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The bird man of Mecklenburg

Taylor Piephoff birder

Taylor Piephoff has loved birds since he was 4 years old. Piephoff now extends his love of birding to others through a weekly column in The Charlotte Observer. He spent time on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 on the boardwalk over a cattail marsh at Kirk
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Taylor Piephoff has loved birds since he was 4 years old. Piephoff now extends his love of birding to others through a weekly column in The Charlotte Observer. He spent time on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 on the boardwalk over a cattail marsh at Kirk

I am frequently asked how I got started in birding, and then the follow-up questions are often “How can I get started in learning more about birds?” and “Where can I go to see what you see?” Here’s what you need to know.

I can trace my interest in birds to time I spent looking out the kitchen window with my grandmother in Lynchburg, Va,; time outdoors hunting with my maternal grandfather there; with my paternal grandfather fishing in Concord, and time on golf courses with my parents and brother.

My grandmother taught me that every bird that visited the feeder had a name. She knew them too. Every one. Hunting, fishing and golf put me outdoors, where I realized there were lots of birds that did not come to feeders, that in order to enjoy them I had to make a real effort to see them.

During the frequent visits to Lynchburg, my cousin Charlie Sydnor introduced me to the Lynchburg Bird Club. I was fascinated that there was actually an organized group that was dedicated to birding.

I learned about organized counts, that birds changed from season to season, that some birds were hard to see and that birders were a generous, helpful lot eager to cultivate young interest.

My grandfather connected me to Dr. Ruskin Freer, one of his professors at Lynchburg College and one of founders of The Virginia Society of Ornithology. Dr. Freer wrote a weekly column in the local paper and would mention me occasionally when I spent time with him in the field. I was really hooked now! That was over 40 years ago.

How to begin

That leads me to how to get started in birding. You don’t have to make a huge time or equipment investment initially.

Many people are satisfied with a feeder or two in the backyard. Maybe a few of them will check out a local field trip. A few will get really into it and supplement their basic equipment with the purchase of a spotting scope and multiple birding guides. And then the truly dedicated will start going on organized tours around the country and even the world just to see birds.

By far the most important thing to do to get started is to spend time in the field. It’s fine to make it a private or solitary endeavor, but eventually you will need to connect with a group like the Mecklenburg Audubon Society chapter or the Carolina Bird Club.

Make a point to go on some of their frequent field trips. From there you can establish contact with experienced birders to help you learn where to go, when to go, help you with ID’s and how to find specific target birds you’re interested in. You’ll find birders are eager to help.

There are some essentials you will have to purchase if you want the experience to be satisfying. Binoculars are a must, and they need to be a good set – 7X35 or 8X42 magnification sets are the best for birding. You probably should expect to spend at least $300. Check with other birders for recommendations; look through their equipment, and visit local bird stores and see what they have in stock.

A good field guide is a must too, and there are plenty to choose from. I recommend “Peterson’s Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America” as a starter. It’s the classic publication geared toward field identification that revolutionized birding.

Study the key field marks and range maps to familiarize yourself with what you might see at what time of year. If you can spend some time each month looking for birds in the company of some knowledgeable folks, you will find your confidence growing.

Other equipment and provisions are more commonsense: sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat, sturdy shoes and anything else that will make you more comfortable outdoors.

You may also want to keep an eye out for my column, which runs each week in this section. I offer advice on birds to watch – and listen for – as the days and seasons constantly evolve.

Where to look

We’re lucky to have a great greenway system in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties where you will always find birds. There are also many nature preserves and parks with diverse habitats for chasing birds. There are state parks in both Carolinas that are excellent for birding. Remember, the more habitat-diverse the area, the more birds you encounter. You might not want to go farther than your own backyard, and that’s OK too.

Mecklenburg Audubon’s field trips are free. Most are of a local flavor, but they do take trips to the mountains and the coast. The Carolina Bird Club travels across the Carolinas.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that there are 22.5 million people in the United States who will take a trip away from home for the sole purpose of watching wildlife each year. Birders account for a significant portion of that number. Birders spend 40 billion dollars a year on equipment and trip expenditures. That’s a significant economic impact. Add jobs that accommodate the birding demand and the impact increases.

There are over 450 birds on the North Carolina List and over 300 on the Mecklenburg County List. So many birds and so little time!

I hope to see you in the field.

Taylor Piephoff (pronounced PEA-hoff) is 55 and has written about birding for the Observer since 2006. He lives in Matthews and works for the Mecklenburg County Health Department; piephoffT@aol.com

Bird starter kit

Resource groups: Mecklenburg Audubon. www.meckbirds.org; Carolina Bird Club, www.carolinabirdclub.org; American Birding Association www.aba.org

Binoculars: 7X35 or 8X42 magnification is the best for birding. I use an Eagle Optics 8x42 Ranger. You will find sets in a wide price range but you should expect to spend at least $300 for ones that I think you will find satisfactory. It’s OK to go with a less expensive set, but check with other birders for recommendations.

Field guide: “Peterson’s Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America”

Favorite places to bird:

McAlpine Creek Park: 8711 Monroe Road

Reedy Creek Park: 2900 Rocky River Road

McDowell Nature Preserve and Prairie: 15222 York Road

Latta Plantation Nature Preserve, 6211 Sample Road

Latta Park, 601 E. Park Avenue

Six-Mile Creek Greenway: 17820 Marvin Road

Taylor’s blog: http://piedmontbirding.blogspot.com/