About ten years ago in the winter I was looking out the back door at a huge snow fall and a Red Tailed Hawk swooped down right in front of me and snatched a sparrow off the fence. I was so shocked and amazed! As soon as the roads cleared after that storm I went out and bought some binoculars and started watching for birds. I put up some bird feeders and read up on garden plants that the birds would like. I signed up for a birding class with my dad. For about four years we took the same class every spring with a great teacher. We went out to different parks early in the morning on Saturdays looking for warblers and other spring birds. I kept that up until Buddy came along and it got too difficult to get out for those long rambles. Now with two little ones I haven't spent much time on birding, but as they get older I plan on getting back into it. Birding is a great thing to do with kids. Here are my favorite birding books:
Peterson's Field Guide to Eastern Birds by Roger Tory Peterson. Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980. This is the absolute best bird book. You have to start here. Peterson's illustrations are complete and precise. If you are trying to tell the difference between a Krider's Red Tailed Hawk and a Harlan's Red Tailed Hawk you need the detailed descriptions and carefully drawn markings (with seasonal and age-related developmental differences) that Peterson gives. Also included is important range information, maps, habits, migration patterns and a description of the song or call of each bird. I take this paperback into the field with me and keep my life list of birds sighted on the included check list.
The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. Knopf, 2000. This is another wonderful bird book with fabulous illustrations painted by David Allen Sibley. This type of book, with hand drawn or painted bird illustrations shows the markings with seasonal variations, views of the bird in flight and comparisons with similar-looking birds that you just don't get in the field guides that use photographs. Often when you see a bird it is just a flash of color and movement that is hard to identify. A field guide has to give you clues like Sibley does: "this large, conspicuous hawk often perches along roadsides. It hunts mainly mammals from a perch or by kiting... wing beats rather stiff, pumping...soars with wings in slight dihedral or broad U..." These descriptions are accompanied with silhouettes that show the wing shape while soaring. See this link on Sibley's homepage for an example of the identification tips he gives.
One more book my kids and my students have always enjoyed browsing is the Eyewitness Birds of the World by Colin Harrison and Alan Greensmith (DK Publishing, 1993). This one includes helpful information about the hobby of birdwatching, the anatomy of birds, how to identify different species, what equipment you need, and so on. The birds are shown in photographs, with accompanying sketches and silhouettes and short descriptive paragraphs. The Red Tailed Hawk is described as, "A typical open-country bird of prey, this species commonly seeks out rising air currents (thermals) on which it circles and soars while looking for prey." This book includes birds from all over the world, so there are many birds here that you are not likely to see and some of the variants from your region will not be described.
The Red Tailed Hawk in my photograph above was in my neighbor's tree yesterday. I was out on my porch taking pictures of the flowers and I heard a sudden commotion next door. The sparrows were squawking and fluttering around and then the Hawk zoomed around the corner of the house and landed in the pine in a flurry. He sat there for a couple minutes and then flew off. Hawks are very common around residential neighborhoods these days. They wait for roadkill beside the highways and stake out busy bird feeders around homes. They range from Canada to Central America. If you are seeing a bird of prey around your North American home there is a good chance it is a Red Tailed Hawk. The tail stripes and the light band along the bottom of the tail on this bird is a clear marking of a Red Tail.
What birds do you see around your home and garden?