Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching

Birdwatching, or birding, is a relaxing, fun and rewarding hobby that can be enjoyed virtually anywhere with very little equipment or prior planning. No matter what your age or location you can enjoy the pleasures of birding. Sometimes there is nothing better than getting out into nature and this is a low-cost activity that can be enjoyed individually or as a group. Use this guide to help you get started with your journey observing and enjoying the natural world and its feathered inhabitants.

What You’ll Need

  • A guidebook
  • Binoculars
  • Patience

Optional Extras

  • Scope
  • Camera
  • Notebook

Bird Guidebook

Having a guidebook on hand is essential, according to the American Museum of Natural History there are an estimated 18,000 bird species in the world. To the untrained eye, many birds are difficult to differentiate due to small differences such as beak or feather colour. A guidebook is basically an identification book that allows you to quickly discover what species of bird you are looking at. There are many different types of guidebooks, generally, beginner books list the most commonly seen species and arrange the birds by colour so you can easily narrow down the bird species to find the one you are observing. More intermediate books are available too, they usually arrange birds by shape and tend to be more comprehensive than the beginner books.

There are also countless apps available, although the high-quality apps will cost to download, they are usually worth it. An example of a complete (but pricey) bird app is the Robertson Birds of SA which is a comprehensive, interactive app packed full of photos, distribution maps and bird songs. Whatever book or app you decide to use, make sure it is local to your area/ country as bird species vary greatly between areas and countries.

Binoculars

Getting close to wild birds is often not possible so to get a detailed look at the birds you are viewing it is highly recommended that you invest in a pair of binoculars. You don’t have to break the bank – a simple pair of good quality, 8 power (the bird will appear 8 times closer through the binoculars) is often perfect for beginners and can be bought for less than £200.

Although there are cheaper binoculars available, a common issue with the lower cost options is the lens alignment, they frequently have poor alignment or are easily knocked out of alignment which means you will see two images that don’t quite match and your eyes will struggle to put them together. Misalignment not only causes you to struggle to see the details of the bird that you would like to see but it can also cause eyestrain and headaches so be sure to test the binoculars before you buy them. Misaligned binoculars can usually be realigned in a repair shop. The slightly more expensive options (£200+) usually produce better images, are more durable and are much higher quality. For more information on binoculars and what to look out for, check out this awesome guide by Birdwatching Bliss.

Binoculars or Spotting Scope?

Some people prefer to use a scope, these are very popular within birding circles but for a beginner, they are not really necessary. A scope allows you to see the finer details of birds and gives you close up access even when you are a considerable distance from the bird you have spotted (spotting birds across a lake is a great example). Scopes can be costly but you can find durable, lightweight scopes for a few hundred pounds – Birdwatching HQ share this guide on scopes to help you see what is available depending on your price range.

Patience

Now that you have your guidebook and binoculars on hand, you simply need to head out and start looking. You may decide to take a walk in nature, keeping your eyes and ears open for bird and calls or you may choose to sit in your garden and watch the birds who come to the birdfeeder. There is no right or wrong way to start your birding journey, as long as you are patient and curious you’ll do great. It is challenging to spot and identify birds but you will soon get to grips with the common species and begin to more easily notice their distinguishing features.

Camera

Although not an essential tool, many birders like to take a camera along with them to photograph their feathered friends. Photographing the birds can play a huge role in helping you to identify the species you’ve seen as you can compare the field guide descriptions to the photo you managed to snap. Not to mention, birds are incredibly beautiful and birding gives you an excellent opportunity to take amazing pictures of a variety of species. When taking photographs of birds, avoid using the flash.

Notebook

You may also want to take a pen and some paper so you can begin your ‘bird list’ if you want to keep track of which bird species you have seen. It’s also handy to have as you can quickly jot down the features of the bird you have seen, or draw a little sketch, which can help you identify the species later on. It can be very interesting to keep a note of all the bird species you have spotted, you’ll be amazed at how quickly the list grows.

You’re All Set to Start Birding

Now you have the equipment needed to make a start. The best time to go bird watching tends to be early morning, the early bird gets the worm after all right? With that in mind, many birders head out before sunrise as this is the perfect time for hearing bird calls and seeing birds as they wake up with the sun. Although, different birds are active at different times of the day so if you want to spot a certain type of bird find out when they are most active before heading out.

It’s also best to avoid wearing bright clothes (always avoid red and white), instead opt for darker/ natural coloured clothes with comfortable, sturdy walking shoes and a hat or cap to protect your eyes from the sun.

Move quietly and slowly when you are birding to avoid scaring birds away. It doesn’t take much for a bird to fly off out of view so try to stay still and blend in. Oh, and don’t forget water and snacks, time flies when you’re having fun so make sure you look after yourself too.

Tips for Spotting

  • Always be on the lookout for birds
  • Listen to the sounds around you
  • Encourage birds to your garden with a bird feeder (or a birdhouse/ birdbath)
  • Get out before sunrise
  • Don’t forget your binoculars
  • Walk in the woodlands
  • Keep practicing
  • Visit your local national park
  • Join a birding group
  • Respect nature

Identifying the Species

Once you spot a bird, use these four steps to help you narrow down what the species might be. Looking at these key features will help you to find the right section of the guidebook and should help you more quickly and easily identify the bird.

1) First, look at the shape and size of the bird, take note of the bill size and shape too as this is very important. You can often use this information to try to determine which family the bird belongs to e.g. is it a duck, hawk, owl, heron, dove, sparrow etc. This gives you a very good starting point.

2) Now look at the bird’s colour – what’s the colour pattern, note where there are speckles, colour changes, lines, stripes etc.

3) Observe the bird’s behaviour – how does it fly?

4) Consider the habitat and area you have found the bird in. When using your guidebook use the distribution maps to help you narrow down the species. This is particularly helpful if there’s a couple of species you are trying to distinguish between- maybe one of them is far less likely to occur in the area and habitat you are viewing in, making it much more likely to be one of the other suspected species.

Remember that the illustrations in guidebooks should be used only as an example as the bird you see will not be identical to the picture in the book. The appearance of a bird can change depending on factors including the sex, age and time of year. Focus on the key markings and characteristic traits when identifying. If possible, write down as much detail regarding the bird as you can so that you will remember it when you are looking in the guide. If you can take a photograph, this will help you with identification too. It can be quite difficult to work out what species you are looking at so if you’re not sure, snap a picture or take down the details and ask the birding community for advice.

The more you practice, the more you will notice the subtle differences between bird species. It is always challenging to identify a bird for the first time but keep at it and you’ll be surprised how you start to remember the species.

Common Rules of Birding

The ethics of birding includes promoting the welfare of birds and the environment, respecting the law and making sure you don’t disturb the birds or their nests. Here are some of the most common birding rules that all birders are excepted to abide by for the safety and conservation of birdlife and for your birding enjoyment:

  • Do not disturb nesting birds, their nests or their eggs
  • Leave juvenile birds alone
  • Don’t use bird call audio to attract birds
  • Never enter private property without permission from the owner
  • Respect the bird’s territory and observe them from a safe distance
  • Avoid flash photography and playing loud music
  • Support conservation of habitats
  • Never litter

Join a Birding Club

Going out birding can be a solo activity, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be a huge amount of fun to go out with a group of people who are passionate and enthusiastic about bird watching. You will be surprised at how much you can learn from joining a club. The Bird Watcher’s Digest has a bird club finder to help birders find a club nearby that they can join.

Additional Resources for Bird Watching

Here are some of the best resources to utilise when it comes to bird conservation and bird watching.

Birdlife – This global organisation is dedicated to bird conservation and public education. They offer advice for bird watchers and plenty of information about the birds you may see.

RSPB – This is a UK based organisation that focuses on conservation work and developing reserves to protect nature. They offer guides on bird behaviour, identifying birds and practical advice for bird watchers.

American Birding Association (ABA) – ABA have lots of advice and guides for new birders, they have social media groups for birders who are seeking help with bird identification as well as a group for when a rare bird has been spotted in the area. They share identification quizzes and so much more.

Bird Watcher’s Digest – We mentioned Bird Watcher’s Digest above as they offer the ‘find a bird club’ feature on their website. They share great content for bird watchers and also plan events such as nature festivals.

American Bird Conservancy – The American Bird Conservancy offers the Bird Conservation Alliance which unites birdwatchers and conservation-minded groups.

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