As a lifelong fresh air addict, my secret shame is an inability to name roughly 99 percent of the flora and fauna I see while paddling, hiking, snowboarding, and the like. By valuing adrenaline over a more complete understanding of my surroundings, I often feel disconnected from nature while having a great time in it. I suspect I’m not alone in wishing my adventures had more dimension—but where to start?
Jason Fidorra suggests looking up. “Knowing your birds is a pretty easy and enjoyable way to get more out of being outdoors,” says Fidorra, a biologist who has worked for the National Audubon Society as well as private wildlife consulting firms. The Erie, Pennsylvania, native got interested in birding a decade ago while volunteering with the Student Conservation Association at a wildlife refuge in Texas. “I’d be out in the field doing research and I’d just start asking questions when I saw an interesting bird,” he says.
Fidorra has since taken his hobby around the world. “I once hiked to a lake atop the mountains in the Baja Peninsula in Mexico,” he recalls. “It was already 90 degrees when we woke up at 4 a.m., but the reward was great looks at the endemic Xantus hummingbird and Cape Pygmy Owl, plus a backpacking experience into a surprisingly lush desert ecosystem unlike anything I’d ever seen.”
For beginners, Fidorra suggests picking up a good guidebook—for North America, he likes The Sibley Guide to Birds—and a pair of binoculars from Eagle Optics. “They are reasonably priced, starting around $100, waterproof, fogproof, and come fully covered against unintentional damage,” says Fidorra of his favorite field glasses.
Fidorra also advises taking a guided hike with your area Audubon chapter or other avian-minded outfit. “The best way to learn is by birding with other birders,” he says. “It’s a more social hobby than you’d think. There’s almost like a secret network of birdwatchers.”
This network also lives online, adds Fidorra, on sites such as ebird.org, where hobbyists and scientists post bird sightings, submit observations, and search for species in specific areas in the United States.
For fledgling bird nerds ready to hit the road, Fidorra points to hotspots around the world, including southeast Arizona, home to an unusually high number of hummingbird species, and Panama, “a great place for an intro to tropical birding.”
This fall, Fidorra will lead a birding tour in Panama through the Audubon Society. “The country uses the U.S. dollar, is relatively safe, and is the bridge between two continents,” he says. “That means you’ll see South American and Central American species, including the Resplendent Quetzal, considered by some to be the most beautiful bird in the world.”
Fidorra doesn’t expect everyone to geek out over birding the way he does but emphasizes that a little knowledge goes a long way—advice I hope to follow in the future.