I have watched birds all over the United States and in two foreign lands. I have seen them in a great variety of habitats and zoos and sanctuaries. I have had as much birding fun in Kenya as I have had in my own backyard. I have also been through some fairly boring places which seemed to lack a variety of bird life. It is clear that, while bird watching is a great hobby for almost any location, some places are better than others. I will try to share the benefits of my own experience.
Fifty or sixty years ago some pioneering ecologists reported that species diversity for any particular place was positively correlated with habitat diversity. To put it another way: since the various bird species use a habitat in very specific ways, it stands to reason that the more complex habitats will support the greatest number of species. In a practical sense, this means that Ponderosa Pine forests which tend to grow pine trees and little else are not very good places to go if you want to see a wide variety of bird species. On the other hand, desert riparian systems – that is, areas along streams and rivers – grow a wide variety of trees, shrubs and grasses and, therefore, support of rich diversity of bird species. If I were to put it in human terms: there are a lot of ways there to make a living if you are a bird. This is why many birding magazines encourage you to install a pond in your backyard and to plant lots of flowers and shrubs. If you want a wonderful historical perspective on this, read about Charles Darwin and his finches on the Galapagos Islands. It’s all about species diversity and community diversity. Once you understand it, you can smack yourself on the forehead and say “Oh, of course it works that way; isn’t it obvious?” I had an ecology professor tell us that “Ecology is the arduous study of the embarrassingly simple and obvious.” And, so, it is a simple rule that more bird species will be found in a more complex habitat.
By the way, please understand that I am talking about numbers of species which is not always the same as numbers of birds. For example, the greatest numbers of birds I have ever seen was a huge flock of Brewer’s Blackbirds on the utility wires down the street. There were lots of birds but it was boring.
I live in the Arizona desert. When I go out to find new birding places close to home, I generally look for lines of green on the landscape because vegetation is both abundant and varied which suggests an area which can support a fairly rich bird community.
However, recently I spent several months in Massachusetts where water is so common that it doesn’t mean much as an indicator. I recalled a bit of my old ecology education and concentrated on “edge” habitats. An example of an edge is the interface between a woods and a field. Such an area is more diverse than either the woods or the field because it can support “many ways of making a living” from both habitats and I found a wide variety of birds in such places.
Habitat diversity is an ecological dimension of bird observation. There is another that I could call “political”. There are a great number of places set aside as wildlife preserves and many of these are simply fabulous birding areas. I direct you to local resources for a list of great spots. Be creative when you look for set-aside areas for bird watching. For example a prime place in metropolitan Phoenix is the Desert Botanical Garden. True, it is a botanical area but, because it is protected and because it supports such a huge (albeit artificial) variety of plants, it also is the home for a wonderful variety of birds. Do not limit yourself to places that have the word “bird” in them. Think outside the (nest) box.
Once you have set your mind to looking at habitat before you look at birds, take the next step and try to discern the ways in which the birds are utilizing their habitat. Each species is doing something – as a species – that the others are not doing. For example, a Say’s Phoebe is sitting in the open watching for flying insects to pluck from the air but would not dream of sitting over a creek doing that in the same manner that a Black Phoebe does as it both forages for insects and patrols its territory. But as you look, you may also notice that Song Sparrows are foraging for seeds on the ground and in low parts of shrubs while Bullock’s Orioles are looking for fruit high up in the branches of the trees. Notice all these wonderful things and then consider what you might find on a simple – but beautiful – golf course with just a few shrubs and a water hazard. When you do a comparison like that always ask yourself why things happen the way they do. If you think that way your bird watching experience will become so much more exciting and important to you.