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Birding blogger Laurence Butler shares his experiences and tips for beginners

When your interest in birds reaches that exciting next level, the only thing you probably want to do is go birding whenever you can. However, when you’re beginning to bird for the first time, it can be pretty overwhelming if you don’t know what to do or how to get started.

So, I recently reached out to burgeoning birder Laurence Butler, who runs a truly amazing blog called Butlers Birds and Things, to find out more about how he became involved in birding and what tips he has for beginning birders. Here’s our exchange, which consists of fantastic stories, helpful advice and great pictures by Laurence. Also, don’t forget to check out his blog after you’re done!

1. Before we delve into things, first start off by telling me a little about yourself.

I’ve been birding off and on for about 10 years now, but have become increasingly attached to the pastime since 2010. I got married last June and am very lucky to enjoy the support and encouragement of my wife. Unfortunately, I often have to spend my non-birding and/or non-being-with-my-wife time working. Fortunately I like my job pretty well. I grew up in Phoenix and went to college in Texas, but now I am back and teaching 4th grade. Only in the last couple of years have I realized what a gem Arizona is for birders. With so many different habitats and migrations routes intersecting, it really is a wonderful place to be as a bird enthusiast.

2. How did you first become interested in birding?

It wasn’t exactly my choice to become interested in birding. Or at least, I had more than a passing push in that direction. My dad has been a birder for a long time. Working as a pilot for Southwest Airlines, he had lots of great opportunities to see birds all across the country. When we’d go on vacations, he was always looking for birds, and I often tried to help. When I was much younger, I was more preoccupied with finding bugs and reptiles—things you could chase and grab and keep in a terrarium at home—but over time my appreciation for birds grew. When I was living in Texas, another great state for birds, it became a very calming, peaceful way to break from the pressures of school. My wife got me a camera for an engagement present, and that has doomed me to follow the birds ever since. I only started keeping a list of my sightings and recording them online more recently, but all of that only increases the enjoyment and attachment to the simple and incredibly rewarding world of birding.

3. Once you knew you wanted to get more involved in birding, where did you start (i.e. just going outdoors, reading about birds, meeting other people, etc.)?

I think it’s unavoidable that as one becomes more fascinated by birds, one reads more and more and more about them. For me it was just the simple field guides at first, but I discovered the expansive world of birding blogs and websites soon after, which provide an ever renewing source of bird information, personal stories, and incredible sightings. Most of all, it motivated me to get out and see what I could find too. As I endeavored to improve my photography and see more species, I was forced to familiarize myself with different bird habitats. Living in Phoenix, there are lots of great destinations about 2 hours outside of the city. However, it was exploring the city parks and ponds and smaller preserves around town that really helped me improve as a birder. I could get closer to the birds and do it very often. I could familiarize myself with their behaviors, recognize them more quickly, and really enjoy all of the beauty, grace, and precision that the birds embodied. It was wonderful when I could fit more exotic birding trips into my schedule, but it has definitely been the smaller preserves and parks in the city (and Phoenix is lucky to have plenty) where I have developed most as a birder.

4. As a relatively new birder, what was one of the most difficult aspects of birding you first encountered?

It seems like there is a steep learning for beginning birders, and I guess to an extent there is. It can be both exciting and daunting to try and pick out the different iterations of gull plumage, or clearly find the subtle differences in the masses of shorebirds, or just remember all of the different species of wood warblers. For me, the greatest challenge was just being patient with the whole affair. I wanted to see all of the cool birds, get all of the cool photos, etc. I felt like there wasn’t enough time and that things were developing too slowly. Of course, this is the wrong mentality to have when it comes to birds. There are opportunities to bird all over and all the time. The most rewarding experiences are often when one can spend more time with the bird than just catching a fleeting glimpse as a part of a hurried day’s excursion. Having bird feeders is a great way to grow one’s skill and appreciation too. Feeders provide consistent views of the birds while they are in their comfort zone. Don’t worry about the wood warblers and Gulls. First just focus on the great birds in the yard, and once one develops that birder’s eye, there will turn out to be many more than you once thought.

5. You said you hadn’t kept any lists of the birds you’ve seen until pretty recently. Do you think beginners should make lists from the start or should they go outside with only the goal to learn?

I still consider myself to be a fairly beginner birder, and the only reason I didn’t keep lists before was that I was too unfamiliar with the overall classifications, habitats, occurrences—in essence, all of the details about what I was observing—to really find it worthwhile to record. I enjoy keeping my lists now, and I recommend it for everyone. Go out of the way to record extra detail about the sighting. Like taking pictures, that extra focus makes one look for and retain more information. It better develops an eye for detail. It makes one scrutinize every bird around and sharpens the senses, ultimately making each subsequent sighting all the more fulfilling.

6. What do you enjoy the most about birding?

I enjoy what incredibly fine-tuned (yes, pun points!) animals they are. They seem so precise and graceful, and yet display as much color and attitude as one will find anywhere in the animal kingdom. They have a simple, fascinating, and majestic freedom when they fly. They appeal to the eye. They appeal to the ear. They appeal to the touch. Heck, I’ll say it, some of them appeal to the taste. I guess that all goes to address the question of why I like birds though. I like birding because it allows me to enter into a beautiful and simple world. There is no stress (for me, not necessarily for the birds). Things make sense. Things have purpose. And yet, there’s never a dull moment. I think now though what I enjoy most about birding is sharing it with others. I love to show the birds and talk about birds with anyone who’s interested. I enjoy that so many people also find it interesting, even if they don’t see themselves as birders.

7. Do you have any stories about a birding experience that had an impact on you?

Lots of birders have their hook bird or hook experience, a sighting that made them irrevocably interested in the avian world, a sighting of such great impact that they were never the same afterwards. My appreciation of birds took a huge leap forward when my family took a trip to upstate New York one summer. I was probably 15 or 16 at the time, and we went on a trek through the Montezuma wildlife preserve near the Finger Lakes. Laurence Butler Sr. pointed out a female grosbeak looking rather brown and lonely on an outstretched tree branch. We observed her for a little while and then he set off after some Cerulean warblers in the distance, while I decided to sit and wait. After a few minutes the handsome male Rose-Breasted flew in and let out his song. It was totally stunning. He was big, beautiful, and unmistakable, even though I hadn’t known such a bird existed at the time. Rose-Breasted Grosbeaks aren’t that uncommon in their range, but for some reason I’ve not seen another one since.

When I was climbing some bluffs near Florence, CO, I also saw an amazing display of raptorial dexterity. While exploring one of the higher plateaus, I saw a buteo hovering maybe another 200 feet in the air. It was riding the thermals quite contentedly, but was soon swarmed by a conspiracy of crows. I watched this mystery buteo endure their harrying swoops for several minutes without her reacting, wondering why raptors put up with this sort of disrespect. Then, quite unexpectedly, the bird flapped its wings with one great lunge and turned with its momentum over to its back, talons now facing skyward towards the approaching crow. This barrel roll caught the crow completely by surprise, and it was already committed to the attack. The hawk made one clean, precise swipe before continuing in its rollover so that it was again right side up. With the occasional feeble flap, the smitten crow plummeted towards the earth. Like a WWII plane with its tail on fire, the bird spiraled down, strings of viscera visibly trailing and flailing in its wake as the crow disappeared into the canyon. The conspiracy was over. The other crows got the heck out of there, and the hawk resumed its smug soaring over its domain.

8. Where did the idea of your blog Butler’s Birds and Things originate?

It was my wife who got me a camera and, therefore, got me hooked on bird photography. It was also her idea that I start a blog to share my photos and experiences. If I could not capture and share my experiences (which is not to say I always do it well), I doubt I would be the avid birder that I am today. The blog is the best way to find other folks with similar interests, and I’m very glad to have it.

9. Your blog features some breathtaking wildlife photography interspersed with fascinating stories of what you saw. Do you think intertwining birding with photography or blogging is a great way for beginners to get started in birding?

Adding photography to my birding regimen has really improved me as a birder. It forces me to be much more observant and also allows me to scrutinize my sightings much better. Photography is invaluable with identifications, and of course makes sharing the experience much easier and enjoyable. Having those visual prompts is also important in the blogosphere. I’m not aware of any birding blogs that get by without at least a few photos, even if they have to borrow them. Birding is a very visual enterprise. A bird blog without pictures is like a symphony that’s just sheet music without sound. Does that mean the photos have to all be superb? Absolutely not! Mine seldom are. Photographing birds is very difficult. They move a lot, have different colors that are tricky to expose, and of course they often try to blatantly avoid you. But even the blurriest photos are still points for conversation and analysis. Even the blurriest photo still captures something about the bird. Photography is neither essential nor necessary to enjoy birding, but it definitely does not detract from it (although it does open up new frustrations when you feel like you should’ve gotten a good shot and didn’t). I do think it helps beginning birders tremendously. It certainly helped me. That being said, camera equipment is expensive. Get acquainted with binoculars and the birds first, or the double learning curve of learning photography and learning birds can be overwhelming.

10. What’s your favorite bird among those you’ve been lucky enough to see?

I’m not sure if it’s really hard to pick a favorite bird or if it’s too easy—there are so many contenders. At any rate, my favorite seems to change all the time. The Rose-Breasted Grosbeak will always be up there, as will the stunning Green Jays from south Texas. Seeing a cool bird and getting a good photo makes it extra endearing, and to that effect the Elf Owl, Burrowing Owl, and Lark Sparrow are in the running. I think my favorite right now is the Greater Roadrunner. There’s no other bird like it.

11. What’s one piece of advice you’d give to someone looking to get started in birding?

Bird as much as you can, and try to be patient! I still spend lots of time reading blogs and pouring over bird books, but there’s no substitute in terms of learning or fulfillment for time out in the field, even if you’re only finding common birds. Pretty soon, you’ll start to notice and recognize more and more different species. Feeders work great to that effect, as mentioned earlier. There are always opportunities to bird. Whenever you take a trip or are outside, try to find a little bit of time to observe some birds. It will always be time well spent, and it will only get better and better. Don’t be shy about asking questions, involving yourself in forums, etc. I’ve made so many embarrassing ID errors it stopped being embarrassing a long ago. Back in September, I observed a large black vulture-like bird for a good 3 or 4 seconds before realizing it was a Hefty trash bag.

All photos are by Laurence Butler. See more photos at butlersbirdsandthings.blogspot.com.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.