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Sunday was a fine day to grab a pair of binoculars and head to Tifft Nature Preserve for bird-watching.

About 20 people did just that, learning the basics of “birding” in a program presented by the Friends of Tifft Nature Preserve.

Even the rawest of rookies could come away with enough knowledge to impress friends and family members.

A bird-watching newbie might imagine spotting a colorful bird and then flipping through a field guide to find a match. Ed Ratajczak, an expert and volunteer who led Sunday’s program, recommends a different approach, more like detective work.

Start out by considering where you see the bird, he said. If it’s on the water, or in the water, instead of in a tree, you’ve already ruled out several thousand possibilities.

Then observe how the bird feeds – is it diving, or “dabbling” on the water, or staying on shore? How big is it? How does it act in flight? What color is it? Each answer is sure to narrow the list of candidates.

“It’s like working your way down a funnel so you can get to the right ID,” he said.

After the overview, the group walked out to a deck adjacent to the visitors center to apply what they learned. Ring-billed gulls were plentiful. Someone spotted a loon across the lake. An osprey soared toward a nesting platform. Then a white bird circling overhead caught the group’s attention. Ratajczak tested his fledgling birders.

“Look at the way it flies,” he called out. As if on cue, the bird descended rapidly and splashed dramatically into the water, drawing “ohs” from the onlookers. It was a Caspian tern.

Marsha Henzler and her nephew’s children, Sophia and Sean Heffley, peered through binoculars, tracking all the birds’ movements. Henzler lives in Buffalo, and Sophia, 8, and Sean, 11, were spending the weekend with her.

“They live on Grand Island, and they always talk about birds over on Grand Island,” she said.

Henzler found out about the bird-watching program and knew the children would enjoy it. “They love to learn things.”

Kathy and Doug Snyder, of the Town of Tonawanda, were also getting up to speed on birds. It is a new hobby for Kathy, who received her binoculars as a Christmas gift.

The group walked the trails and observed more birds in their midst, including Canada geese and turkey vultures. The tapping of a downy woodpecker came from a nearby tree. A bright red cardinal flew into a nearby tree and looked at the group, as if on a people-watching outing.

Tifft and the Niagara River corridor are labeled an “Important Bird Area” by the Audubon Society, as sites that provide essential habitat for one or more species. Tifft, in South Buffalo, easily fits the bill: Last year, 180 species of birds were spotted in the preserve, Ratajczak said.

“Last year we had a Lawrence’s warbler that was a real find,” he said.

A chart on the wall of the visitors’ center tracks this year’s sightings. The names most recently posted were a Bonaparte gull, a green heron and a house wren.

Ratajczak said Tifft is an ideal spot to watch birds. As birds travel north, “usually they’ll browse on the way up and stay along the shore” before crossing Lake Erie near the Peace Bridge, he said. Tifft is what is known as a “migrant trap,” because “it kind of funnels everything into here.”

Knowing your birds is one thing, but don’t overlook the proper way to look at them, Ratajczak said.

“If you get a decent pair of binoculars,” he said, “they’ll last you a long time.”

email: mglynn@buffnews.com