I’m driving Route 2 along the Ohio River, checking the ponds and flooded fields along the road. I’m searching for a small, water-loving bird called a Red-necked Phalarope. A friend saw it a few hours ago, but by the time I get to the pond where he spotted it, the bird is gone. I’m hoping it stays close by instead of continuing its epic migration from South America to the Arctic. The Red-necked Phalarope is my favorite bird species and, because it’s usually found near the ocean, I’ve never seen one in West Virginia.
My most exciting memories of Red-necked Phalaropes are from a birding trip I took to Iceland last June during their breeding season. Armed with an Icelandic bird guide, I spent two weeks driving around the boreal birch forests and alpine tundra. My main objective was looking for a variety of bird species—Atlantic Puffins, Gyrfalcons, and Arctic Terns—and in doing so, I got to explore far beyond the typical tourist stops.
I love connecting with nature and local communities wherever I wander, and I’ve found birding to be a wonderful way to immerse myself in every place I visit. Searching for birds and wildlife has taken me from the jungles and ancient ruins in Guatemala to the vast salt pans and sand spits of coastal Thailand.
Birding is increasing in popularity all over the world—even more so due to being an accessible activity during the pandemic. When I meet birders from other places, there’s an instant kinship born from the shared love of exploring and conserving nature.
I was recently talking to a friend from the United Kingdom who was describing an experience he had with a Red-eyed Vireo near his home. His excitement over the rarity in his country made me laugh; at the same moment, I was listening to the same species singing right outside my window. Sometimes called the “preacher bird” for its near-constant vocalizations, Red-eyed Vireos are quite common in the eastern U.S. in the summer months. In Europe, the Red-eyed Vireo is even more rare than the Red-necked Phalarope is in West Virginia. Sometimes, you don’t have to venture far from home to find unusual birds.
I’m sitting on my back porch as I write this, watching one familiar Tufted Titmouse that I’ve learned to recognize. Although members of the species are virtually identical, this particular bird has a roughed-up patch of feathers on one wing that sticks out. I’m not sure if it’s a permanent anomaly or if it will only last until the bird’s next molt but, for now, I can tell exactly how often that individual visits my feeders, where it forages in trees, and how many other titmice are in its little flock. Observing the behaviors of individual birds is one of the many joys of birding from home.
I do a little birding in my backyard or along the roads near my house almost every day—sometimes intentionally, other times while running, biking, or doing yard work. Once you get hooked on birding, it’s hard to turn it off. Getting to know the species of my local patch of habitat makes me feel intimately connected to the natural world around me. And when I bird the same area often, it increases the excitement upon spotting an unusual visitor, even if it’s a bird that’s common a mile or two away. For instance, there was an Indigo Bunting that spent a few hours in my backyard a few weeks ago. Indigo Buntings can be found in just about any shrubby area or weedy field in West Virginia in the summer, but I rarely get to enjoy one right outside my window.
Traveling to exotic places and seeing unique bird species will probably never get old for me, but birding around West Virginia is just as fulfilling. It makes me aware that I’m just a tiny piece in this complex web of life on Earth.
Wherever you are, I encourage you to keep an eye and ear out for birds. Even if you don’t plan a destination trip focused on birding, you can still seek out birds and wildlife on your travels that lead you off the beaten path and into a world of natural discoveries. If you go on a birding trip, you’ll likely connect not only with nature, but also with other people who are equally drawn to our feathered friends. From your backyard to the wonders of West Virginia and beyond, the birds are calling for you.
Mollee Brown is an avid birder and explorer. She owns and operates Nighthawk Advertising Solutions from her home in Fairmont.
Tufted Titmouse: Tufted Titmouse are found year-round throughout West Virginia. They are often noisy and sociable, making them a joy to observe.
Red-necked Phalarope: Red-necked Phalaropes are a rare sighting in West Virginia, but are plentiful in other parts of the world. This photo is from Iceland.
Pileated Woodpecker: You don’t have to venture far from home to see incredible birds like the Pileated Woodpecker, a year-round resident of West Virginia.
Indigo Bunting: Indigo Buntings are a common summer sight in West Virginia in weedy or brushy habitats.
This is me watching and taking a video of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird nest near my home. Photos by Johnny Lo.