Birdwatching Fundamentals

“Make no mistake, birdwatching as a hobby can be tremendously rewarding.”

Red-shouldered Hawk- male-002
Red-shouldered hawk (Buteo lineatus) spying dinner. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

Greetings and welcome in to Zero528!

As promised, this edition of my blog continues the theme of birdwatching (see previous post to discover binocular fundamentals).

Billion Dollar Industry
Make no mistake, birdwatching as a hobby can be tremendously rewarding. It has also become an extremely popular pastime – generating a Billion dollar industry.

According to a US Fish & Wildlife report (2013), information on the participation and expenditure patterns of 47 million birders in 2011 – the breakdown is as follows:

Trip-related and equipment-related expenditures associated with birding generated nearly $107 billion in total industry output, 666,000 jobs, and $13 billion in local, state, and federal tax revenue. This impact was distributed across local, state, and national economies.

Simply “Make” the Time
As a Visual Merchandising Lead at L.L. Bean, I still make the time to use my wildlife ecology background by actively participating in the joy of birdwatching. The beauty of birdwatching is that it is NOT a requirement to be a scientist…ANYONE can use their basic observational skills to discover and question the wonders found in nature.

Birdwatching Fundamentals
Essential equipment:
1. Binoculars – 8x 42 and camera
Best for serious wildlife viewing and for use on boats. Full-size binoculars capture more light and perform better in low-light situations. They usually provide steadier images and a wider field of view, so they’re great for birdwatching, but they’re generally too big and heavy for backpacking.

Short-eared Owl
Cameras can be a nice edition to an outing but sometimes can be cumbersome, too. That said, I usually regret not having my camera with me – Moto: Better to have it and need it than to NOT have it and need or want it. Evidence trumped, the day I captured a short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) on the premises of the MSSU prairie – first time this species had ever been documented on the site. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

2. Field Guide – Birds, Songbirds, Eastern NA
Many field guides to birding exist. Here is a list of those most commonly used:
• Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central (or Western) North America
• Sibley Birds East – Field Guide to Birds of Eastern or Western North America
• National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds: Eastern or Western Region
3. Field Notebook and pencils/Rite in the Rain pens
Now is the time to become a Naturalist – ha! Having a notepad and pen/pencil handy will assist in determining various species. Draw a small pic of the bird in question and take lots of notes – more on this later.
• L.L. Bean Field Notebook
• Rite in the Rain Notepad
• Pencils and/or Rite in the Rain pens

Northern bobwhite tracks
I was not able to capture an image of the northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) with my camera, so I settled for evidence of the covey having been present on the MSSU Prairie in Joplin, MO. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

4. Water
Remember to hydrate before, during, and after taking to the field.
5. Backpack
A backpack is a great way to carry essentials noted above, including a CLIF® bar or mix of nuts and dried fruit.

When, Where, and How to “birdwatch.”
Have fun with the decision to go birding. Communing with nature is always good for the soul and can be a rewarding and enjoyable hobby. I like to begin my early morning having already predetermined where I’m headed to “go birding” and what species I’m hoping to view. Perhaps I want to see some waterfowl…well, I best head to where the water is – a lake or large pond/stock tank or river. Perhaps I’m interested in viewing some neotropical migrant warblers. Well then, the timing of year must be right (early May for birds returning from South America) – brushy cover near a field/stream might work, and it could even be in an urban setting.
NOTE: I have previously documented 63 species (over a two-year period) from my backyard while living in a somewhat urban setting in Southwest Missouri.

Scissor-tailed flycatchers (Tyrannus forficatus) . . . one of my favorites. Ya never know which unique species may pass through your own backyard – “Stay observant my friends!” Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

Firstly, to add to the enjoyment of an outing I note the following data in my field notebook: (also see SAMPLE NOTES below):
• Date – (e.g., 02/09/2017)
• Location – (e.g., USFS Dakota Prairie National Grasslands)
• Time – (e.g., 0600)
• Temperature – (e.g., 28° C)
• Weather – (e.g., winds S/SW @ 10 kph)

ANYTIME OF THE YEAR! The best times to bird are early mornings and later afternoon…feeding times for the birds. Don’t forget about spring migration (early May returning to breeding grounds) – one of the best times to view birds that are “just passing through.”

Passerina ciris- painted bunting-1
Have an enjoyable experience when birding… look up, look down and be patient. This painted bunting (Passerina ciris) was waiting for me when I turned a corner around a fence. I would have taken more photos but had forgotten to ‘charge’ my camera battery – lesson learned. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

Birding can be conducted nearly anywhere. Set up a bird feeder outside the window at home and as the adage goes – If you build it they will come. Other birding areas include:
1. Wildlife refuges
2. Nature centers
3. State or city parks
4. Cemeteries – yes, especially if they are old and kind of grown over a bit
5. Backyards

Among the forbs and tallgrass of Prairie State Park (MO), sits a female Dickcissel (Spiza americana). Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

Quietly and patiently- look and listen – use all observational skills. Alone or in small groups is best. I’ve found that when I’m still, the birds will come to me and/or reveal themselves – Look up, look down. Have the notebook and pencil handy…
Listen carefully for the bird songs or calls. Follow the bird song (auditory clues) to discover the species responsible until it is no longer necessary to positively identify the bird visually – could take multiple times.

Once a bird has been spied, look closely and note the following Four Keys to Identification:
1. Size and Shape – Jot down notes immediately by observing the bird’s basic topography:
Sparrow size
Robbin size
Crow size
Shape of body
Shape of bill (mandible)

2. Color Pattern – Pay close attention to:
Bill color
Wing bars
Eye ring
Note any striking features when drawing the bird

3. Habitat – Keep in mind the location. And, consider the bird’s behavior within in its habitat (home):
On land?
On water?
Near the shore (river or lake)?

4. Behavior
Does the bird flutter from its perch to catch an unsuspecting prey and then quickly return to its perch again?
Does it forage on the ground?
Is it searching for insects on/in the bark of the tree?
Does it have a nest or is it a cavity-nester?
Does it bob its tail?

NOTE: Songs and Calls
• songs – used in breeding season
• calls – used all year, general communication
• alarm calls – predator nearby

A Page From My Personal Field Notebook
Date: February 2, 2013
Location: Busiek State Forest and Wildlife Area
Time: 6:55 am – 9:00 am Temp: 27°F – Weather: wind-E-9 mph, 63% humidity, partly clear skies, beautiful morning – watched sunrise against cloud cover.

Bird (common name) and Habitat
Tufted Titmouse – woodlot/edge
American Crow – in the distance
Northern Cardinal – woodlot/edge
Carolina Wren – shrubby cover edge/near glade
American Robin – woodlot/edge
Song Sparrow – woodlot/edge
*Pileated Woodpecker – forest/woodlot (in the distance)
Red-bellied Woodpecker – woodlot
Blue Jay – woodlot
Yellow-rumped Warbler – shrubby cover edge/near glade
*Wild Turkey – woodlot/edge
Downy Woodpecker – woodlot/edge
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker – river bottomland/edge
*Kingfisher – river bottomland (in the distance)
White-breasted Nuthatch – river bottomland/edge
Eastern Bluebird – river bottomland/edge
Carolina Chickadee – river bottomland/edge
White-throated Sparrow – river bottomland/shrubby cover
Brown Creeper – woodlot
*denotes heard but not seen

I got my day started early and arrived at Busiek around 6:45 am. It was a cold morning, but that is the way I like it. Although admittedly, my nose, fingertips, and toes did get cold near the end of my walk. The trailhead said “closed” but that didn’t stop me. I wandered up to what appeared to be a glade restoration project along a south facing slope. It wound around towards the east. The sun popped out just long enough to tease me, and then back behind a cloud. The highlights of the field trip were hearing the Pileated, observing a Red-bellied Woodpecker dominate a Downy/take over the position the Downy was holding, and observing one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker chase another for several minutes forth and back between two trees. It began to sprinkle as I made my way down the east end of the hillside towards the river bottom.

Remember – don’t worry about photo quality. It is okay if the pics are not expert images. What is important is that a moment was captured which can later be used to identify a species and fondly look back on the day’s events. Here a Harris’s sparrow (Zonotrichia querula) becomes interested in me. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

This guide should prove useful when beginning this new found hobby. Additionally, visit for a fantastic resource about ornithology (the scientific study of birds).

Share, Like, and Follow this blog.

“Enjoy and keep a good thought!” Bob P.

Credit where credit is due:

USFWS. 2013. Birding in the United States: A Demographic and Economic Analysis (PDF)

Binocular Fundamentals

“…it is imperative to first cover the basic features and operations of binoculars…”

Bob Peterson, Wildlife ecologist and L.L. Bean Visual Merchandising Lead, interacts with attendees at a recent L.L. Bean Outdoor Discovery School Birdwatching and Binocular Fundamentals Clinic at the Mall of America. Photo © 2017 Kelsey Wotzka

Welcome in!

It’s been a little while since I’ve reached out… thanks for checking out this edition of Zero528! Enjoy!

Birding is Fun and Easy
If I’ve inserted one main take away message for this blog, this is it!

To begin to understand the joy in birdwatching it is imperative to first cover the basic features and operations of binoculars – a key piece of equipment for the outdoor enthusiast and birdwatcher.

Unfortunately, I can’t show “how” to operate a set of binoculars, but I suspect my readers are a sharp group, and I’ve added a few resource links to aid in discovery.

Eastern bluebird (Sialia sialis), perched on my backyard fence. Be certain to ‘clean out’ bluebird boxes each spring to insure these beauties make use of the cavity nesting opportunity. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

Objective of this blog:

• Understand basic types and use of binoculars

Binoculars: Fundamentals and Features

Image ©

Binoculars: How to Choose
A wide range of prices exist on similar-looking styles. Understanding binocular specs, such as magnification and objective lens diameter helps narrow down which pair works best for specific needs.

Binocular Size:
• Full-Size (common specs: 8 x 42, 10 x 50)
Best for serious wildlife viewing and for use on boats. Full-size binoculars capture more light and perform better in low-light situations. They usually provide steadier images and a wider field of view, so they’re great for bird watching, but they’re generally too big and heavy for backpacking
• Mid-Size (common specs: 7 x 35, 10 x 32)
Best all-around choice for wildlife and sports use. While a bit heavy for backpacking, these binoculars balance moderate size and above-average light transmission.
• Compact (common specs: 8 x 25, 10 x 25)
Best for daytime outdoor activities. These are the lightest, smallest binoculars for backpacking, but they’re less comfortable during extended periods of use.

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias). I like to take along a camera in addition to other necessary equipment. Birds don’t always cooperate, but I like to use the pics as evidence of my sightings. Photos don’t have to be ‘perfect’ and are a great means of remembering the outing. Motto – better to take the camera and need/want/attempt to take a pic, than to want it and NOT have it. Photo © 2017 R.L. Peterson

Two Numbers
Binoculars are identified by two numbers which indicate:
1. Magnification power (e.g., 7, 8, 10)
2. Objective lens diameter (e.g., 35, 42, 50)
e.g., 8 x 42 binoculars have a magnification power of 8 and an objective lens diameter of 42mm
Binocular Magnification Power
A magnification power of 8 means that an object will appear 8 times closer than it would to the unassisted eye; e.g., when viewing a deer standing 200 yards away through 8x binoculars, it will appear as though it were 25 yards away (200 divided by 8).
NOTE: Binoculars with magnification powers greater than 10 amplify the movements or shakiness in the holder’s hands, making steady viewing difficult.
Binocular Objective Lens Diameter
The second number used in binocular identification refers to the diameter (in millimeters) of the objective lenses (those farther from the eyes / closer to the “object” being viewed).
Example: 7 x 35 binoculars have objective lenses measuring 35mm. The diameter of the objective lenses largely determines how much light the binoculars can gather. More light equates to a brighter view, particularly in low-light conditions.

A red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) investigates a crack in this tree in my backyard – notice the foliose and crustose lichens.  Photo © R.L. Peterson

Binocular Field of View
This spec determines the width of the area (usually in feet) that can be viewed at a glance, 1,000 yards from where you stand. A wide field of view is best to find and identify objects such as birds. Usually a higher magnification power results in a narrower field of view.
Binocular Focus
Almost all binoculars feature a central focus wheel that focuses both barrels on the binoculars at the same time. They also typically include a diopter adjustment ring which focuses one barrel independently of the other. This feature compensates for differences in vision between the users eyes. Once the diopter is set, then the two barrels should stay in proper relation. From then on, focus by turning the central focusing knob.
The diopter ring is usually located on either the left or right barrel near the eyepiece.

Stay tuned for my next exciting blog- Birdwatching Fundamentals.

“Enjoy and keep a good thought!” Bob P.

Additional resources:

L.L. Bean


All About Birds




The Rite of Prairie Passage

“. . . less than 1/10th of 1 percent of Missouri’s nearly six million hectares of presettlement tallgrass prairie remains today.”

Rough blazing star (Liatris aspera), on the campus of Missouri Southern State University’s native “prairie land.” A small portion (14 ac.) of this remnant tract was set aside, thanks in small part to the author’s unrelenting passion for preserving the site. Joplin, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Hello again… and welcome in!

This Zero528 blog entry considers the tallgrass prairies of West-Central/Southwestern Missouri and the perilous time signifying the period during which their demise began – their composition impacted, their form altered, and their existence nearly eliminated.

It is my intention to spark interest in and create awareness of, the tallgrass prairies in North America. However, it is beyond the scope of this blog to delve too deep on the topic.

Holistic overview

The tallgrass prairie ecosystem is widely considered one of the most diverse and yet most endangered terrestrial ecosystems in North America. Many conservation efforts are being conducted to save, improve, and restore portions of remaining tallgrass prairie across its original range.

The demise of North American prairie grasslands began approximately 150 years ago with cattle replacing millions of native grazing mammals followed by the conversion of most tallgrass prairie to tilled crops (Samson and Knopf, 1994). Surely more answers exist which explain this unfortunate occurrence.

Bison (Bison bison), resting on the native tallgrass prairie of Prairie State Park near Liberal, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson


Presettlement tallgrass prairies once covered 26.7% (47,663 km2) of the state of Missouri (Schroeder, 1983; C. Davit, Missouri Prairie Foundation, pers. comm.). Of the nearly 6 million hectares of tallgrass prairies, less than 1/10th of 1% remains today (C. Davit, pers. comm.).

Missouri’s premium tallgrass prairie region was historically the West-Central region (Schroeder, 1983). This region, situated along the central-eastern edge of the Great Plains south of the Missouri River and west of the Ozarks, was significantly impacted and severely threatened by those who sought to extend the range of the western edge of the American frontier.

I had the fortunate opportunity during the spring of my senior year at MSSU, to monitor greater prairie-chickens (Tympanuchus cupido) via radiotelemetry on Wah’Kon-Tah prairie near El Dorado Springs, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

The highest percentage of prairie of any Missouri County was Barton County (86%) with Bates and Vernon Counties each containing 78% and 73%, respectively (Schroeder, 1983). This region currently represents the largest remaining area of native grasslands within the state.

Located on Prairie State Park, Regal Tallgrass Prairie Natural Area was the site of my Master of Science research project – Influence of vegetation structure on density of northern bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) on a tallgrass prairie in southwestern Missouri. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Remembering the Past

Contemplate the timely exhibitions of the various blooming prairie wildflowers, which fortunately can still be witnessed, albeit on a much less grand scale.

A diverse abundance of big-game animals once roamed the grasslands unimpeded  – imagine immense herds of bison (Bison bison) thundering across the prairie, Elk (Cervus elaphus) grazing nutritious grasses, and pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) browsing forbs (non-woody flowering plants) at will.

Listen for echoes of the seemingly innumerable greater prairie-chickens  (Tympanuchus cupido) “booming” upon their leks and recall the exploits of French missionaries and traders and their influence on the Osage Indians of the region.

Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), peeking at the horizon line on Penn-Sylvania Prairie in Dade County Missouri. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Recollect the terrors inflicted upon civilians by the infamous Quantrill guerrillas that patrolled with a vengeance along the western border of Missouri. Consider legendary bushwhacker outlaws including Jesse and Frank James and lawless bank robbers of the area such as the Doolin-Dalton Gang.

The Rite of Prairie Passage and the Point of No-Return

As a quail biologist/ecologist and Missouri history enthusiast (among other things), natural curiosity found me pondering the point of no-return conditions (cultural, social, environmental, etc.) marking the transition of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem in Missouri –  from its dominance to its near disappearance.

The Perfect Storm

My research indicates the culprits responsible for the downfall of the tallgrass prairies in West-Central/Southwestern Missouri, consisted of an extensive list of fortuitous occurrences. These events occurred cumulatively at an accelerated rate and spanned the time period near the dawn of the Civil War through the post-war era. A tumultuous time to be sure.

As pioneers (mostly European immigrants) pushed the boundaries of the frontier and found their little piece of the green earth, they began to keep a written account of their lives and those events happening around them and to them in West-Central/Southwestern Missouri.

In addition, as they traversed from county to county, early Missouri land surveyors logged their visual accounts of the differences in the landscape and varieties of wildlife species encountered.

Somewhere on The Great Plains. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Therefore, written historical accounts provide insight into factors which cannot be discounted as potentially having deleterious effects on the tallgrass prairies of the region – the relocation of its native caretakers, the conquering spirit of the individuals who settled them, the invention of tools that broke them, the laws enacted that limited their management, the expansion of the railroad which fragmented them, the contentious livestock controversies which altered them, and the turbulent Civil War times that produced rugged vigilantes who gallivanted across them.

Hereford cattle grazing in Oklahoma. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Moreover, these events were happening simultaneously and were set against the backdrop of a fire control law (burn ban), human population explosion, increased grazing pressure, cultivation of hay, invention of barbed-wire fence, martial law, lawlessness, bushwhacker violence, guerrilla warfare, oaths of Union loyalty, and Southern sympathy.

It is likely that small-scale farming by the settlers, which fragmented the landscape – coupled with the laundry list of other forces and influences noted above -had perhaps already begun to take its toll.

These combined events created the perfect storm of conditions which sparked the subsequent downward spiral of the tallgrass prairie and the habitat it provides to a host of wildlife species.

Dickcissel (Spiza americana) male calling to a prospective mate on Prairie State Park near Liberal, MO. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

My research describing how, when, and why the tallgrass prairie has all but disappeared in Missouri, is strengthened and formed in part through critical examination of historical records vividly describing the lives of the aforementioned pioneers who braved the western edge of civilization amidst the volatile events occurring during the mid-nineteenth century.

Gaining momentum on my proposed signed “Prairie Passage” Auto-Tour Route for the West-Central/Southwestern region. This passage (auto-tour route) would link the highest concentration of remaining native prairie tracts within Missouri, all of which offer free public access. Image © 2016 R.L. Peterson

21st Century and Beyond

Today, only a fragment of the North American tallgrass prairies remain. In the name of conservation, preservation, and restoration, it is imperative that this precious resource, and the ecological linkages which rely on it, be protected as much as possible.

Visit the Missouri Prairie Foundation to discover how to actively participate in discovering, and helping save, Missouri’s native prairies. Additionally, visit GrowNative to ascertain information about supporting biodiversity on the local level.

Prairie State Park (Missouri) celebrates a biennial Prairie Jubilee – a festive event for the entire family. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson.

The call is to anyone and everyone to enjoy this resource. So, don’t delay – grab a pair of binoculars, hiking boots, backpack, and/or Brooks running gear and hit the trail of a native prairie nearby. As the seasons change, so do the prairie scenes…fascinatingly beautiful.

Keep a good thought! Bob P.

SIDE NOTE: In my opinion, managing for biodiversity is key to proper prairie management. Under carefully monitored conditions and with a proper burn plan in place, fire can be an effective management tool – with the objectives being to suppress woody encroachment and to create a heterogeneous landscape necessary to support biodiversity.

Conducting a prescribed burning exercise while interning at the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in Ardmore, OK. Photo © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Fire suppression has occurred historically as a result of liability concerns and recently, due to severe drought conditions. For information on prescribed burning and other upland management tools, visit Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation.

All photos and images © 2016 R.L. Peterson

Literature cited:

Samson, F., and F. Knopf. 1994. Prairie conservation in North America. Bioscience 44:418-421.

Schroeder, W. A. 1983. Presettlement prairie of Missouri, second edition. Missouri Department of Conservation, Jefferson City.