SPRING AND BIRDS ARE IN THE AIR: MARY BURNS, FOUNDER OF SAN MATEO BACKYARD BIRDERS, TALKS ABOUT JOY AND SURPRISES TO BE FOUND IN NATURE NEAR HOME Mary Burns, resident of San Mateo, told San Mateo Backyard Birds August 17, 2020. 186 members now use the Nextdoor group to share photos, ask questions, and generally engage in their love of birding.
DJ: What is San Mateo Backyard Birders?
MB: This is a Nextdoor group started by me on August 17th, 2020. There are currently 186 members. There are people who are just starting to learn more about the birds they see, and there are people who are pretty expert and know A LOT. The group works well for everyone because beginners learn a lot from advanced birders, and advanced birders enjoy helping out and answering questions. We also have members who love photography so they shared some great photos. The atmosphere in the group was really welcoming and friendly. Even though two members disagree on bird identification, the conversations have a very helpful and kind tone. No one should be afraid to ask a question or guess a bird.
DJ: What would you say to someone who is ready to get involved in backyard bird watching?
MB: You don’t really need anything to get started. If you just love to see birds, their beauty or behavior, look out the window or take a walk. If you want to start identifying them and keeping track of what you’ve seen, download a free app and read some of the resources online. If that makes you want to invest some money, consider adding bird feeders or purchasing binoculars.
DJ: What are some useful books, websites or apps for bird watchers?
MB: Most people who prefer books recommend Sibley’s. I prefer apps – I find it easier to identify a bird if there is a filter for size, color, location, etc. I use Merlin to identify a bird, then eBird to record what I see (these two apps work together). Merlin and eBird are produced by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which also has some amazing resources. I also use iBird Pro for a more detailed look at a bird, or to filter out more attributes. iNaturalist has a list of birds from San Mateo County: https://www.inaturalist.org/guides/4612?page=1.
DJ: Does a bird watcher need a backyard? What about people who live in condos or apartments?
MB: Anyone can be a bird watcher, and we have members who live in apartments and condos. I have used the term bird watchers to distinguish between people who actively travel to certain places to see less common birds. Also, although it’s called San Mateo Backyard Birders, we have members who live in Belmont. I live near the Belmont border so my initial post went to the Belmont neighborhoods as well.
DJ: What are some easy things to do to attract birds?
MB: The best thing for the birds is to add water and have plants that attract them. Trees, low shrubs, places to hide, etc. Water can only be a pie pan on the floor doesn’t have to be a beautiful or expensive bird bath. And it should be cleaned and disinfected often. But to attract a lot of birds, or a greater variety, it is useful to install bird feeders. The challenge here is that you need to keep them very clean and dispose of them all if you see any sign of illness in visiting birds. I had cut down all of our feeders for a long time so as not to contribute to the spread of disease among wild birds. But my elderly mother lives with us and loves bird watching, it’s one of her only forms of entertainment. So I put the feeders back in place. Now I keep two sets of each type so I can always have a clean one while I wash the others.
DJ: What are the most common birds locally?
MB: The most common that people report seeing are chickadees, domestic finches, small goldfinches, Annas hummingbirds, and dark-eyed juncos. There are also lots of Mourning Doves, Bewicks’ Wren, Bushy Jays, and American Crows. In my yard I also see nuttals, and usually a red tailed hawk at least once a day.
DJ: Outside of the backyards, where are the good places nearby for bird watching?
MB: Shoreline Park, Coyote Point Marina, and Sawyer Camp Trail are great places in San Mateo. I even saw a bald eagle at Crystal Springs Reservoir (from Sawyer Camp Trail) last May!
Susan Cohn is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and the American Theater Critics Association. She can be reached at [email protected]