‘Bird’ is the word

Birding is more than just watching birds



Birders look out over Sprague Lake, Sept. 19th, 2021.


“Birding” is not a term people hear too often. It sounds like someone just decided to turn “bird” into a verb, mostly because that’s exactly what it is.

To many, the word that comes to mind is birdwatching, but many birders, as they call themselves, are adamant that they are not the same thing.

“I would say all birders are birdwatchers and, to a large extent, all birdwatchers are birders,” said University of Idaho student and birder Ben Meredyk. “But typically, people who consider themselves birders rather than birdwatchers are more obsessed, more focused on identification and more focused on knowing as much as possible about birds.”

Though Meredyk lives in Ohio, he has been attending classes in Moscow for the past four years and is finishing up his final year of undergraduate courses this semester. The whole time, he said he has been avidly birding.

People who consider themselves birders will drive long distances for a particular bird, Meredyk said, chasing rarities or spending hours out actively searching for birds. Sometimes, Meredyk said birders will even sit in one spot for hours watching birds go by in active migration.

Meredyk said he has done all of these things many times. He said that the longest chase he’d ever done for a rare bird was twelve hours of driving in a single day to see an Emperor Goose in Portland. He had driven all the way from Moscow to Portland to see a single bird standing in a high school baseball field, he said.

Dark-eyed juncos are common birds in Pullman in winter

I must confess, as the one writing this, that I, too, am a birder.

I nearly joined Meredyk on this literal wild goose chase but had to pass up the opportunity. It was only a month later when he and I traveled with two other undergraduates to the Tri-Cities that I was finally able to see an Emperor Goose of my own: the 20th recorded instance of the species in Washington.

My longest chase was about the same length as Meredyk’s trip to Portland, just shy of six hours to Woodland, Washington, to see the state’s third record of a Russian rarity called the Siberian Accentor. However, WSU graduate RJ Baltierra had us both beat.

An active birder who grew up in Whitman County, Baltierra said that his longest chase had been a nearly 24-hour round-trip. He said he drove from Amarillo, Texas, to the southern tip of the state along the Rio Grande Valley just to see the first record of a Bat Falcon in the US.

This nearly 2000-mile journey, Baltierra said, was a no-brainer.

“A birdwatcher is a little old lady watching her feeder in her backyard and a birder is someone who would drive hundreds of miles just to see a new bird,” said Baltierra. “So I’m definitely a birder.”

Hundreds of birders flocked from all over to see the falcon, with many flying in from distant states just to add it to their life list, a list of every species they’ve ever seen. However, Baltierra said his experience birding while growing up in Saint John, Washington, was a very different kind of birding.

“When I started birding, there was a small community here, mostly composed of older people, and never really any young birders,” Baltierra said. “It definitely felt like I was the only birder in the county most of the time.”

Baltierra said he spent most of his birding time alone but did not mind.

“I just liked the fact that I was by myself. I enjoyed the solitude and being outdoors, birding areas that don’t get birded at all,” Baltierra said. “Most of the time, I was the only person regularly visiting these places around the Palouse.”

Perhaps because he was so used to birding alone, Baltierra said he was a bit embarrassed about his love for the activity when he first brought it with him to WSU. He said people would comment things like “isn’t that what old people do?” and treat the activity as a bit “lame.”

I have heard many similar things, as have most birders I know.

However, it seems like things are now changing. As birding moves a bit more into the public eye, it is no longer seen as such a strange concept.

“It’s becoming a more known thing and more accepted for sure,” Baltierra said. “When I’m out birding in places, more and more people know what I’m doing already and it’s not really a question anymore of ‘why do you have binoculars’ or anything. They just know you’re looking at birds.”

Though all birders have different experiences, many bond over the passion they share and how it shapes their lives.

I think Meredyk put it in a way Baltierra, myself and many others can get behind.

“What I enjoy about birding is the birds,” Meredyk said. “I enjoy seeing birds, identifying birds and the challenge that some birds present, the places that birding makes me go, and the company of the birders who I bird with.”