"The fun in birding is you don't have to travel to enjoy it. I get just as much enjoyment by watching common species doing theirr thing in my back yard."
I agree, but I also observe numerous migrating birds from and that's fun too. One does not need to go far to observe migrating songbirds. Simply look and listen wherever you are. Just about any woody or shrubby area can hold migrating songbirds. Urban yards, parks, cemeteries, schools, workplaces, and abandon properties can be birdwatching spots.
I live in West Toledo, and on some days in May, I can step outside and observe 10 to 14 species of warblers around home, along with other migrating birds, such as sparrows, thrushes, flycatchers, vireos, tanagers, orioles, and grosbeaks. The birds are mostly high up in the oaks, but sometimes they forage in our shrubs, and the sparrows feed on the ground.
Some notable bird migration sightings in our tiny backyard in May include the Summer Tanager, Mourning Warbler, and Golden-winged Warbler.
It also helps to learn bird songs. I do a lot of birding by ear. I recommend the 3-CD set Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern Region. Check Wild Birds Unlimited on Monroe Street for bird song CDs and field guides.
Migrating Rose-breasted Grosbeaks visit our backyard feeders each May.
Our local cardinals are not always happy with the visitors from the tropics.
A migrating Red-headed Woodpecker spent a couple days at our backyard suet feeder.
I buy white millet bird seed from Black Diamond Nursery. A 50-pound bag costs $20. It's just millet. I don't want a mix that may contain filler crap.
I scatter millet on our backyard from October to the end of May. It's mainly for the juncos during the fall, winter, and spring and for migrating sparrows in the spring. We get numerous White-throated Sparrows and White-crowned Sparrows in our backyard, along with the occasional Fox Sparrow, Field Sparrow, Song Sparrow, Lincoln's Sparrow, and Eastern Towhee.
The millet attracts a lot of Mourning Doves and House Sparrows, but I believe that activity gets noticed by other birds passing by. That's probably why we had a few dozen Common Redpolls visit our feeders in the winter and early spring of 2008, which was during a big redpoll invasion into the U.S.
Most songbirds migrate at night. Birds of the same species may migrate in groups, and you may observe them foraging as a group the next day.
Unfortunately, this photo is a bit blurry and the skiff of snow on this April 6, 2007 morning didn't help, but one junco and seven Chipping Sparrows can be seen in this photo. Chipping Sparrows are common urban nesters, but these birds were migrating through. I've seen this happen every spring. It happened again last week in our backyard. Multiple migrating Chipping Sparrows foraged close together in a small area.
Here's another photo that shows four of these small, dapper-looking sparrows, eating the millet in our backyard.
gamegrrl mentioned the Indigo Bunting in a previous comment. The male Indigo Bunting is a beautiful bird and a good songster. Indigo Buntings winter in Central America and the Caribbean, and they are fairly common and widespread nesters in our area. They also migrate though too.
One May morning, I saw six male Indigo Buntings foraging close together in one of our backyard flowerbeds where I had scattered millet. The group was a mix of adult and "hatch-year" males. Hatch-year means born the previous summer. The young male Indigo Buntings are colored a mix of blue and gray.
On another May morning, more than 20 Swainson's Thrushes were spread out across our front lawn and our neighbor's front lawn.
Each morning in April and May and to a lesser extent in the fall brings the possibility of new migrating songbird surprises to our yard and to the trees around our home. This happens throughout the Toledo area, and most people are oblivious to it.
If you really want to nerd out, step outside in May around 4:00 a.m. or 5:00 a.m., mainly on a night with brisk southwest winds or a clear sky with light winds, and you will hear the night-flight calls of migrating songbirds passing overhead. Some night-flight calls are easy to identify, like the Swainson's Thrush, which sounds like the Spring Peeper frog.
This site http://www.oldbird.org contains info about night flight calls and recording the calls for identification later. You can even buy a CD of night flight calls. But forget trying to identify the birds flying overhead at night. Just listen to the calls if for some reason you happen to be outside after Midnight.
Back to the daytime sounds of songbirds. I'm amazed at the number of people that I have met who have been birdwatching for many years, and they still have not taken the time to learn bird songs. They're only half-enjoying the hobby, in my opinion. Sometimes, the best way to find a songbird is by its song or its call-notes.
When I suggest they learn bird songs, a common response I get is, "I don't think I can hear the songs."
It's true that we lose a little bit of our hearing with each passing year. And I know that someday I will no longer be able to hear certain species of birds, and that will be sad. A good birding friend of mine can no longer hear the Blue-winged Warbler song. Obviously, I don't hear as well as birders in their 20s. A young person will hear the bird before I will. I will eventually hear the bird when we get a little closer.
But a lot of birding by ear is really focusing and filtering through all the sounds. I'm pretty sure my wife can hear sounds better than me, but I can "hear" the birds better than she can. Focus and practice. Sure, loss of hearing will mean some sounds will go unnoticed, but I believe anyone can learn some bird songs.
As to optics, high-end binoculars cost $1500 to $2000. I've seen people use binoculars like these, and they still misidentified a bird that they should have identified correctly.
The binocular that I use all the time cost me $80 new three years ago. I use the Leupold Yosemite 6×30 which now cost $90 at EagleOptics.com. It's an upgraded version, I guess.
I prefer 6 and 7 power binoculars over the more common 8 and 10 power. The higher power means a shakier image. The lower power weighs less, and it can provide a wider field of view, which is good for keeping up with fast-moving warblers. So I get a smaller image with my binocs, but the other positives make up for this.
This Leupold Yosemite 6×30 binocular is small, lightweight, and waterproof. It works well with my glasses. It provides a bright image. Ten years ago, it was impossible to buy optics of this quality for less than $300. The technology filters down. The inexpensive binoculars today are darn good, which makes the hobby a lot more accessible and enjoyable for more people.
I'll lead bird walks where I'm using my "toy" binocular to help spot and identify birds for people using $1700 binoculars. Great optics make the experience a little more enjoyable, but knowledge is more important. Studying books, listening to CDs, and getting out and observing and will help you more than an expensive binocular.
One minor issue with the Leupold Yosemite binocular is that it close-focuses to only around 12 feet. This is not a problem for bird-watching. When I see a bird that's less than 12 feet away, I usually put my binocular down and watch the bird with only my eyes.
But I also like to watch butterflies, dragonflies, and other insects, and it's helpful to use a binocular that has a close-focus of around five feet. For now, I have to lean back and take some steps backwards to get that small, close butterfly into focus.
"Can you tell me if anyone local-ish maintains a birder blog? I know very little about birds, but am getting interested and would love knowing about any websites/blogs that are local-regional."
Good question. If I find some, I'll post them later. Here are some sites that I'm familiar with:
As to starter books and field guides, it depends if you like illustrations or photographs. Since I like both, I buy them all. I recommend one or more of the following for starting out with birdwatching or birding:
And don't forget a small notebook and either a pen or pencil. After the binocular, I consider the notebook and pen the most important tools. You can always look up the bird or insect later after you have taken notes and made sketches.