Patrick Felker was 11 years old when his family moved to North Kingstown from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. One of the most striking features of his new home in South County was all of the surrounding nature, and Patrick distinctly recalls the day when he noticed a strange bird in his backyard.
Curious and wanting to know more, Patrick went to the library and took out a field guide for bird identification and learned that the strange bird in his yard was a domesticated guinea fowl, which is a bit bigger than a hen or chicken, with the coloring of a turkey.
“A mission to see certain birds turned into full-blown birding,” Patrick says. He’s now 19 and an avid birder. “From there it just sort of spiraled and I met a bunch of other birders,” he says.
He eventually became involved with the Young Birders Initiative, run by Matt Shenck, who’s also a leader of the Ocean State Bird Club and the camp director at the Norman Bird Sanctuary in Middletown. Now, whenever Patrick goes birding, which can be 3-4 times a week in summer months, he often sees fellow avian enthusiasts.
Patrick’s dedication to birding has extended far beyond his backyard to locations near and far. Some of his favorite areas for observing birds locally include the Arcadia Management Area in Richmond and the Great Swamp Management Area in South Kingstown. He especially loves to watch warblers, which are here in spring and fall, and which are striking in the springtime.
Patrick’s essential accessories for bird watching include binoculars, a camera and a scope for long range observations, which requires a tripod and which he only brings if he’s going to look for seabirds. During the summer, shore birds are usually his focal point, including sandpipers and plovers, basically any kind of wading bird. The mudflats of Charleston and Westerly are great spots for these sightings, Patrick says.
Laura Carberry agrees that anyone looking to get into birding should definitely take advantage of their backyards, and notes that bird feeders are great for attracting a variety of species. She is the resident refuge manager at the Fisherville Brook Wildlife Refuge in Exeter, which is overseen by the Audubon Society of Rhode Island.
“You can pretty much bird anywhere, that’s the beauty of birding,” Carberry says. Some of her favorite spots around South County include Fisherville Brook, where she lives, Trustom Pond in South Kingstown, and Napatree Point Conservation Area in Westerly (although she advises anyone going there this summer to visit during off-peak beach hours).
For those birding from their backyard, watching traffic at their feeders, keep an eye out for orioles, hummingbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks and indigo buntings, which are known for their vibrancy. When out in marshy areas, look out for egrets and osprey, and in wooded areas, look for yellow warblers, common yellow throats and swallows. On a typical day, you could see more than 100 different kinds of birds in Rhode Island, Carberry says.
What sort of gear does one need to take up birding?
Just “a nice pair of binoculars,” and a bird book, says Carberry. She’s a fan of illustrated books, and recommends Peterson’s Field Guide (which has an edition specifically for the Eastern U.S.) and also anything by National Geographic. The first field guide Patrick owned was the Kaufman Field Guide, although he’s since acquired a collection.
To get started, Carberry says to simply “find a bird you like,” and observe. But first, practice with your binoculars, specifically the focus setting. When you do spot a bird, keep your eyes on it and then bring the binoculars to your eyes — without taking your eyes off of the bird.
Both Carberry and Patrick recommend visiting some of the websites maintained by The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which help identify bird species based off of images and various descriptions. One of these websites is ebird.org, which is best used for looking at and reporting sightings, and allaboutbirds.org/news, which is a database that is helpful for identifying birds. Patrick also suggests using the Merlin app, which can identify birds based off of a picture.
And remember: Be respectful of the birds. Meaning be mindful of their nests and conscious of the fact that you’ve entered their home. Most importantly, says Carberry, “enjoy them in their habitat.”