Birdwatching benefits mind, body and spirit

More than a decade ago, Cathy Millar began feeling burned out over work and family obligations. Seeking relief from daily stressors, Millar found comfort through nature by joining the Williamsburg Bird Club.

“I grew up in a household where everyone was always interested in nature,” said Millar, who has been a member of the Williamsburg Bird Club for a dozen years and is the club’s secretary. “For me, going on a bird walk is a spiritually renewing experience. I love stopping and watching birds and other creatures. I find it engrossing and soothing. When I go, all the worries of the world take a backseat for a while.”

Williamsburg Bird Club — with roughly 200 members — defines its mission as promoting the study of wild birds. Members meet monthly for bird walks throughout the area at places like York River State Park, New Quarter Park and Newport News Park. Occasionally, there are field trips to the Great Dismal Swamp in Chesapeake as well as Virginia’s Eastern Shore.

Birdwatching has both physical and mental health benefits. In addition to being outdoors and exercising as you hit the trail in search of birds, the hobby also offers relaxation and keeps your mind sharp.

“Your mind is very active as you learn to identify the different birds,” Millar said. “There is just so much to learn.”

Melinda Cousins, a vice president for Williamsburg Bird Club as well as a member of the Virginia Society of Ornithology, agrees. Cousins has been an avid birdwatcher for more than 20 years and is proprietor of Backyard Birder, a shop dedicated to assisting others wild birdwatching in their own yards.

“Without a doubt, everyone can benefit from the hobby with its mental challenge of accurate identification, habits and song and its ability to improve your mood and health,” Cousins said. “Birding is a peaceful addition to your activities. It's a wonderful way to feel connected to the natural world around us.”

In an age where everyone is on the go while hooked on their cellphones and electronic devices, finding time for nature can be beneficial.

“The physical attributes of birdwatching are obvious,” said Dave Youker, who has been a member of the Hampton Roads Bird Club for 15 years. “You are outside breathing in fresh air and getting exposed to natural light. Many people today work inside at desks, are surrounded by artificial light and breathe recirculated air. Birding is one way to get people outside.

“Of course, walking is a great form of exercise, whether done along trails or on beaches. Kayaking is another way to get some physical activity while enjoying the birds that prefer water habitats.”

The mental benefits of birding are just as important as the physical ones, Youker said.

“There are the social aspects of interacting with club members and participating in the many activities. Many birding organizations, like the Hampton Roads Bird Club, have conservation efforts that enable you to make a positive impact on our surrounding environment. Nature in also one of the few places left where we can retreat from the constant stimulation of technology. Some of my best ideas come when I’m enjoying the solitude of nature and listening to the various songs of birds.”

Anyone — young or old — is encouraged to consider birdwatching as a new hobby.

“If you’re new to birding, join a club or partner with a more experienced birder,” Youker suggested. “You’ll learn so much and find birding enjoyable when someone is sharing their knowledge of birds with you. You’ll also be surprised just how many birds live in our area, and you’ll discover some interesting aspects of bird behavior that you never knew.”

Area bird walks

Hampton Roads Bird Club meets the first and third Sundays of every month at 7 a.m. at Newport News Park. For more information, visit hamptonroadsbirdclub.org.

Williamsburg Bird Club meets the second and fourth Saturdays of every month at 8 a.m., typically at New Quarter Park. For more information, visit williamsburgbirdclub.org.

Other places to visit and view birds include Sandy Bottom Nature Park, Noland Trail, Grandview Beach, Fort Monroe, Messick Point Marina, Gosnold’s Hope Park, Greensprings Trail, Powhatan Creek Trail, Lake Matoaka Trail, Chickahominy Riverfront Park, Bassett Trace Nature Trail, and York River State Park.

Locally common birds

» Northern Cardinal, the state bird of Virginia. Males are all red and females are mostly brown with red highlights. Best found in the woods or an urban setting.

» Carolina Chickadee, a black, gray and white bird. The crown and throat are black with white feathers surrounding the black while the wings, back and tail are gray, and the breast is white or yellowish. Best found in the woods or an urban setting.

» Eastern Bluebird males are dark blue on the head and back with an orange breast. Females have similar coloring but much more muted. Best found in fields or an urban setting.

» Great Egret is a large white bird with a large, yellow bill and black legs. Best found in an aquatic setting.

» Osprey has a head that is white with patches of dark brown. The throat and breast are white, and their back is dark brown and black. Best found near an aquatic setting.

» Other birds you may find throughout the area include owls, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, goldfinches and eagles.

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