Learning to Bird, by a non-birder


Black-Chinned Hummingbird

By Christina St John, ABF State Park Store Employee
Photos by Ben Sandstrom

I’ve always been a plant person. Plants are beautiful, diverse, the backbone of the food web. Also, they don’t move when you want to look at them. When I find a new plant, no matter how big or small, I can take all the time I want to study and appreciate it. Although plants can be very difficult to identify, I feel like I have a shot because the plant will stay right where I find it while I try to identify it. Not so with birds.

Black-Headed Grosbeak

I have never tried to learn birds. They don’t stand still! It felt like every time I saw a bird in a tree, by the time I got my binoculars to my eyes, the bird had flown somewhere else. Birding was too frustrating! But then I started spending a bit more of my time with a birder, and after spending time with someone who knows what they’re looking at, birding has become something that I enjoy.

California Towhee

One of the most exciting ways I have begun to watch birds is by getting a few bird feeders. It attracts many birds and, more importantly, the birds stay (relatively) still while they eat. Finally I can get a good look! I live in the mountains to the west of Borrego Springs, so I get many high elevation birds that you wouldn’t see on the valley floor. Some of the birds I have seen at my feeders are band-tailed pigeons, Steller’s jays, California quail, western scrub-jays, acorn woodpeckers, oak titmice, juncos, white-winged doves, California thrashers and California towhees. Now that spring migration has started and birds that overwinter in the tropics have begun to fly north, I have started to see black-headed grosbeaks and an occasional Wilson’s warbler at the pond in front of my house. I always spend some time in the morning looking out the window and watching the birds. What a wonderful way to start the day! I usually have to share the window with my cats, who spend a lot of time chortling at the birds. 

Burrowing Owl

I have also been birding in some of the areas in eastern San Diego and Imperial counties. The diversity of habitats and elevations in this area makes it wonderful for birding. One of the best places to go is the Salton Sea. Many species of birds overwinter at the Salton Sea or use it as a resting area as they migrate north. There are a couple of wildlife refuges in the area that are excellent for birding. In January, I saw white and brown pelicans, snow geese, white-faced ibis, black-necked stilts, avocets, marbled godwits and many other species. When I went in April, during spring migration, I saw blue-winged and cinnamon teals, northern shovelers, Red-necked Phalarope and black and gull-billed terns. I saw a burrowing owl using a drainage pipe as a nest burrow. It was wonderful! If you also feel like birding is too difficult because the birds never stay still, the Salton Sea is a great place to go. Water birds are so much easier to look at than forest birds! They’re always in the open and usually don’t move quite as fast. It is also a lot of fun to watch the brown pelicans dive for fish.

Mountain Chickadee

Cuyamaca Rancho State Park is another great place to bird where you will see higher elevation birds you won’t be able to see in Borrego Springs or the Salton Sea. In April, I saw Nuttall’s and acorn woodpeckers, tiny black and white mountain chickadees with their high pitched song, little brown creepers that climb up and down the tree trunks and pygmy and white-breasted nuthatches pulling bark off of trees to look for insects. On the trail near Stonewall Mine, if you look up intothe trees, you can sometimes see

great horned owls roosting during the day. Now is a great time to visit Cuyamaca, since the flowers will be blooming, the spring bird migration is underway, and you’ll find much nicer temperatures there than in the desert. The best of all worlds!


And last, but not least, wonderful birds can be seen right around the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park Visitor Center. Look for verdins, with their gray bodies and yellow heads, and their spherical nests in the trees around the parking lot. White-winged doves are common desert birds that are often seen, and Costa’s and Black-chinned hummingbirds can be seen around the blooming chuparosa and ocotillo.

I was definitely skeptical about my ability to learn how to identify birds. But with a little practice, some bird feeders and patience, I have discovered a part of my surroundings that I never knew about. I recommend that everyone look out your window or walk around your neighborhood and learn about birds!

Costa's Hummingbird Commom Ground-Dove Western Scrub Jay

Pygmy Nuthatch Snow Geese White-Winged Dove