Some consider it a hobby, others a sport, but either way, “We call it birding, not bird watching,” says Andy Stepniewski, local birder, author and orchardist.

Stepniewski, 59, started birding while growing up in Southern California. He and his younger brother, Mike, had turtle ponds in their backyard where they spent a fair amount of their time studying the shelled creatures.

One day while turtle watching, the sound of a bird caught Andy’s attention and he was oddly drawn to it. He checked out a birding book at the library and immediately was hooked. “I got inspired to go places to identify birds — seek them out,” says Stepniewski. “It suddenly became a game … it’s hard because birds fly and flip.”

In 1978, Stepniewski moved to Yakima, where he continued to familiarize himself with the birds in the area. His interest eventually evolved into writing a regional guide to birding in 1999, called The Birds of Yakima County, Washington. In his book, he celebrates the diversity of birds found in vegetation zones from the Cascade Mountains’ snow forests to the deserts of our Valley. With more than 300 species of birds, the Yakima Valley attracts birders from all over the state. Although he didn’t plan on writing a book, documenting his study of birds led to further study of plants, geology and weather, and the guide was soon in the works. He donated all the proceeds of his book sales to the Yakima Valley Audubon Society. It is currently in its second printing.

Birding is a year-round hobby, but the majority of species migrate here during the spring months. Stepniewski describes it as a time for birds “to take advantage of the seasonal explosion of insects, berries and fruits during our warm season.”

Some birders go all over the world, but the easiest place to observe is right out your window, he says. Birds will begin to lose their fear of movement inside the house, so a feeder placed outside a kitchen window makes it easy to see their size and color — two of their main identifying features. Birds are also identifiable by song, used as means to declare their territory or attract a mate.

Feeding birds is a great way to ensure their return — especially in the winter months when food is sparse. Humans have helped determine the migration patterns of birds, says Stepniewski. “(They) are able to winter where they used to not be able to.” Early fall — prior to migration — is the best time to start feeding them.

The Yakima Valley Audubon Society works closely with the Yakima Area Arboretum. “We do a lot of things with the arboretum because their missions align with ours,” says Stepniewski. And the arboretum offers some great spots for viewing birds.

From October through March, a feeder is stocked behind a man-made bird blind that allows for close observation. “It’s very accessible,” says Colleen Adams-Schuppe, the arboretum’s co-executive director. This accessibility makes it easy for those who are disabled to participate in the activity as well, she adds. “(And) you don’t need hiking boots.”

The arboretum provides a pamphlet identifying 36 of the most common species in the area. “It’s like a little scavenger hunt,” says Adams-Schuppe.

Although one might think of birding as a relaxing form of entertainment, Stepniewski says it depends on the birder. Competitive birders generally consider it a sport, but those who do it alongside other activities, like biking or hiking, often consider it a hobby. Either way, he says, “few birders are as obsessive-compulsive as myself.”