Birdwatching is often associated with nerds (not as a compliment) and old people. But it is an incredibly exciting thing if you have ever found yourself looking for nature documentaries. But a lot of people are stumped right at the beginning. Here’s a guide that will tell you how to get started.
Where to Begin?
This seems like a difficult question for a lot of things, but with birdwatching, it’s quite easy actually. You start right where you are. Every time you make it outside the confines of your home or office, take a moment to notice what kind of birds are found in your region. You can try looking at the nearby trees or a garden, if you have one. On weekends, try and take a trip to the nearby park or a local reserve.
You can also start by looking at a spot that you are familiar with—except this time, instead of looking at the landscape, try and find the birds that visit the place. If you can take a feeder along, that makes it all the more easy to attract the birds in the area. Over time, you will manage to familiarize yourself with the kind of birds that visit that spot. Take things from there.
Do a Little Research
Once you decide that you want to get serious about birdwatching, you need to do a little bit of homework. Don’t worry, it will only make your trips to the wild a lot more exciting.
This starts by learning about the kind of birds that visit your area. Whether you are going to work or taking an evening stroll, take a moment to notice them while you’re out. Find some regional guides in your free time and learn about the species you are likely to spot on your commute. See if there is a local park or area of wilderness where you might have better luck finding interesting birds.
There is also a range of articles that beginners can read on the National Audubon Society’s website. Going through the web pages of the Feminist Bird Club is also a good idea. They also organize walks across the country which you might be able to hop on.
Apart from that, you can also check out documentaries and web series like Birds of North America that will teach you about the different ways in which you can explore cities and look for hot spots for birdwatching. The show also features guests like Lili Taylor and Jonathan Franzen who share their insights.
Build Your Knowledge Repository
While you are doing research about the birds that can be found in your area, you must also consider learning the basics of birdwatching through the many guides available for free.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has an app that can help you with a guide on the birds that frequent your area. If you note down details like the location of the bird, its size, colors and what it was up to when you noticed it, the app can help you identify the species.
Then there is eBird which is also from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This one helps you log your findings and track the species once you enter your location. This data is available for anyone who is interested in education, conservation and research. So, novice birders can turn into novice wildlife biologists with the help of this app.
You can also use bird guides like the Collins Bird Guide to learn more about a particular species in your spare time. Identifying a bird is not something anyone is born with. Even the most skilled birdwatchers developed this over time by spending hours looking for birds and researching what they found. You get good at it as you keep doing it. So, a guidebook is more of an investment in this delicious little hobby.
And luckily for you, there are a lot of apps that promise to do this for you. So, head to the App Store or Google Play Store and look at your options.
Ask the Right Questions
Once you start to notice the birds, you want to ask a few basic questions. These questions will help you remember the details about the bird and aid you in identifying the species when you start looking them up.
- How big is the bird?
- What is its size compared to the ones around it?
- Where did I spot this bird?
- What color and kind of patterns were on its body?
- What was the bird doing when I noticed it? (singing, perching, feeding, etc.)
- What was it eating/how was it singing?
- Was the bird in a flock, a pair or alone?
These are only a basic set of questions that help you create a line of questioning for research. Once you have some of the answers, if not all, you will get closer to identifying the species of the bird you have just spotted. And just like that, your journey into birdwatching has begun.
You can do this exercise with just about any bird and get some good results. This is also a good exercise because, over time, you will have trained your mind to look for these specific details. And that kind of inspection is a part of many professional ways to identify birds.
Note Them Details Down
You might want to note down the details right away so that you can identify them better. Taking a picture, whenever possible, is also a good practice. And that is when you start to learn about processes like digiscoping. It means using your smartphone to take pictures of birds you see through the telescope or binoculars.
Recording your experiences is an important part of being a birdwatcher. And, over time, you will develop a template and shortcuts which will make your task easier and more enjoyable.
Describing the body and plumage of the bird is a big part of the general description of most birds. The more specific you can get, the better your chances are at identifying a species. This kind of observation also increases your interest in birdwatching because you will discover fascinating details and learn terminology like a bird’s topography.
Get the Right Gear
Once you start getting good at finding birds and noting down the details to identify the bird, you must think about getting a good pair of binoculars. This will help you note down the details of the birds you spot without having to get close to them and running the risk of spooking the bird.
Birdwatching becomes so much easier once you have the right pair of binoculars. Unlike other sports, you don’t have to invest in a lot of other items and it also keeps your trips relatively lightweight. If you are thinking about getting a telescope, we’d advise you to graduate to that. It’s not about being able to afford it, but taking it one step at a time.
However, you might want to try and borrow a friend’s pair if you can’t afford one just yet. You may even reach out to a local birding group to see if they have any programs that allow you to borrow a pair. This may even help you plan a trip to your local wilderness spot with the right gear.
Binoculars are easy to find and they range from about $30 to a few thousand bucks. Don’t panic. You only need a quality pair of binoculars, which are usually in the $100-150 range. Your entry-level binoculars are usually about $200. These are not great in terms of clarity or precision but they will still help you work on your birdwatching.
Anyway, once you get them, you will notice that it is an incredible addition to your birdwatching trips. Spend some time with the gear to learn about how to use the pair and adjust the magnification, which is a critical part.
Top Tips for Birdwatchers: Caution in the Field
You have your research, you have your apps and you have your gear. Now it is time to take a trip to the wild and see what you can find. But once you are in the wild, you need to know a few things so that you can get close enough to the bird to notice it.
This is applicable even if you are doing the deed with a pair of binoculars. Here are some tips that are incredibly useful for beginners.
Birds do not respond well to loud sounds. Even if you scream in excitement because you spotted a pretty bird, they will run for their life. And unfortunately, it is really hard to be sneaky around birds. Most of them have excellent hearing, better than us humans which means you need to be very quiet. That way, you can get close to them and notice the details you need to be able to identify the species.
The simple solution to this is to whisper if you have to talk to someone. That way even the others on the trip with you get a chance to see the bird.
No Sudden Movements Please
Just like loud noises, birds also respond very swiftly to sudden movements. So, if you are getting closer to a bird, make sure you move slowly and carefully like a stalker. It’s a bad example but that’s how you need to proceed.
Any jerks in the movement including moving your binoculars around too quickly or too much might surprise the birds and they will fly away. The closer you get to a bird, the more cautious you should be.
Learn about the Habitat
You want to learn the specifics of the habitat so that you know which bird is likely to hang out in that area. Or, you might want to find out which birds are likely to be hanging out in a particular region and learn about that habitat. Either way, you need to know details like sparrows wanting to hang out near thickets or woodpeckers being near trees more often than not.
So, you will know what parts of the landscape you need to pay more attention to because you are more likely to spot a bird there.
Keep Looking around You
A lot of birdwatchers who are busy looking for a flock forget to check out the habitat. Sometimes, you might start off looking for one bird but might wander into the territory of another.
In these cases, you miss finding a bunch of kinglets while you are busy looking for the ducks near the lake. It is good to know what you are looking for but don’t ever forget to let nature guide your path.
The Sun Must Be behind You
If the sun is behind the bird, it is very difficult to tell what kind of bird you are looking at. If the bird is between the sun and you, the colors won’t be clear either.
If the sun is behind you, the light will be on the bird and that way it is easier to look at the bird and recognize its details. This will make it easier to document or identify the species later on.
Patience Is Key
The whole game of birdwatching is about patience. You need to be able to wait till the birds show up and even then you need to pace yourself and behave so that you can get closer and get a good look at them. Whether you’re trying to take a picture or get a good look with your binoculars, patience is not optional.
While you’re at it, learn a few tricks like pishing and avoid bright clothes while you’re in the wild.
Your learning of birdwatching can be either at the local park or online. Either way, you start by noticing colors, plumage patterns and the sounds they make. You also learn about the place you find the bird so that you can recognize the species.
There are plenty of resources online like the Xeno Canto project which has a collection of bird songs from across the world. You can use these resources to learn about the birds you find or ask and tell the others about them by recording their songs. It’s a fun way to continue birdwatching and also make some friends who share your interests.