Guides aside, birds are where you find them

By David Spector For the Gazette
January 25, 2021

As birdwatchers travel we keep track of birds we encounter, especially those new to us. And when we travel, we want information about finding such birds.

The Massachusetts birdwatcher visiting California wants to know when and where to experience snowy plovers, tufted puffins, western screech-owls, western bluebirds, western tanagers and other western birds; the California birdwatcher on an exchange visit to Massachusetts would want information about piping plovers, Atlantic puffins, eastern screech-owls, eastern bluebirds, scarlet tanagers and other northeastern species.

Published bird-finding guides are among a birdwatcher’s valued tools. In the early 1950s Olin Sewall Pettingill described where to find birds in what were then 48 states of the U.S. in two books (one for each side of the Mississippi River). By the late 1960s James A. Lane was publishing his Birder’s Guides to select regions of North America of special interest to people searching for uncommon birds.

Over the past half-century, ever more detailed guides have been published for much of North America. In 1951, Pettingill described bird localities in Massachusetts in 25 pages; today the Commonwealth has at least four bird-finding books, including the 334-page “Bird Finding Guide to Western Massachusetts” (of which I’m a co-editor), published in 2003. Such guides are especially useful both for visitors to an area who have little time for independent exploration and for beginning birdwatchers.

Although published guides are very useful, they’re not necessary, especially near one’s home. Birds are where you find them. Many birds occur in areas that bird-finding guides don’t list or that birdwatchers don’t routinely visit.

Birdwatchers at an Oregon wildlife refuge. George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Here in western Massachusetts, property lists and maps of The Trustees of Reservations, Massachusetts Audubon Society, Kestrel Land Trust and other land trusts, state parks and reservations, and town conservation lands are excellent resources for finding and navigating areas that might have birds. Trips with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and other local organizations introduce participants to birdwatching locations.

A birdwatcher can travel back roads and find ponds and farm fields to scan and trails to walk. In towns and cities, parks and cemeteries are islands of bird habitat. Ornamental fruit trees anywhere might have waxwings or finches (and if there are no birds on them today there might be tomorrow). To find birds on your own, learn the habits and habitats of the birds that interest you, and keep an eagle eye out for those habitats.

Published bird-finding guides are out of date by the time they appear. Some bird species become more common and others less common. Some places cited in the books get posted “no trespassing” or otherwise restricted, while other places become more available with better trails and enlarged access.

I see these changes personally: A major landowner recently posted a large forested expanse adjacent to my home, while a town conservation area across the street has expanded. Well-wired birdwatchers can keep up to date using various electronic resources, and, of course, on-the-ground exploration can often take us beyond the limits of what books offer.

Another limitation of bird-finding books is that they have little information about safety and accessibility at birdwatching sites.

Safety situations can change rapidly and differ greatly among individuals. Places where I felt safe a half-century ago seem more dangerous now that I walk more slowly and gray hairs flag me as a target. Other areas where I might have been concerned about harassment as a young birdwatcher seem less of a concern to this graybeard retiree; now I’m more likely to be offered assistance.

Neighborhoods I once approached with trepidation have become “discovered” and gentrified, a process that can make an area safer for some and more dangerous for others (including former residents).

Safety, welcome and accessibility are of special concern to some birdwatchers. Sites where people are unwelcome (or worse) because of skin color or holding hands with same-sex partners, or towns where looking or sounding different is a stoppable offense, can be dangerous.

Female birdwatchers have different — often greater — safety concerns than do men. People with mobility problems need information about trail design. To address these kinds of concerns, a group of local birdwatchers recently started an online project called “The Murmuration” with crowd-sourced real-time information about safety, welcome and accessibility at birdwatching sites. The project can be found at and is described in more detail in an article at

Whichever of the many available sources of information you use, make your way outside and experience and enjoy the birds you find.

David Spector is a retired biologist and former board president of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment. In addition to the websites mentioned above, some local birdwatchers find useful information about birdwatching locations on the MassBird e-mail list, the Western Mass Birders Facebook group, and

Earth Matters has been a project of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment for 11 years. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hitchcock Center has adapted its programming and launched a new sliding-scale fee structure for families facing financial challenges. To help the Hitchcock Center survive this difficult time, please make a donation at

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 845 West St., Amherst, appears every other week in the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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