Who among us has not wished at one time or another to be a bird — to soar free and wild above the Earth?

Who has not envied birds their mastery of the skies? Or admired their grace and been charmed by their eloquence? Who has not heard their songs and been infinitely cheered? Or welcomed back travelers without feeling the joy of the seasons?

Birds are a compelling part of our lives, the window through which we reach out to the natural world around us.

Just look, says Pete Dunne, how prominently they figure in our literature, poetry and song. Look at the birds we name our sports teams after, and the birds we use to sell advertised products. Go back to the earliest carvings and paintings and see how they have fascinated us for a long, long time.

"They are, for me," says Dunne, "both the catalyst and the portal through which I engage the world."

Dunne, who serves as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory in New Jersey, where, among other things, he concocted and organized the World Series of Birding competition, will be participating in the second annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, May 5-13.

And from his New Jersey office, he talked about how bird-watching is not only a vocation but a lifelong passion for him.

"I started when I was 7. I did it at first, I think, to get away from adults. Come to think of it, that's why I still do it — although the irony is that now with 50 million bird-watchers out there, it gets harder to get away from them all," he laughs.

Of course, when you are 7, a lot of obstacles get in the way: parents, homework, mowing lawns, shopping excursions. "But whenever I could, I'd grab a pair of binoculars and head out for the woods behind our house to see what I could see."

At that time, he didn't have a field guide, but his parents did have a couple of books on birds that were more like textbooks. "I couldn't take them out with me. So, I'd try to memorize what I saw." Then he'd run home as fast as he could and try to identify it.

"Oh, I saw all kinds of things — some of which have never been seen in New Jersey since," he laughs again. He made a lot of errors as a beginner, he says, but he became a birder for life.

In addition to his work at Cape May, he serves as vice president of natural history for New Jersey Audubon, writes columns for various birding magazines, has written seven books and identified countless species on six continents.

Bird-watching, he says, has a very simple premise. "You find a bird, you pin a name to it, and if you're right, you win — you've made it yours. If you misidentify it, you lose."

That simple — until you try it. "Then you realize the more you know, the more you need to know, and you realize you'll never know it all."

Still, he says, it's something that people of all ages and all levels of interest can enjoy.

North America has about 800 species of birds. But by just looking at shape and size, you can immediately narrow the field down to all but a select group of birds, he says. You can tell the hawks from the warblers. Then you can look at distinctive markings or listen for sounds to narrow it down even more.

The only advantage experts have, he says, is that they can play the probability card. They have a better idea of what to look for in any given habitat.

But anyone who is interested in bird-watching can find it very easy to get into. You need a field guide and you need a pair of binoculars. "At first, you might want to go on an organized field trip with a guide who can help you see what is possible," Dunne suggests.

The biggest mistake beginning bird-watchers make, he says, is "lousy optics. Then they get frustrated and start thinking this isn't any fun. But it's really the binoculars."

There are hundreds of binoculars on the market, he says, but only 40 or 50 that work well in birding, and of those only about 25 that excel, he says. "But there's no such thing as a perfect pair of binoculars, only the perfect pair for you — for your hands, for your face, your eyes."

You want something lightweight, compact enough to fit your hands but not so small you need a teacup grasp. You want a wide field of view, good depth of field, and to be able to focus down to 15 feet or so. "No zooms. No permanent focus. No lever focus — get a wheel."

You can get all that for $100 — or you can spend $1,500 and not get what you want. It's not the price, it's the adaptability to birding that counts. "I advise people to borrow a few pairs and try them out first."

But once you have binoculars and a field guide, there are exceptional opportunities for local bird-watching, says Dunne. "I love birding in Utah. The Uintahs are a wonderful northern habitat. The shores of Salt Lake are spectacular; I've never seen so many phalaropes as I've seen there, and I love them. I'm particularly fascinated with birds of prey, and Utah is considered a mecca for hawks and eagles and falcons. And I've had some pleasant hours just wandering in the cemetery off M Street."

One great thing about birds, he says, is that geography spreads them out. "The birds that are in Utah aren't the same as the ones in New Jersey. And any time you go to another place you can see different birds."

Variety, accessibility, animation, color, song, freedom of the skies — those are what draw us to these featured creatures, he says.

And who among us would have it any other way? Who would even want a world without birds?