As a young man in the early 1970s, Michael Francis traveled from Dallas with his father to visit his grandmother, who lived on the lake in Brownwood. One day, a colorful bird flew into the window of the lake house and toppled to the ground, unconscious.Michael's father, Ken Francis, scooped the bird up into his hands, surprised at the vibrant red and blue hues of the bird's feathers. He never realized that such colorful creatures lived in Texas skies. The bird regained consciousness and flew away, leaving the Francis family wondering what kind of bird they'd just seen.A short time later, Michael's mother purchased, from a church bazaar, an old field guide with that same beautiful bird right on the cover. The family used it to identify the bird that had flown into the window as a painted bunting.Ken Francis took a trip to Kmart and picked up a pair of binoculars, and since Michael did everything his father did, he became a birder, too. Forty years later, the two are still birding together.These days, Michael Francis organizes birding field trips for the Fort Worth Audubon Society. About once a week, the society sponsors free bird-watching events.One of FWAS trips is led by Fort Worth schoolteacher Jean Ferguson. The first Saturday of each month, Ferguson leads a birding trip in Fort Worth's Foster Park. She brings extra binoculars for anyone who might need them. And she makes it a point to bring birding into her third-grade classroom at Westcliff Elementary School, too.Ferguson keeps two birdfeeders outside her classroom window, and when a bird comes by, students can observe their behavior and look them up on www.allaboutbirds.org.As a special treat, students in Ferguson's classroom join her outside during lunch, while Ferguson points out hawks and cranes."Kids can learn to love the outdoors through birding. They are the hope for wildlife," said Ferguson.Some might think of bird-watching as an activity catering to an older demographic, but it is an excellent activity to enjoy with children, birders say."Kids are fascinated with birds. They 'get nature,'" Francis said. "When you get them out of their urban environment, they might act bored at first, but then they start seeing things and experiencing things, and get into it quickly."Cameron Carver, a contract biologist from Arlington who is now president of the Llano Estacado Audubon Society in Lubbock, likens bird-watching to a sort of scavenger hunt, or a real-life version of "Where's Waldo?"Cooler temperatures and fall migration make autumn an excellent time for nature-lovers of any age to look for birds."Birders usually get excited for spring migration, but fall migration is just as good," Carver said. This is because birds that breed in the North, like ducks and warblers, migrate back to non-breeding ranges this time of year.What to look forOne of the showiest birds visible this time of year is the scissor-tailed flycatcher. This striking bird is mostly gray with a salmon-pink underbelly, and it is identified by its long tail, which resembles an open pair of scissors during flight.Wilson's warblers are another species to be on the lookout for this fall."These are little yellowish warblers. The male has a black cap on its head like a 'high and tight' haircut," Carver said. He also notes that song and Lincoln's sparrows are good birds to look for at River Legacy Parks in Arlington this time of year.Francis recommends keeping an eye out for the majestic great blue heron. This bird's expansive wingspan can be seen year-round, often near water.Vicki Moor of Azle spotted another favorite bird. "We were at Eagle Mountain Lake, and we saw a big dark bird in the tree. We weren't sure what it was, but it turned its head and we saw the bright white head of a bald eagle."MotivationsWhile some hardcore "twitchers" will drop everything to go and chase down a rare bird, even if it was last sighted hundreds of miles away, others are perfectly satisfied watching cardinals and jays enjoying a backyard feeder. Whether it's the thrill of the ID or an escape from the daily grind, birding offers something for just about anyone, birders say."For me, I like to be outdoors. It's not the birds -- it's where they take me," Francis said. "We've found beautiful places we'd never known about otherwise."Birding sometimes takes Francis and his wife to less savory locales. Sometimes, they visit drying beds from a solid wastewater treatment plant to get a good look at shorebirds."Birders can end up just about anywhere," he said.A great way to start birding is to join an experienced birder, who can point out species and offer helpful hints. However, all you really need is a sense of adventure and a little patience."Birding can by done by anyone, just about anywhere, at any time," Ferguson said.It has been 40 years since that painted bunting flew into the window of Michael Francis' grandmother's house. Ken Francis is now 76 years old and living in Farmers Branch, but father and son still make a point to get together for birding several times a year. Sometimes they go on a big trip to a birding destination. More often, they hear a rare bird alert, and if it's a good enough bird, they'll take a road trip together to try and find it.For families with small kids, birding offers an opportunity to bond and be together without being distracted by electronics and the incessant business of modern life. Parents may be surprised when their children start identifying birds more quickly than they can."It can be a source of pride for kids," said Carver.Carver grew up attending classes at River Legacy and going birding with his family, a tradition they continue today. After birding, the family catches up with each other and winds down after a busy day."Just getting outside and looking for birds can be all you need to have fun -- the red flash of a northern cardinal or the wonderful chatter of a wren," said Carver.He suggests carrying a digital camera to capture images of birds, then posting the photos on social networks where people can help with the ID."Most of all," he said, "have fun."
Five "must-see" fall birds
Six great places for bird watching
River Legacy Parks
This 1,300-acre oasis provides a continuous wildlife habitat smack in the middle of one of the larger metropolitan areas in the United States. Paved trails make bird-watching easily accessible.
703 N.W. Green Oaks Blvd., Arlington
Park open 5 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; Living Science Center open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday
Winds along the Trinity River, making it a good place to spot the showy wood duck.
2401 University Drive, Fort Worth
Village Creek Drying Beds
Ponds, surrounding trees and fields in this old wastewater treatment plant offer excellent birding, especially for shorebirds. Rarities including the white ibis and surf scoter have been spotted in recent years, as well as the cinnamon teal, common moorhen and black-bellied whistling-duck.
7:30 a.m.-4 p.m. most days; gates close at 4:30 p.m.
Exit Fielder Road on Interstate 30 in Arlington and go north on Fielder for 1.3 miles to Green Oaks Boulevard. Turn right on Green Oaks Boulevard and go 0.3 miles to the entrance on the left.
Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge
The nature center is made up of 3,621 acres and offers varied habitats, including woodland, prairies, marshes and river bottoms. Keep your eyes peeled for the purple finch and red-breasted nuthatch. You might also spot a buffalo or gray fox.
9601 Fossil Ridge Road, Fort Worth
8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily
Admission $5, $3 age 65 and up, $2 children 3-12
The Fort Worth Audubon Society hosts "Birding in the Park" the first Saturday of each month, September through April. Binoculars are provided, if needed. Led by teacher Jean Ferguson.
Trail Lake Drive at South Drive (1 mile northeast of Interstate 20 in Fort Worth)
Your own back yard
Hang a birdfeeder, grab a field guide, and enjoy a cup of coffee while the birds come to you. Keep a checklist nearby so kids can keep track of the kinds of birds that come by to visit.
For more information about these locations or to find out more about Fort Worth Audubon Society field trips, visit www.fwas.org.
Everything you need to outfit your expedition:
1. iBird Pro Guide to Birds
Electronic versions of field guides are just as capable of helping identify birds, but a lot easier to carry around. This one's for the iPhone or iPod Touch.
On sale for $14.99, www.ibird.com
2. Nikon Travelite VI Binoculars
Lightweight and ergonomically designed, these binoculars provide 10-times magnification.
About $90, Amazon.com
3. Carson Hawk Kid's Binoculars
These binoculars cultivate a kid's natural curiosity. Lightweight and durable, they provide five-times magnification and are a great first pair for your little explorer.
About $14, Amazon.com
4. Backyard Safari Cargo Vest
Add to the atmosphere of excitement and exploration with this vest. Pockets provide storage for small binoculars, a journal and writing utensils.
About $15, Amazon.com
5. Bird Log Kids: A Kid's Journal to Record Their Birding Experiences
This spiral-bound notebook helps kids keep track of birds they see and provides space for drawing. The journal also asks thoughtful questions to help guide observation. $8.95, Barnes & Noble