On the first Saturday of every month, a group of about a dozen people, give or take, start out in the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center parking lot and set off, binoculars dangling from nearly every neck, down the wooded trails.
Dan Mooney is one of the semi-official leaders of the monthly bird walk at Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center.
More than once, joggers and walkers using the park for exercise on Oct. 4 rounded a corner and stopped abruptly upon seeing the mass of people, staring silently into the trees, occasionally moving their heads in unison, as if they were all watching the same erratic tennis match visible only to them.
Inevitably, the runner’s shock would give way to curiosity, slowing following the group’s line of sight to find a bird perched on a faraway branch.
The Bluebonnet Bird Walk is open to the public, Mooney said, to avid bird-watchers like himself, or to novices who want to learn more about a form of wildlife that’s easily accessible to almost everyone, no matter where they live.
But it does take some getting used to.
“It’s more like a bird crawl than a bird walk,” said John Hartgerink, a volunteer at the Nature Center, as he set up a video camera pointed at one of the center’s bird feeders.
The first time a newcomer tries bird watching, it can be frustrating and tedious.
Most birds are well camouflaged to start with, Mooney added, and move fast — often faster than a set of binoculars can follow.
Look for movement, mark the spot mentally, find the tree in the binocular lenses, follow the trunk up to the spot, stare at the spot, looking hard at what could be a bunch of leaves with a bird in the background, only to see it because it flies out of the field of view to another spot, where the process is repeated.
It takes a while, he said, before you can see some birds, and often even longer before you can identify them.
The same type of bird can look vastly different in different phases of life, or between male and female, or at different times of the year.
The male indigo bunting, a striking blue when hormones are surging in spring, loses most of that color in the fall, Mooney said.
But soon enough, the eye learns what to look for, and eventually, the bird pops into view. Then you see the bird as it chirps, learning to associate the sound with the sight, and a window to a previously invisible and silent world comes opens wide, and comes into sharp focus.
It’s addicting, Jeff and Carol Newell said. The couple spends most mornings at Burbank Park looking for birds, and Carol has become the unofficial-official documentarian for the walks, carefully keeping track of each bird sighted.
She, like most of the walkers, started out watching the birds at her backyard feeders, and learned a little bit at a time.
“A lot of people will talk about these fantastic trips to go watch birds in Central or South America, and I have to be honest, I’m probably never going to do that,” she said.
“But what I came to realize is many of those exotic birds are migratory. They may not live here, but many of them pass through here, and I can see them every spring and fall if I watch,” she said.
Even for those who don’t dedicate the time and energy Mooney does to bird watching, he said, the process can be a stress reliever that teaches patience and presence.
“After one walk, you’ll stop and look up the next time you go outside and hear a bird chirp,” he said.
The next bird walk group is Saturday and leaves the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center parking lot promptly at 7 a.m. Binoculars and bird guides may be helpful, but are not required, Mooney said.