Editor's Note: Inspired by the creation of a YouTube cooking show by two area actors, this summer series of stories looks at hobbies people have undertaken -- or continued to work at -- while quarantined at home by covid-19. During July and August, we're going to learn about needle arts, pet adoption, dog training and who knows what else. Stay tuned!
The first thing you need to know about Meredith Bergstrom is that she's not a little old lady -- or any other stereotype that might go with the phrase "bird watcher." She comes by the interest naturally -- "My dad is an avid birder, and my mom has adopted some of his interest to become what she calls a 'casual birder,'" she says -- and she has honed that childhood fascination across several states and two continents.
After a childhood in San Antonio, "I spent my high school years with my family in Nairobi, Kenya," she explains. "My dad would always point out birds to us. East Africa has incredible bird life, and because of the variety of habitats and particularly the savannas, they are easy to spot. Even in urban Nairobi, these huge Marabou Storks nest right in the middle of roundabouts.
"When I moved to Arkansas for college, I remember thinking the birds here were so boring," Bergstrom admits. "But my first sighting of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher got me interested again. It became natural for me to notice and then look for birds on hikes and in my own travels."
After finishing her degree in Family and Human Services at John Brown University and a stint as director of Main Street Siloam Springs, Bergstrom took a job in Miami, and she found herself on her own until her husband could move. That encouraged her birding, too.
"I had been a casual birder up to that point," she says. "I moved two months before my husband Ben to start my new job, and I found myself in a new, sub-tropical climate with a lot of free time on the weekends. I joined the Tropical Audubon Society on most of their Saturday and Sunday bird walks and saw scores of 'lifers' within the first six months. A 'lifer' is what birders call a first-ever sighting of a species. It was incredibly rewarding to explore South Florida with other nature enthusiasts.
"Ben and I found ourselves continuing to adventure with the Audubon Society on weekends or going on our own, especially during the spring and fall migration periods when hundreds of migratory species wing their way through the Atlantic Flyway," Bergstrom continues. "With some of my new-found birding friends, I helped found a club for female birders called the Phoebes, with the goal of connecting women to nature."
Now Bergstrom is back in Arkansas, a program officer with the Walton Family Foundation, "where I get to work with various organizations and city governments on our 'Preserve a Sense of Place' strategy." Birding has replaced some of her more active outdoor interests like backpacking and running, due to a rare disease that caused a desmoid tumor in her hip.
"It's a benign tumor that is notoriously difficult to treat," she explains. "Before my diagnosis and effective treatment in 2016, I developed pain and had trouble with some of the vigorous forms of exercise and recreation I usually enjoyed. I found that bird walks were the perfect way to enjoy the outdoors, since they involve long walks with frequent pauses for observation."
Bergstrom has a wealth of great advice for beginning birders in this Q&A.
Q. What did you learn first that you would tell people to either do right because it worked or don't do because it was wrong?
A. There's no right or wrong way to be a birder. If you like learning about and watching birds, then I think you're a birder. For me, birding is very meditative. Some birders get really caught up in building their "life list" and tracking down new species. It's thrilling to spot a lifer, for sure, but I think the real joy of birding is watching bird behavior.
Birds are incredibly smart and we can learn so much about the world from them. What's been fun for me about this season of "quarantine" is getting to know specific birds that come to my feeder. I watched as the last Dark-Eyed Junco went north for the summer after wintering here and celebrated the first Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds and Indigo Buntings that arrived. I watched as the American Goldfinches developed their bright yellow breeding plumage and as flocks of Cedar Waxwings devoured holly berries -- leaving none -- on their springtime journey.
I've realized that my yard is a universe unto itself, and many birds are there trying to find food, build nests and raise their young. In addition to being beautiful, birds are pollinators. They control pests and some act as clean-up crew (like vultures). Birds are also in crisis -- a sobering study came out last year showing the tremendous decline in bird populations: nearly a third of all birds have vanished, due to habitat loss and other existential threats. I think caring about birds connects me to my surroundings and helps me be more aware of the ways all creatures are interdependent.
But more to the point: The main thing I would recommend to others is to go out with other birders. They can teach you where to look for birds, when to go and what species you can expect to find. Birding is all about understanding habitat. Some birds you'll find only in the grass and on the ground. Others you'll mostly only see on the wing, high up in the air. Some flit around nonstop in trees. When you learn about habitat, you learn about birds.
Q. What have you done during the quarantine to bring birds to you? What would you recommend for other people as simple and rewarding?
A. My work-from-home situation during this global pandemic has meant a lot more time to watch bird life from my dining room table. I've stocked up on various types of bird feeders, baths and houses. We also took this moment as an opportunity to plant a large new pollinator bed just for the birds and butterflies, and chose plants that will provide structure for nesting or produce seeds for our local songbirds. There's lots of easy ways to bring more birds to you, but just to start with what you have. Take stock of where you can provide a little habitat -- even a few plants on a balcony will make a more hospitable location for birds. Native plants are always best, and will provide food and shelter for the birds even if you forget to stock your feeder. Most local nurseries can guide you to plants that are good for birds. Otherwise, a feeder with seed goes a long way. I like the ones with wire around them that only allow in smaller songbirds -- otherwise you'll find that you're mostly feeding squirrels and "bully birds" like starlings. Put the feeder somewhere you can see it so you can enjoy watching the birds and be reminded to keep it filled.
Q. What birds have you seen that you were most excited about?
A. I get excited about most birds. One of my favorite of the bird families are kingfishers, and here in Northwest Arkansas we have Belted Kingfishers that you can spot around most waterways, often diving to catch fish from a nearby tree limb. In Kenya we saw several kinds of kingfishers, but my favorite was the Pied Kingfisher -- a striking black and white bird. But this spring in particular I've really enjoyed watching a very common backyard bird -- the Carolina Wren. They are vivacious, buzzy little birds with a loud scolding call and big personalities. We have a family of them coming to our feeders. They look like little cinnamon-colored balls of feathers with a very upright little tail and a prominent white eyebrow. They are very inquisitive, and like to hop around on brush piles, trees or even houses searching for bugs to eat.
Q. If you were sending someone out with a birdwatching shopping list, what would you tell them they need to start?
A. Get a good pair of binoculars. You just really can't enjoy birds without them. They don't have to be expensive, but not all binoculars are created equal. We have a really sufficient, sturdy pair that we bought for less than $100. There's also some great free tools available. I use tons of apps, but one of my favorites is called BirdsEye. You can download a list of birds for any area that will tell you what you're most likely to see based on your location and time of the year. Of course, a good bird book is also a must at some point and can help you identify birds and learn about their classifications. The Sibley Guide to Birds is a great, comprehensive resource for birding in the United States. Apps are really the way to go for bird walks though, in my opinion, because you don't have to carry the big book around like folks used to do.
Q. Do you go out bird watching or is this a thing you do at home?
A. I do both. Sometimes that means birding wherever I am (birders, including myself, have a bit of a bad habit of naming every bird we see, even if in the middle of a conversation), and sometimes that means spending a weekend morning on a bird walk, particularly in the spring or fall. There's a lot of great places to bird in Northwest Arkansas, and the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society has a good list on their website. Hobbs State Park in Rogers, Devil's Den near Fayetteville, and the Eagle Watch Nature Trail near Siloam Springs are all great. But perhaps the best place is to start at home!
Becca Martin-Brown is an award-winning writer and Features editor for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @nwabecca.