Flight Lines: Indoor pursuits for the anxious birder
Through the slowly thickening coat of frost oozing across your spare room window you glimpse your bundled-up neighbor trudging out to her car to attempt a start. The layer of snow that fell last night crunches loudly under her heavy boots. It's crisp and clear, 'at least the sun is shining,' you tell yourself, 'it's not all that bad.'
Briefly, the idea of going for a walk in a nearby park to look for birds strikes you, yet somehow this trusty impulse lacks urgency now. Yeah, it's that time of year. You tell yourself that there really aren't that many birds around anyway. Truly, after watching Breaking Bad for the second time and finishing the crocheting of your new niece's baby blanket, what's left for the house-bound, cabin-fever suffering bird watcher to do?
Start by gathering your optics and cleaning them thoroughly according to manufacturing recommendations. No doubt there is a lot of dirt, sand, and dust that has accumulated over the season. Removing this contamination will help in prolonging the lives of these indispensable and valuable tools. Be very cautious with rubbing anything on your lenses as the coatings applied by the optics companies are vulnerable to damage. It's these coatings that give your binoculars or spotting scopes their punch...and their price tag.
Permanently record or file your checklists. Those scraps paper where you scribbled down "EATO" (eastern towhee) and "WBNU" (white-breasted nuthatch) have accumulated to the point where the task seems daunting. I must confess there is a drawer somewhere with probably hundreds of such checklists or bird records that I have yet to make order of. I need to tackle this soon. Thankfully there is much electronic help these days. The website, eBird, is the logical and most popular place to record your personal data. It's free and it's forever.
Read a book. Seriously, whether it's studying a field guide or reading a narrative about someone's birding adventure, perusing bird literature can magically make the winter seem that much shorter. It's akin to leafing through new seed catalogs while planning this year's garden. A person cannot help but place himself on a mental excursion into sunny warmer months. I recommend Mark Cocker's Birds and People. It's a large, beautifully photographed book that speaks elegantly to the interface between man and birds, now and throughout the ages.
Be ready for spring by relearning your bird songs. I am one of those people who tend to lose a little edge during these silent months. I forget a little. Just last week someone played a recording of a locally common bird singing its song. I hastily rifled through my mental Rolodex and blurted, 'lark sparrow.' Only it wasn't that at all. It was the song of the vesper sparrow.
Plenty of resources are out there to aid in the learning of bird song. Smart phone apps from Sibley, National Geographic, or Audubon are popular but come with a cost. Libraries should have free CDs for checkout. A few websites feature free bird sound files as well. Look at allthebirds.com and xeno-canto.com.
Now is the time to book that day-long pelagic excursion you've been wishing to do all these years. Look at your calendar and reserve a seat on one of several professionally guided boat trips that will take you miles out into the ocean to see seabirds a person will likely never encounter on land. I've yet to ever do this but it's high on my wish list.
Finally, plan a Big Day. Find a friend or two and get serious about taking a shot at a local bird record by counting all the species you encounter in a day. It can be a ton of fun. Simply decide what your boundary is (a county, a state, or something else) and give it your best shot. You might even wish to turn it into a fundraiser by seeking donations for your effort.
These are just a few of the many things a person could be tackling during these times when it seems you'd rather watch the house finches at your feeder than slide into your long underwear and snow boots again. I'm not at all suggesting the outdoors be ignored, I'd never do that. But find some comfort in knowing there is much a birder can accomplish when the winds of February seem a tad too cold.