Friluftsliv: Becoming a bit of a ‘birder’

Submitted Photo This photo of the great horned owl and fledgling was taken by Doug Wurtz in the South Unit of the North Dakota Badlands on May 21, 2023.


To loosely translate from Norwegian to English:

fri = free, lufts = air’s, liv = life

The English equivalent= Outdoor Life

I have, in the last couple of years, become a bit of a “birder.” The people who are serious about this pursuit have come up with three categories for the activity:

Birder. The acceptable term used to describe the person who seriously pursues the hobby of birding. May be professional or amateur.

Birding. A hobby in which individuals enjoy the challenge of bird study, listing, or other general activities involving bird life.

Bird-watcher. A rather ambiguous term used to describe the person who watches birds for any reason at all, and should not be used to refer to the serious birder.

Based on the three accepted categories, I would place myself somewhere between “birder” and “birding.”

Although not altogether serious about this hobby, I have set my own rules that go beyond just “birding.” With the advent of digital cameras and computer software, watching birds can become something beyond a mere spectator sport. My equipment of choice is a Nikon P950 digital camera and “Merlin Bird I.D,” a software program from the folks at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

My Nikon camera has a 2,000mm zoom lens, which means that in the right light, I can just about count the eye lashes on a bird at great distance. The Merlin software allows me to import one of my digital photos and, in the course of a couple of questions, identify just about any bird I photograph. My own rule is that unless I get a really good photograph, I don’t import it. When I do, the software compiles a “life list” of my photos. I am currently at 118 birds on my list. According to one of my bird books, there have been over 400 different birds recorded in North and South Dakota so I have a ways to go.

John James Aubudon is the epitome of bird enthusiasts. He was born in what is now Haiti in 1785 and was christened Jean-Jacques Rabin. He changed his name in 1803 when his father, Jean Audubon, obtained a false passport that allowed young Jean-Jacques to move to the United States to avoid military conscription. His career is action-packed and controversial but, in spite of many misadventures, he is credited with “discovering” twenty new species of birds and twelve new subspecies.

Audubon’s greatest contribution to the field is his publication, “The Birds of America,” a collection of 435 images he drew and issued in 87 sets of five prints. He died in 1851 at the age of 65. He was sure, late in life, that his life’s work would be worthless but one of his collections was sold in 2010 for $11.6 million.

Audubon’s connection to North Dakota includes the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, the 14,739-acre refuge near Coleharbor. I have photographed a number of birds included on my bird “life list” on the eight-mile auto tour route that follows the south shore of Lake Audubon.

John James Audubon is probably lesser known for his study of mammals in North Dakota. On June 12, 1843, “forty eight days and seven hours” and 1,400 miles after leaving St. Louis, he arrived at Fort Union, now the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site near Williston. His intention was to view and gather information on the mammals of the American West for a new publication. He was able to see and sketch wolves, elk, antelope, deer, bighorn sheep and others. His journal notes, taken at Fort Union, record how appalled he was at the wanton and wasteful killing of bison around the fort. His final life’s work, “The Viviparous Quadrapeds of North America” was published after his death.

Audubon’s main interest, though, was the birds he encountered on his journey to Fort Union. His daily diary reflects this: “June 5th [1843], Monday. We have seen Geese and Goslings, Ravens, Blue Herons, Bluebirds, Thrushes, Red-headed Woodpeckers and Red-shafted ditto, Martins, an immense number of Rough-winged Swallows about their holes, and Barn Swallows. We heard Killdeers last evening. Small Crested Flycatchers, Summer Yellow-birds, Maryland Yellow-throats, House Wrens are seen as we pass along our route; while the Spotted Sandpiper accompanies us all along the river. Sparrow Hawks, Turkey Buzzards, Arctic Towhee Buntings, Cat-birds, Mallards, Coots, Gadwalls, King-birds, Yellow-breasted Chats, Red Thrushes, all are noted as we pass…”

I can’t imagine what John James Audubon would have accomplished with a digital camera and computer software. There is no doubt, though, that he was a true “birder.”

Doug Wurtz grew up near Ryder and graduated from Minot State University. His retirement activities include nature photography as well as serving as a Certified Interpretive Guide for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. He is past president of the North Dakota Archaeological Association. Doug and his wife, Linda, live in Bismarck.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today