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Laura Erickson: One of the best ways to see birds up close

A Black-capped Vireo sings at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, in Oklahoma, in April 2013. Photo by Laura Erickson.
A Black-capped Vireo sings at Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, in Oklahoma, in April 2013. Photo by Laura Erickson.

Luring birds close is one reason to improve backyard habitat, add birdbaths, and set out feeders. Away from home, we may pish or, outside of the breeding season and without unduly disrupting birds, play recordings. This can maximize the number that we see but doesn’t give us a feeling for how birds behave when we’re not watching.

At home or farther afield, I prefer to position myself where I expect, or hope, the birds will be naturally.

Warblers and other Neotropical migrants gravitate to chickadee flocks as they pass through unfamiliar areas. When chickadees show up at my feeders in spring and fall, I park myself not by my feeders but by the back fence, where shrubs, trees, and vines provide food for insect- and fruit-eating birds. I’ve amassed a great yard list and taken wonderful photos in this one spot. I call my method hopeful hunkering.

In the late 1990s, I took the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Home Study Course in Bird Biology. Here’s one of the requirements:

Spend at least 10 minutes (preferably 20) sitting or standing still in a natural area of your choice…. Then write a short paragraph describing your observations of birds. Did you see anything that you have never noticed before? Did you enjoy the experience?

I did this in mid-winter, at the edge of a woods in northern Wisconsin. A pair of Hairy Woodpeckers stayed nearby for the full period, the male persistently following the female wherever she went. A lone Fox Sparrow crouched between tree roots. It occasionally scurried to another tree, picking up a seed on the run to eat in the shelter of more tree roots. Watching these common birds was extraordinarily satisfying.


One of the best birding experiences I ever had was on a spring day in a small area of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, in Oklahoma. For eight and a half hours, I hunkered down.

A Black-capped Vireo alternated between singing and hiding out. During the quiet minutes, I watched a brilliantly iridescent ground beetle walking right over a diamondback rattlesnake, a Painted Bunting singing and getting into a spat with a pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, two Black-chinned Hummingbirds displaying and chasing one another, a skulking Rufous-crowned Sparrow, Mississippi Kites flying overhead, and lizards scooting over the rocks and basking in the sun.

Whenever the Black-capped Vireo started to sing, I’d track his movements as he moseyed from branch to branch. The bird worked his way in a clockwise direction around his territory, plucking insects off leaves and branches as he moved. Once in a while, he stopped on an exposed branch to sing, uninterrupted, for up to two full minutes.

I would have seen many more species had I covered more ground that day, but so what? The American Birding Association’s slogan is “a million ways to bird.” Hopeful hunkering is one of my favorites.



This article from Laura Erickson’s column “Attracting Birds” appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of BirdWatching. 

Five more columns by Laura Erickson

In Peru, bird-feeding stations are helping to protect habitat.

Four major threats to birds may lurk in your yard.

How Red-bellied Woodpeckers turned a bad spot into a good nest.


Feeding birds entails serious responsibilities.

Nests in your yard are delightful, most of the time.


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Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson

Laura Erickson is the 2014 recipient of the American Birding Association’s highest honor, the Roger Tory Peterson Award. She has written many books about birds and hosts the long-running radio program and podcast “For the Birds.” Her column  “Attracting Birds,” about attracting, feeding, sheltering, and understanding the birds in your backyard, appears in every issue of BirdWatching. “Snow Bird,” her first article in the magazine, appeared in December 2003. It described the migration and winter habits of the American Robin.

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