Joel Wadsworth of Fayetteville hikes the mountainous thoroughfares along the New River Gorge to test his strength and stamina in what is rapidly becoming known as the focal point for hikers from all over the East.
But Wadsworth divides his time between hiking and bird watching since the region is noted for both dense populations of songbirds as well as some of the most challenging hiking traces in the Mountain State.
“Birds are amazing creatures that most people take for granted,” Wadsworth said. “But I’m not like those other folks when it comes to studying creatures with feathers and wings.”
Wadsworth belongs to a growing number of bird watchers, those dressed for outdoors and carrying field glasses, who routinely tromp through swamps, woods, fields, often in cold, rain, snow, and fog to observe the lives of wild birds and their habits.
“If the birds stopped singing, people would be in an uproar,” Wadsworth said. “Without their music, the world just wouldn’t be the same.”
When scientists turn their attentions to birds, they have a huge resource to help. Bird watchers are a committed, meticulous breed, and their numbers are on the rise. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 60 million people in the USA watch and enjoy birds—up from 50 million about 15 years ago.
What’s more, up to 1.5 million are hard-core birders who spend an average of $2,000 a year on equipment and bird-watching trips, according to American Birds magazine.
And with more than 700 of the world’s 9,000 species living and breeding in North America, bird watchers have plenty to keep them busy.
As a result, Wadsworth is caught up in several local projects. “We are trying to learn the population parameters of different birds,” he said. “We want to know if they are doing well and maintaining their numbers.”
Wadsworth and other area observers focus on nature activities, many of which center on birding. In January and March there is an eagle watch along New River.
During the past few years the Bald Eagle and Golden Eagle sightings have increased along the New River. Various bird clubs participate in an annual count to document the number of eagles that are visiting the area.
But the eagles aren’t the only species under investigation by the local avian enthusiasts.
Typically, approximately 50 species or more of resident and migrating birds can be spotted during an average two-hour bird walk in spring and summer, Wadsworth explained.
The dedicated avian observer noted that two of the most important tips in bird watching are to remain calm and quiet. That way, more can be studied on any given trek along winding mountain thoroughfares and in brushy, marshy wetlands.
“The warblers and songbirds are gorgeous when they return to their breeding grounds in the U.S. and Canada,” Wadsworth said. “They travel to Southern U.S., Central America and South America. A great percentage of our birds do that. They spend a couple of months up here and then they migrate back to their winter homes in the south.
“They are just here for a short while to breed, raise a family and take them back to their homes. It’s really unreal how they do that: survive two trips, one up and one back, over thousands of miles.”
So what does it take for a beginner to get into the sport of bird watching?
Binoculars are important and so are the bird ID books. Being able to identify bird songs during the spring migration observations is helpful too. And find a group you can spend time with to help you learn to recognize bird species and songs.
“You need to know their calls and songs,” Wadsworth said. “That’s a big part of birding, particularly with research and surveys. Sometimes you don’t see the birds, you only hear them.”