There may be snow on the ground, but there's still plenty of activity for families to observe among our feathered friends.
One of the beauties of winter bird-watching is how little it takes to turn an average day into an ornithological treat. Pausing to observe birds is like stopping to smell the roses -- making the extra effort enriches your life immeasurably. To watch for birds is to engage with nature. It's a little like fishing. Just as actually catching fish becomes secondary to being immersed in the outdoors, so it is with spotting birds. When your bird-watching companions are your kids, the experience deepens the family connection.
Find a good field guide. Your birding adventure should start with investment in a good field guide -- it will be an invaluable tool if you want to identify the birds you see. Search online booksellers for field guides that cover North America and your specific part of the country. Some of the top names in the field-guide business are Peterson, Sibley, and Focus. On About.com, you can check out a list of their picks for top birding books as well as their recommendations for binoculars and other bird-watching gear. At the outdoor- and nature-enthusiast site eNature.com, you can peruse online field guides, read up on birding, check your region for sightings, and ask an expert a question.
Conservation consciousness. According to the National Audubon Society, more than one-quarter of America's birds are in trouble or decline. In a report entitled WatchList 2002, Audubon identifies 201 species that show either significantly decreasing numbers, restricted range, or threats from other circumstances.
Connecting with wildlife does not require a heart for conservation, but it often gives you one. Find out about bird populations before you go out watching; your kids will develop an awareness and a natural response to protect these beautiful creatures. On the Audubon Society's Web site, you can see the WatchList and search state-by-state to find out what species are at greatest risk. You'll also see what Audubon and its conservation partners across the country are trying to do to protect birds and the habitats critical to their survival.
If you are consciously teaching your children the value of conservation, make a special point of checking Audubon's WatchList for at-risk species in your region. Read up on at-risk species in your field guide and be on special look-out for those birds when you're out in the wild.
What you need. Your main apparatus in bird-watching are your eyes and ears. In the winter, you will also want to pay close attention to your clothing to ward off cold and wind. It's especially important to wear a hat and mittens or gloves, and sensible shoes or boots (and warm socks) if you plan to do any significant walking. A backpack filled with bottled water and trail mix or other energy snacks will also come in handy. Beyond this, binoculars -- preferably enough pairs so that passing them around isn't a big issue -- will allow you to see more and better. Unless you are very quick with the finger and have a killer lens, your camera might not come in handy documenting birds themselves, but it will certainly capture the excitement of your family. For young Audubons-in-training, bring a journal, sketchbook, and colored pencils.
Where the birds are. Your nearest state park is a great choice for your birding base of operations. State parks have large areas of uninterrupted habitat as well as amenities like bathrooms to make your day outdoors comfortable. The real ace in the hole at a state park is the ranger. Park rangers generally are well-informed about the species that inhabit the premises. Chances are, the ranger is at least a birding hobbyist and can tell you about native and wintering populations and where there have been sightings in the park.
National wildlife refuge areas also are fabulous spots to find birds and other wildlife. The National Wildlife Refuge System contains 540 refuges and 3,000 waterfowl production areas located throughout all 50 states and several U.S. territories. At 95 million acres, it is the world's largest system of lands and waters whose primary purpose is the conservation of wildlife and habitat. These national refuges provide homes for 700 bird species, 220 mammal species, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 kinds of fish -- including 25 percent of all federal threatened and endangered species. To find a refuge near you, visit Refugenet, the Web site of the association.
How's your counting? Keeping watch on the numbers of different bird populations is key to the Audubon Society's conservation efforts. For more than 100 years in the weeks around Christmas, the organization has organized a massive count in the Western Hemisphere. Audubon's 103rd annual Christmas Bird Count (C.B.C.) officially kicks off December 14th, 2002, and ends January 5th, 2003. Everyone is welcome to participate in any Christmas Bird Count, from beginning birders to seasoned ornithologists. Participants must do their counting within a designated 15-mile C.B.C. circle on a given count day. To find the Christmas Bird Count closest to you, go to the Audubon Web site and enter your town name on the Bird Count map. You'll get contact information so that you can get in touch with the "compiler" (organizer) of the count in your area and volunteer to help. Make it a family effort; the dividends will bring fun and a sense of being involved together in an important conservation effort.
Avian delights. The sight of a beautiful bird in flight or foraging for food is your payoff for a day spent just keeping your eyes open. Thrill to the simple joy of seeing wild birds in their habitats as you spend time with family and friends. The experience will bring you even closer.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.