Aging well: Bird watching keeps minds active

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Opportunities and resources

• The Carpenter Ranch in Hayden hosts guided bird walks at 8 a.m. Saturdays through June 6. For more information about the walk or visiting the ranch, call 276-4626.

• Yampatika offers free weekly bird watching hikes Wednesdays through June 24. The hikes last two to three hours; specific times are determined on a weekly basis.

• "Paddle with the Birds," an educational canoe tour with a birding expert, will be from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. June 27 at a local lake. The cost is $45 for Yampatika members and $50 for nonmembers.

For more information about Yampatika birding opportunities, call 871-9151 or visit www.yampatika.org...

• For detailed information and directions to birding locations in Routt, Moffat and other counties in Colorado, visit www.coloradocount...

• For tips on respecting wildlife, the environment and others while bird watching, see "Code of Birding Ethics," at www.americanbirdi...

Anyone who watches birds, even casually, has experienced the natural high of seeing something so beautiful or awe-inspiring that it links them, instantly, to nature's marvels.

For Tom Litteral, an avid bird watcher in Steamboat Springs, those moments often involve birds of prey, such as peregrine falcons, diving at speeds as many as 225 miles per hour to strike victims in midair.

Just as wondrous - finding a tiny hummingbird nest weaved of lichen and spider webs, cradling eggs the size of a pinky fingernail.

"It just tugs at your heart," Litteral said.

The vast range of experiences and learning opportunities involved in observing and identifying birds, added to the excitement of sharing those experiences with others and being outdoors, is attracting more and more people, particularly aging baby boomers, to the hobby of bird watching.

Birds attracted the biggest following among wildlife observers, whose numbers increased by eight percent between 2001 and 2006, according to a 2006 survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The relative simplicity of the hobby - binoculars and a bird guide are basic tools of the trade - and its low-impact on the body, also may contribute to the birding boom.

"One of the things about bird watching for myself is it keeps me curious, and that curiosity, I think, feeds the mind and soul. : I think that's very important in keeping yourself young," Litteral said.

Litteral's inquisitiveness takes him into nearby wilderness where, as a contributor to the Colorado Breeding Bird Atlas, he works to identify nesting birds in specific areas.

"What a great excuse to take binoculars, a backpack and fly rod," he said. "It doesn't get any better than that."

Litteral's specialty is identifying birds by their calls. An unusual song prompts excitement and a chain of questions: What is it? What's its gender? Is it nesting or just passing through? How long will it be here?

These questions inspire many enthusiastic birders to keep lists of birds they identify in a county, state or continent (more than 750 different types of birds can be seen in North America) and tune into "rare bird alerts" on the Internet.

Known as bird "chasers," some fervent birders will drop everything and travel significant distances to see a rare bird or a bird outside of its range.

More than a few of these visitors showed up at Jan and Vic Serafy's home in Old Town Steamboat Springs last year to see a female varied thrush, which showed up among many birds eager for Jan Serafy's generous offering of bird seed.

The bird, which is fairly common in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, has rarely, if ever, been documented in Colorado.

The event brought visitors from Europe and other states (some already were in the region viewing sage grouse leks), as well as from ornithological clubs and laboratories.

A casual bird watcher herself, Jan Serafy was impressed by visitors' dedication and knowledge.

"Every time they came, I learned something," she said. "That was the nicest thing was to learn from these people."

The beauty of the Serafys' experience, of course, is that sometimes the birds come to you.

Hayden bird watcher Nancy Merrill has been known to visit the outer reaches of the Yampa Valley and other places to see birds, but last season, her attention was focused on the nest of baby owls in her tree. Fellow birders joined her at her house for a party recently to watch the young owls practice flying.

"Some come right to your backyard, and you feel so special you've been chosen," she said.

The joy, camaraderie and friendships that come from sharing an interest in birds with others is immeasurable. Like many outdoor activities, bird watching is an engaging hobby for people of all ages, making it an ideal pastime to share with families and children.

Litteral's active bird watching career started as a college student, spending time with older adults engulfed in the world of birds.

"They were so excited and knowledgeable - I thought, 'There's got to be something to this,'" he said. "They showed me it was okay to be excited about something like a bird."

Since then, Litteral has had opportunities to share his interest in birds with youth.

"They are so observant, they see and hear everything. : As you guide their observations, they pick up more and more," he said. "You can't help but feel younger at heart."

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