With their binoculars, scopes and gazes turned to the skies, birdwatchers are often far easier to spot than the feathered friends they search for. Birding is one of the most popular activities in the country. An estimated 30 percent of all Americans go birding each year. It is also one of the few activities open to all ages and levels of ability.
In Columbia County and neighboring Cowlitz County, there are more than 200 species of birds to be found, including rarer examples like the Emperor goose, the tufted duck and the Gyrfalcon.
Birders will admit to be a little fanatical at times about finding those rare birds.
"We've had some ducks come into the lake here and people from all over Washington come to see this," said John Green, a long time birder and member of the Willapa Hills Audubon Society.
Green and his wife, Margaret, live just across the street from Lake Sacajawea in Longview. The 30-acre park offers some of the best opportunities to get involved in bird watching.
"Last year we had a bird that was rare for our area, for our county, and we'd go out and walk the lake and I would run into somebody from Seattle who had come down and hey'd ask where it is," said Margaret.
You don't have to leave Columbia County though to find great birding opportunities in the area.
"You have a great place for bird watching in Columbia County at Sauvie Island. It's a great place," said John.
For those with kayaks or canoes, there are even more opportunities.
"Scappoose Bay is fabulous," said Margaret. "We have friends who say that kayaking there in the fall and over the winter is good because the swans are there."
John added that birds will often let a kayak or canoe approach more closely than if you're in a power boat or walking on land.
"They just don't seem to be afraid of you if you're in canoe," he said.
It doesn't take much to get started in bird watching. You don't need special shoes or clothing and you don't special equipment. Birds can be observed with the naked eye, although John recommends getting an inexpensive pair of binoculars to make the experience more enjoyable.
Birding also changes with the seasons. The Greens suggest using a field guide, there are many available and some can be checked out at your local library.
Keep a list of the birds you've seen. Margaret said when a fellow birder suggested she keep a list of all the birds she had seen in her county, she couldn't imagine why she would want to.
"He said you learn when they come - what time of year, you learn what kind of habitat to look for them in, whether they're a tall grass bird or they're a riparian bird. He said you learn so much," she said.
There's no place like home
Some of the best opportunities for birding can be found without ever leaving home.
"A lot of people start out just feeding the birds in their backyard. That's what Margaret and I did," said John.
The couple began with backyard feeders at their home in Mississippi. When they moved to the Los Angeles area, they decided to take a class to learn more. From there they were hooked.
"We found this class on identifying birds. From there we learned about Los Angeles because we went on field trips every Saturday," he said. "We learned a lot about the area and where to go to look for birds and also for hiking."
Once they moved to Longview in 2002, they began creating a place for birds in their back yard.
Along with placing several different types of bird feeders, John says there are other things you can do to attract birds to your yard.
"One thing that is really important is to have foliage and plants in your backyard that are native, because it attracts native birds," said John.
In addition, he recommends having some kind of water feature, whether it is a pond or a small bird bath.
"Even if you have something with just a little drip of water, they're attracted to it," said Margaret.
The Greens also recommend placing different types of bird feed. While one bird may be attracted to seeds, another may prefer suet. To bring the best variety of birds to your yard, the feed you put out should be equally varied.
You should also keep your cats and dogs away from those areas where you place feeders. Birds are already wary of natural predators like hawks and will ignore whatever tasty treats you put out if your cat is sitting there waiting to pounce.
Join in the fun
The Greens will host a bird walk at Lake Sacajawea on Dec. 3 beginning at 8:30 a.m. The event is free and open to all ages and levels of fitness. Enjoy a warm beverage and snack afterwards at their home. For more information, call (360) 575-9238 or send an email to email@example.com. Copies of the 2012 Backyard Birds of the Pacific Northwest will be available for purchase.
The 28th annual Cowlitz-Columbia Bird Count will be held New Year's Day as part of the 2011 International Christmas Bird Count. Teams will cover a 15-mile radius over eight hours to count birds in the area. For more information or to sign-up, call Bob Reistroffer at (360) 636-5125.
For more on bird watching in Columbia and Cowlitz counties, go online to willapahillsaudubon.org.