By Jan Swoope/The Commercial Dispatch
COLUMBUS — Dianne Patterson and her husband, Jim, were headed out to church one cold December Wednesday when the phone rang.
“I almost ignored it, but came back in,” the Columbus bird watcher remembered, with a small smile. “It was the editor of WildBird magazine.”
The unexpected caller had good news. Thanks to votes by the magazine’s readership, Dianne had been selected as WildBird’s 2009 Birder of the Year, based on a piece about hummingbirds she had written previously for the publication.
The honor comes with a five-day birding trip for two to Costa Rica in May and a new Swarovski binocular, prizes exciting to this soft-spoken conservationist, who considers birds the “jewels of the sky.”
“It was quite an honor to be chosen,” she said. “On the trip, we’ll travel with WildBird magazine’s editor and a representative from Swarovski Optik. They’ll take us out, with a driver and a bird guide. I feel like I’m going to see all sorts of birds I’ve never seen before.”
Dianne has been a serious enthusiast since 1985; it’s a hobby she and her husband share. Their woods-bordered back yard in northern Lowndes County is designed for God’s winged creatures, especially butterflies and hummingbirds. At times, it holds 40 to 50 feeders.
Both are longtime members of the Oktibbeha Audubon Society and frequently volunteer with Friends of Noxubee Refuge to help conduct workshops in beginning birding, eagle watch and butterfly field trips. They also work with fourth-graders at Immanuel Center for Christian Education and at Heritage Academy in Columbus, passing on an appreciation of nature to younger generations.
In addition, the Pattersons are guest lecturers for the “Birds, Bees, Toothache Trees” continuing education course offered by Mississippi University for Women through April 30.
One of their heartfelt goals is to encourage the start-up of a birding group in Columbus.
“What Jim and I would like to see here is just maybe an informal birding group that might meet one weekend a month. Nothing formal, no dues. Basically learning how to identify birds we see on the walking trails.”
Jim said, “That’s how you learn birds … just go birding.”
The benefits to both would-be and experienced bird enthusiasts of flocking together — in both organized Audubon Society chapters and casual weekender groups — are many. The couple cite shared knowledge, meeting new people with a common interest, soaking in the great outdoors and, of course, friendship.
“And I’ve found it will help keep you from getting frustrated trying to learn it all on your own,” added Dianne, whose dream is to one day go birding in the Galapagos Islands.
There is an abundance of printed and downloadable resources for bird lovers. Among them, the Pattersons rely on the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and Stokes Guide to Bird Songs.
“It’s a challenge all the time … especially during different seasons,” said Jim, pulling out a smart phone loaded with visuals of different species, as well as their audible songs.
It’s obvious studying small flyers is a challenge he embraces, often while out crappie fishing.
A bird may be brilliantly mantled during one season, but drab gray or brown in another, Jim said.
“And some of the birds may look similar, but their songs are how you identify them,” he said, playing the call of a barred owl on his phone.
The area is rich in birding spots, the Pattersons say. A few of their favorites include the Noxubee Refuge, Plymouth Bluff, Mississippi State University’s research farms, nature conservancy areas and state parks.
“And we like to ride in the prairie,” Dianne said, referring to western Lowndes County. “There are a lot of catfish ponds, and that attracts a lot of birds.”
The couple share concern for the health of the country’s avian population. Jim has witnessed a noticeable decline in the size of flocks and numbers of migrating birds since he first began paying attention more than two decades ago.
“Birds face a lot of pressures, loss of habitat in particular,” Dianne said. “Birds and butterflies are indicators of how the ecology is going. And when they start getting in trouble, human beings will eventually be suffering ill effects. We want to share birds with everybody; that’s how they’ll survive, by people taking an interest in them and protecting their habitat.”
For this Birder of the Year, as for most dedicated bird-watchers, studying the winged wonders is simply “an adventure that never stops.”