B irdwatching isn’t just for the birds.
More often called “birding” by those who actually do it, the hobby carries many benefits for people, too, including getting them outdoors and physically active. Bill Batsford, President of the New Haven Bird Club, which was established in 1907 and has nearly 500 members today, says he often walks two to five miles in the course of a birding expedition.
Meanwhile, he says, “I’m always learning, and always getting better.” The learning curve may be long, but it’s not steep. Equipped with the essential tools of the trade—a pair of binoculars and a field guide identifying different species—even a newbie can pick out, say, American Goldfinches, common backyard birds with bright yellow coloring and a happy, chirping song.
Like many things, chasing Barn Swallows through an open meadow and stalking a Short-billed Dowitcher as it probes for bugs at the marshy edge of a pond are better with like-minded company. Batsford and Larry Bausher, the club’s Publicity Chairman (both pictured above in East Shore Park), have forged a serious bond over their passion for birding. The enthusiasts and their spouses have traveled together to birdwatch, including taking a 2006 trip to Colorado where they’d wake up at 3 a.m. to catch male Grouse performing their elaborate mating dances.
Back here in Connecticut, small membership fees allow the club to hire speakers and plan events, although the club’s monthly meetings from September to May, held at the Whitney Center in Hamden, and its nearly 50 field excursions throughout the year are free to the public.
In other words, checking out the club’s activities firsthand is as easy as showing up. For those who decide to become full-fledged members, applications are available online or at meetings, and membership is a mere $15 a year for individuals (a “family membership” is $20, a “supporting membership” is $50, and a “student membership” for those under 18 is free).
As you can surmise from the affordable membership fees and openness to non-members, the Bird Club is no old boy’s club. Batsford urges anyone interested—all ages and all experience levels—to take advantage of the free trips and club meetings, which feature talks from well-known ornithologists and naturalists on birding and conservation, often showcasing photography from exotic bird trips.
Non-meeting events listed on next year’s schedule (which will be posted to the New Haven Bird Club’s website shortly, I’m told) range from species-specific day trips to organized participation in statewide festivals.
On Aug. 17, members of the group will carpool to the Jamaica Bay National Wildlife Refuge in Queens, NY, hoping to glimpse the wide variety of shorebirds, herons and terns often seen there. Closer to home, on Sept. 14 there’s a talk-and-walk at the Fitzgerald Property and Community Gardens in Woodbridge focusing on fall warblers.
Although most trips are meant for all levels, there’s a “Beginner’s Bird Walk” on Aug. 2 at the Sandy Point Bird Sanctuary in West Haven. Advanced birders are welcome, too, especially as they might provide expertise and inspiration to newer birders. The club hosts another beginner-oriented walk at New Haven’s East Shore Park on Oct. 19.
Each year there’s also a Daily Hawk Watch at Lighthouse Point. This year it’s running from Sept. 1 to Nov. 30 and is likely to attract not only New Haven Bird Club members but also birders from all over the state and beyond. The hope is to spot migrating raptors and songbirds, starting at 7 a.m. and lasting “as long as the hawks keep flying.”
The biggest event of each birding season is “The BIG SIT!” (as it’s excitedly penned in at least one location on the NHBC’s website), which issues the challenge of identifying as many species as possible within a 17-foot diameter circle in the span of one day. Scheduled for Oct. 13 this year, participants may join one of many circles all over the state or create their own. Originally conceived by the New Haven Bird Club, the event is now so big that it’s co-sponsored by Bird Watcher’s Digest and occurs on four continents. There are even prizes.
“It ranges from completely non-competitive to… competitive,” Batsford says of The Big Sit and birding in general. The hobby is unexpectedly high-flying—a rare bird sighting really gets the adrenaline going—but it also brings people closer to the land.
Even when they’re viewing it through binoculars.
New Haven Bird Club
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.