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The beginner's guide to bird-watching in the St. Louis area

Mature couple with binoculars

Photo by Getty Images

Locally, birding – also known as bird-watching or bird study – enjoys a vast following, and David Becher and Pat Lueders of the Missouri Birding Society briefly suggest why.

“The chief merits of birding are that it gets you out of doors and allows you to connect with nature,” Becher says. “It’s also a social activity, which will allow you to connect with people with similar interests.”

Lueders echoes her colleague: “Birding is the perfect way to get people outside, either alone or with others, to enjoy all aspects of nature besides the birds.”

Bill Rowe, president of the board of the St. Louis Audubon Society, praises the activity for its adaptability and notes that “the experience of gradually learning to identify more birds, and to grasp more about their relationships and evolution and adaptations, is open-ended and potentially lifelong.”

Roger M. Holloway, the executive director and CFO of the World Bird Sanctuary, names patience as a prerequisite for birding. “To experience it fully,” he remarks, “one must enter the habitat with as little disruption as possible and do your best to assimilate yourself into the surroundings, so the birds you seek can ‘learn’ to ignore you – see you as nonthreatening.”

Rowe also describes birding as a year-round pastime. “Midwinter and midsummer each have their own sets of birds that are out there to be found,” he says, “and many birders are similarly out there in all seasons, dressed like skiers in the winter or warm-weather hikers in the summer.”

Becher and Lueders agree.

Barn Owl sitting in a tree

Photo by Getty Images

“It’s good for beginning birders to go out year-round to learn the area’s resident birds,” Lueders says, and her colleague comments: “The peak migration seasons are in May and September for land birds and March and October for ducks.”

“Fledglings” of the activity may find themselves puzzling over the best sites for birding in the metro area. Holloway says Forest Park or Tower Grove Park are good places to start and also mentions Kirkwood’s Powder Valley Conservation Nature Center, his own avian sanctuary, St. Louis County’s Lone Elk Park and West Alton’s Audubon Center at Riverlands.

Becher adds: “In the immediate Ladue area, places to bird include Queeny Park, Creve Coeur Lake and [again] Forest Park, to name just the most prominent.”

“Once a person starts looking at birds and exploring websites and maps and guidebooks, he or she will quickly develop a repertoire of favorite places,” Rowe notes. “Within 30 to 40 minutes of Ladue, this might include Riverlands, Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, Creve Coeur Lake County Park, [the August A.] Busch and Weldon Spring conservation areas, and many more.”

Baltimore Oriole

Photo by Getty Images

For birding purposes, the experts note, neophytes absolutely need two pieces of equipment: a dependable field guide and a pair of binoculars. Holloway recommends “The Sibley Guide to Birds” and “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America,” while Rowe cites Kenn Kaufman’s “Birds of North America” as a primer. Holloway also suggests shopping for binoculars in person for the opportunity to try them out, and Lueders affirms you can get a decent pair for at least $300.

Becher adds: “If someone wants to try birding and isn’t sure about whether they want to spend the money, the St. Louis County Library has a binoculars loan program.”

Rowe suggests binoculars “in the 7 to 10 power magnification range and the 30- to 45-millimeter range for the front lenses – that is, something like ‘7x35’ or ‘8x42’ stamped on the binoculars.”

Binoculars with a magnification of 10 will make an object look 10 times closer than it really is. The metric number, meanwhile, refers to the amount of light the binoculars admit, with the higher the number, the more light admitted – a signal consideration, say, for birding near twilight or on beclouded days.

Holloway voices a sentiment likely shared by birders worldwide: “In the larger picture, you change a little with each rare encounter, as the fragility and importance of our earth’s biodiversity strike another chord within.

“Most people go through their lives with little to no awareness of the beauty and intricacy of life around them. These birds delivered it right to us – and made our lives better and richer!”

Missouri Birding Society, 2101 W. Broadway, PMB 122, Columbia, mobirds.org

St. Louis Audubon Society, P.O. Box 220227, St. Louis, 314-687-3942, stlouisaudubon.org

World Bird Sanctuary, 125 Bald Eagle Ridge Road, Valley Park, 636-225-4390, worldbirdsanctuary.org

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Bryan A. Hollerbach serves as LN's copy editor and one of its staff writers. He loves to read, write, impersonate an amateur artist and research all things bibulous.

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