A Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching

Birding is an Easy Hobby to Start

Birdwatching, also known as birding, is a great excuse to get outside and enjoy the outdoors.

I picked up the hobby a few years ago, knowing nothing about birds beforehand, and quickly grew to love it.

When you first get started, the world of birdwatching can be a little intimidating — you’ll meet seasoned birders with fancy gear and the seemingly-magical ability to identify birds from just a quick glimpse.

There’s no reason to be worried though. Birdwatching can be enjoyed by everyone, even without expensive equipment or specialized knowledge.

All you need to get started is a little bit of spare time.

Spotting Birds

The main skill you’ll need to develop as a beginner birdwatcher is learning how to actually spot the birds.

Unless you’re looking for a specific species, when and where you go birdwatching is less important than you may expect.

Birds are present everywhere, from forests to lakes to city streets, and you can find them at all times of day and night.

Many birds are most active early in the morning, but others are actually easier to spot in the afternoon. So, you don’t need to wake up at the crack of dawn unless you want to.

The best tip I’ve learned for spotting birds is to look everywhere.

When I first started birdwatching, I focused mostly on scanning trees. There are plenty of birds to be found hanging out on branches, but there are also many walking around on the ground, swimming in the water, and flying through the sky.

Be sure to look all around you so that you aren’t missing any.

Another helpful tip is to stand still and be patient.

I do most of my birdwatching on hiking trails, and it’s easy for me to end up spending too much time walking and not enough standing still.

Often I’ll be walking for ten minutes without seeing a single bird, and as soon as I take a moment to stop, I’ll realize I’m surrounded by them.

Even if you think there aren’t any birds around you, try waiting patiently for a few minutes. You’ll likely be surprised to suddenly see a few hopping around in the nearby trees.

Also, make sure not to rely solely on your eyes for finding birds. Listening for birds is often an even more effective method than looking for them.

Listen for their chirping, and also for the sounds of them walking over leaves and twigs.

Finally, make sure to ask the other birdwatchers you see for help. If you go birding often, you’re bound to run into other birders, and most of them will be happy to help a newbie out.

Experienced birders can point you towards interesting and difficult to spot species that you would have otherwise missed.

Don’t worry if you’re having trouble finding birds at first. Spotting birds is a skill that will develop naturally the more time you spend birdwatching.

Helpful Equipment

You don’t need any equipment at all to start birdwatching. There are plenty of birds that you can see with the naked eye.

I would actually recommend that you put off buying anything until after you’ve gone birdwatching a couple of times. There’s no need to start dropping cash until you know that you’ll enjoy the hobby.

Soon though, you’ll want a pair of binoculars to help you see the birds more clearly.

Binoculars are the most “essential” of birdwatching tools, but you don’t need anything extremely expensive or powerful.

In fact, you’ll discover that really powerful binoculars are often the most difficult to use. Most birders stick with binoculars with 10x power or less.

After binoculars, the second most important piece of equipment for me is a camera with a modest zoom lens.

A lot of what I enjoy about birding is trying to get the best pictures I can of the birds I find.

These pictures help me remember what I’ve seen, allow me to identify new species of birds, and give me a goal to aim for as I’m birding.

You’ll see plenty of birders with tripods and zoom lenses two feet long. These can be great for more experienced photographers, but for beginners, I think it’s more fun to stick with something that you can easily walk with.

The main other equipment that you should consider is the same kinds of things that you’d want for any hike: good hiking shoes, bug spray, suntan lotion, and a water bottle.

Traditionally, a field guide was a must-have piece of equipment, but these days, you can also simply use your phone.

Birding Apps

Phone apps for birding have recently become extremely powerful. As I mentioned above, they can even replace the need for a paper field guide (although some people still find the old-fashioned field guides easier to use.)

The app that I use constantly for birdwatching is called “Merlin”, and it’s created by eBird, an amazing birding website.

Merlin uses your GPS coordinates and a set of basic questions to help you identify any unknown birds that you spot.

I find it easier to use than any field guide that I’ve tried, and far more convenient.

The use of your current GPS coordinates also can really help reduce the chances of a false ID.

Another app to consider is “eBird mobile”, which allows you to create lists of the birds you see on your trip. As you can probably guess from the name, this app is created by eBird as well.

Even if you don’t use the mobile apps, I’d highly recommend creating an eBird account from home.

eBird gathers birding lists from birders all over the world. This data helps researchers and conservationists, as well as birdwatchers.

For birdwatchers, the biggest advantage of eBird is that it can help you find birding hotspots in your area. I’ve used it to discover parks that I never knew existed before and to plan day trips outside of my city.

Setting Goals

At its heart, birdwatching is really just about enjoying the birds and nature around you, but a lot of birdwatchers discover that they enjoy the hobby more if they set goals for themselves.

Adding to “life lists” are the most common birdwatching goal. These are lists of every species of bird you’ve ever seen. Some birders have life lists with thousands of species of birds.

In addition, people keep separate lists of all the species they’ve seen in certain countries or regions.

With apps like eBird, you can create a single list and then use their sorting functions to get the location-specific lists.

Another goal that people often pursue is trying to spot as many species as they can within a certain time limit, such as a single day or a single year.

Some birders even become fanatics, crisscrossing the globe in pursuit of a “big year.”

Finally, one goal that every bird watcher should have is to avoid disturbing the birds or damaging the environment.

Make sure to keep your distance as you watch the birds, or you could end up upsetting the birds without even realizing it.

Never do anything to intentionally scare birds, such as shaking a tree to get them flying. Not only is this a cruel thing to do, but it’s also a sure-fire way to get shunned by the birding community.

That’s everything you need to know to start birdwatching. Now all you have to do is get out there and start looking for birds!

Written by

I’m a lawyer and teacher from North Carolina. I write about sobriety, mental health, running, and more.

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