Birdwatching class goes virtual at Morris Arboretum

Posted 4/17/20

Birdwatching instructor Tony Geiger has taken his Morris Arboretum class to Zoom. By Kate Dolan New Jersey holds a competitive World Series of Birding. An owl’s eyes are immobile and set in its …

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Birdwatching class goes virtual at Morris Arboretum

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Birdwatching instructor Tony Geiger has taken his Morris Arboretum class to Zoom.

By Kate Dolan

New Jersey holds a competitive World Series of Birding. An owl’s eyes are immobile and set in its head, so the head can rotate 270 degrees. Bird watching is a $1 billion industry, with an estimated 50 million birders in the United States. The Pine Barrens is home to a type of rattlesnake — the Timber rattlesnake

Just a few things for a rookie or expert birdwatcher to learn at Basics to Birdwatching with Tony Geiger, a class instructed via Zoom and hosted by the Morris Arboretum. The class on April 13 was the first in a series which runs until May 18, taking place every Monday at 10 a.m. and led by Geiger, an avid birder.

“Spring migration is upon us and the number and variety of birds to see will be at its peak now through the end of May,” said Geiger. “I would say there's never been a better time to get started. There are many great online resources and apps, and you can always order a field guide online.”

Twenty two people participated in the first class, all presumably at home sitting in front of computer screens on a morning of fitful rain and wind and a forecast warning of severe late afternoon storms. A few opted for the video-on setting, so four faces were arranged like a ladder on the side menu of my screen, while images of Canadian geese on Manayunk’s main street, a red-shouldered hawk and many birds and the people who watch them skipped across the center.

Geiger keeps a list on his refrigerator of the birds he’s seen from his apartment and displays it for us.  From what he calls “a really urban concrete kind of area,” the list is at 39 different species, including an osprey and a red-winged blackbird, with #39 being an eastern towhee he recently spotted at his bird feeder.

This is the first time Geiger has taught on Zoom, and the class was ideal for aspiring and beginning birdwatchers, covering the basics, with lots of bonus information and resources.

Finding a field guide is the first step. Although there is a proliferation of great birding apps according to Geiger, he says that “an app should not replace a field guide.”

“If you run out of battery, or you run out of service, an app’s not going to really help you all that much,” he said, adding that there are amazing apps, the Merlin Bird ID created by Cornell Ornithology, that supplement a field guide.

And then there’s a pair of binoculars.

Geiger’s date back to before high school and he speculates that he spent his 8th grade graduation money on the pair, which are 10x40.

“The first number indicates the magnification and the second is the size of the lens,” he said.

He recommends a 7x42 to start. “That’ll bring things seven times closer,” he says. “The lower the magnification and the larger the diameter lens, the wider your field of view. It’s good to have a wide field of view to start while you’re getting use to binoculars because you have a better chance of actually getting the bird into the binoculars.”

A picture of a man in a suit and tie, a women in a ghillie (grass-covered camouflage) suit and a person in a hazmat suit with a surgical mask, all peering through binoculars, fill the Zoom screen. The last is fitting to our time but still, none of these are recommended as birding attire. Don’t wear white, either.

“White is really one of those unnatural colors that’s going to contrast with everything around and birds are gonna make a beeline away from you as fast as they can.” The best shades to wear are classic earth tones, long pants, hats, coats with pockets, comfortable footwear — a familiar style on Wissahickon trails.

We learned a term used specifically in birding. “Pishing” is when a birder mimics a bird call to attract a bird.

“There’s contention,” Geiger said, of the seemingly benign act which is debated among birders and experts. “Is it good for the birds to be scaring them up out of the bushes, is it disturbing them?”

Some say birds are used to humans and won’t be bothered. Others take a different stance.

“If you disturb a chickadee from eating for half a day in the winter, it could die because something as small as a chickadee needs to eat pretty much constantly on a cold day to survive,” Geiger said. “To me, it’s more about patience. If there is a bird in there you really want to see, and you can wait quietly, it’ll probably come out and give you a look eventually, and if not, you’ll get it next time.”

The Morris Arboretum, considered one of the top places for species diversity in Philadelphia, has been offering classes for birders for 15 years.

“This series was developed specifically for our current situation when a lot of people find themselves home and in their backyards more and many hearing birdsongs for the first time,” said Bryan Thompson-Nowak, Assistant Director, Education and Penn Outreach, and long-time birder. “One of the best things about birding is that there really are birds everywhere and pandemic or not, we can all enjoy them.”

Next week’s class is “Backyard Birding,” accommodating our social distancing measures.

When the time comes, though, when we can travel to places beyond our neighborhoods, Cape May down the shore and John Heinz National Wildlife at Tinicum, next to the Philadelphia International Airport, are among two suggestions Geiger gives for watching destinations.

Until then, the birds are migrating and enjoying the travel we continue to wait some time longer to enjoy. But the experts say it’s a good time to get into birdwatching anyway.

The class is $8 for arboretum members, $10 for nonmembers and more information can be found at the Morris Arboretum’s “Learn from Home” page.

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