tetzlaff said. “And it can tell you some of what our climate is doing, and if it’s getting warmer or colder – right now, we’re concerned about it getting warmer — and then that changes the food supply of birds and then they would maybe move, maybe they’ll come farther south. Migrating birds might have a harder time migrating with a little bit of a change in the temperature. So it’s kind of an indication of what the world in general is doing.”
She explained that the Christmas Bird Count is done by the national society, but other counts are going on throughout the year, including the Backyard Bird Count coming up in February.
“There are field counters and feeder counters,” she clarified about the Christmas Bird Count. “The feeder counters literally count the birds out their home windows. Neither have to be members of TBAS to participate, but you do need to register with the local coordinators.”
The Association of Lifelong Learners is presenting two Zoom programs about birding in conjunction with the TBAS. The 2 p.m. Feb. 18 program is called Why We Love Birding, and a 2 p.m. March 18 program is titled Christmas Bird Count.
Thunder Bay Audubon Society is a chapter of the Michigan Audubon Society. For more information, visit thunderbayaudubon.com, facebook.com/thunderbayaudubon, or contact Tetzlaff at 989-464-6573 or email@example.com.
For Dr. Lynn Field, birding is a family affair. He can be found out with his wife, Shauna, daughter, Erica Jones, and her husband, Mark Jones, who recently moved to the area from Iowa City.
On Thursday, Field, his wife and son-in-law were debating what kind of duck they might be seeing out on Lake Huron as they watched from the shore at Blair Street Park.
“It’s an odd duck,” Mark Jones said, groaning after he heard the words come out of his mouth. “I don’t really know my ducks all that well. I thought common goldeneye, because … it’s not a mallard. And it’s got a big white patch near its beak. What else are you thinking?” he asked his father-in-law, who was observing the waterfowl through a spotting scope. The other two were using binoculars.
The “odd duck” was swimming among a group of mallards.
“This bird out here,” he pointed. “I should know what that is, but I don’t. But I don’t think it’s the female goldeneye.”
He said part of the fun of birding is the continual learning experience. He also enjoys being outdoors, and the camaraderie of being in a group with the same interests.
The Field duo has been birding since May 1999.
“We took a beginning birding class,” Dr. Field recalled. “And it was just so much fun … So we continued to dabble in it when we could, and then, when I retired in 2008, it was just something I wanted to do.”
He is now the vice president of the TBAS.
He noted that seeing a northern shrike was a highlight of the count.
“There was a yellow-rumped warbler at the feeder,” Jones added. “And that was really atypical. That definitely shouldn’t be here.”
“Absolutely,” Field agreed. “They are gone by the first of October. It was real weird. It just hung around and had been surviving by eating the suet cake.”
Jones added that, often, the ones who don’t “make the trip” are usually very young or very old.
“That was a special sighting,” Field said.
A snowy owl hanging out by LaFarge was popular on count day as well.
“It was the star of the day for a lot of people,” Jones said.
Paul Vernier participated in the Christmas Bird Count for the first time this year.
While he doesn’t consider himself an avid birding hobbyist, Vernier is a conservationist who is concerned about the future of birds and wildlife in general.
“The situation, as far as the disappearance of up to 3 billion birds in the last 20 or so years, just in the United States, is concerning to me,” he said on Friday. “So I’m interested in it from an ecological standpoint. And I believe it is a wonderful hobby. I’ve always enjoyed identifying birds and seeing birds.”
The primary factors that have contributed to the disappearance of so many birds include loss of habitat through development, particularly marshes, and pollution, Vernier said.
He wanted to get involved in some way to help the situation, so he decided to do the bird count.
He said a great field guide for beginners to pick up is “Birds of North America.” Having a set of binoculars would come in handy, too. Field said TBAS has some for beginners to use, as well.
Vernier also recommends the 2020 novel “Migrations,” by Charlotte McConaghy.
Wolfgang, the 30-year-old biology teacher, got into birding with his grandpa. He said that, in order to interest more young people in the hobby, “the best way to sell it is … just for the sheer relief of anxiety … it’s just a great way to get away from everything that’s going on. It’s a nice way to press pause and put down the screens.”
He added that bringing a friend or family member enriches the experience.
“Just go outside for a walk and see what you can find,” he said.