Birding is inexpensive, can be done anywhere, and rewards the effort of an hour or a lifetime—and West Virginia is a great place to do it.

Written by Stan Bumgardner

Tired of hobbies that cost an arm and a leg or a major time commitment? Well, head outside and join the potentially very inexpensive world of birding.

What’s so cool about birds? To start with, most can fly, being one of two vertebrates that have cracked the cheat code to escape Earth’s gravity — bats being the other. Of course, different species have unique calls. They eat pesky bugs like mosquitoes. They can also be clever and a little devious; otherwise, we wouldn’t need scarecrows.

Birds are expert carpenters, patiently crafting their homes stick by stick. Their colorful feathers are arrayed in spectacular and occasionally outlandish patterns. And they’re the closest relatives to the dinosaur—based on DNA, a chicken is the nearest living thing to a T-Rex.

Getting in touch with these majestic and gorgeous animals can bring people of all ages a sense of calm, exhilaration, and inspiration. Here in West Virginia, we’re in a great place for birding. Our mid-Atlantic location and variations in altitude, climate, and water give us more than 170 breeding species to enjoy.

It truly is one of the most accessible and cheapest hobbies, depending how far you get into it. If you get obsessed enough, there are plenty of high-end tools, from scopes to zoom camera lenses, you can buy. But to get started, it’s completely free. All you really need is your eyes or ears, and maybe a pencil and notebook.

Another plus is that you can start or stop any time. No need to take a class, although one-day or weeklong workshops can be a big help. The moment you start paying attention to birds, you’ll be astonished how fast you learn. Since no one can learn it all, the key is that you can enjoy it at any level of knowledge.

Another selling point is there’s no age limit at either end of the scale. And you can put as much or as little effort into it as you want. You can sit on your front porch or in your backyard for hours just taking it all in. Birding is often recommended for people with disabilities, because it doesn’t necessarily require mobility—but if you’re looking for exercise, 10-mile bird watching hikes and nature camps can be much more intensive than you might imagine.

Getting More Serious

If you want to get more seriously into birding, the first step for most is to take checklists and start marking off when and where you encounter each species. Search online, and you’ll find any number of bird lists specific to your area.

Maryanne Kraynanski, a longtime birder from Lincoln County, points out how some enthusiasts keep meticulous notes documenting sightings and migratory patterns. She says her own documentation is scattered around her house in books, notebooks, and bird guides, laughing, “I’ve got close to 30 years of this and that, here and there.”

Most birders have their favorite types. For Kraynanski, it’s singing warblers. They live in Central and South America through the winters and migrate north each spring. “I’ve been pretty casual about my notes, but I’ve always kept the dates of when the warblers arrive.”

Although Kraynanski had already been birding for a while, her hobby took a big leap when she joined her local Brooks Bird Club chapter and went on outings with other nature lovers. The club, which has chapters across the nation, was founded in Wheeling in 1932. At the time, Oglebay Park naturalist A.B. Brooks hosted regular outdoor walks, sky watches, nature poetry, and other events to get people outside. The bird watching club eventually became a separate entity from Oglebay but named its organization after the man who’d inspired it.

In 1933, the club started publishing The Redstart journal, which continues today. The club’s biggest activity is the annual weeklong Foray, which first took place in 1940 at Lost River State Park. Held each June, the Foray takes members and students on an ecological study. It offers classes and field work on birds, ferns, mosses, flowers, grasses, trees, geology, fungi, butterflies, herptiles, and small mammals. Over the years, nestlings of purple finches, brown creepers, golden-crowned kinglets, hooded warblers, Nashville warblers, and other birds unknown to these parts were first documented in West Virginia during the Foray.

Ryan Tomazin is the current president of the Brooks Bird Club, which is still nationally headquartered in Wheeling. Growing up on an Ohio County farm, he says birding and everything else about nature came to him, well, naturally. The Foray is “a unique camp,” according to Tomazin. “Even national people have heard of the Foray. And it’s cheap, too. For the week, it costs $250, but we subsidize it a bit to keep it reasonable for families.” Students can apply for scholarships through the Brooks Bird Club website.

While it might sound like something for only experienced birders, Tomazin says they tailor it for everybody to enjoy. “We welcome all ages and all skill levels.” Getting young people into birding is one of the club’s main goals. While it’s easy to bird any time, local bird clubs can mentor to kids who want to get more serious. Kraynanski is always surprised how young people and their “fresh minds” learn to bird so quickly.

There’s an App

Hobbyists typically call it “birding” these days instead of “bird watching” because it’s a holistic experience: It relies on what you hear, especially, as much as what you see. Both Kraynanski and Tomazin learned to distinguish bird calls the old-fashioned way—listening to cassettes in their old vehicle tape decks.

Today, you can download apps—like Merlin and its database companion, eBird, that tells you what bird you’re hearing, records it in case you detect a rare one, and even has a photo ID function, if you can get close enough to take a clear picture. Merlin claims its sound function is better than 90% accurate, which means it occasionally identifies a nearby bird that quite certainly has never been close to West Virginia. If a “rare” bird shows up on your app, it’s indicated in Merlin by a red dot. Rare birds appear more commonly than you’d think, Tomazin says, particularly in our mountain counties. Still, he advises caution if the app reports a rare bird, especially if it’s never been found near here—you might want to do some additional research before calling the National Audubon Society.

Apps are a fun way for kids of all ages to enjoy birding, but Merlin also made Kraynanski aware of a problem she didn’t realize she had. “I hadn’t been hearing some of the birds the last few years that I’d come to expect at certain times of the year,” she says. “But now I think it’s hearing loss, because when I turned on that app, it listed birds I’ve been listening to for many years but just can’t hear now.” Most of the ones she can’t hear have high-pitched calls, including her beloved warblers.

Where to Bird

The best place to bird is wherever you are. If you want to make a day or weekend out of it, head to the hills. Tomazin recommends the Potomac Highlands counties of Randolph, Pocahontas, Preston, and Tucker. In particular, Canaan Valley’s altitude, climate, and bogs attract birds not typical for our area. Many state parks and forests offer special hikes with experts who can explain what you’re seeing and hearing. Even some cemeteries, such as Spring Hill in Charleston, host regular bird walks.

But you’d be pleasantly shocked at some of the less-common birds you’ll find right near your home, Tomazin notes. “You can walk around a park or look out your kitchen window and see common and uncommon birds fly by,” he says. “And you can find birds in the middle of the city or in the middle of nowhere.”

Want to give birding a try? Next time you visit a park or even just step outside your home or workplace, pay attention to our feathered flying friends. They’re all around, and you’ll never look at or hear the world the same again.