Birdwatching is a low-cost activity that can be enjoyed almost anywhere at any time. It’s a hobby you can experience from your backyard and it can take you travelling around the world too. Birdwatching is a fun, relaxing hobby that will encourage you to spend more time in nature. There is no better time to get started than today. You can start bird watching with minimal equipment and minimal planning, all you need is some patience and you’re ready to get started. This guide will help you start birdwatching.
Equipment You Will Require
While not essential, you may find the following equipment helps to make your birdwatching experiences more enjoyable.
Binoculars help you get a detailed look at the birds you spot without needing to get physically close to them (which is often not possible). Birds don’t tend to sit still for long and will often fly away as soon as they see movement so sitting quietly and watching them through binoculars is highly recommended. There are two main types of binoculars: porro prism and roof prism.
- Porro prism binoculars tend to be larger and heavier. They are the more classic-looking, angled models with the eyepieces closer together. These binoculars offer the best optical quality for money but they are more vulnerable to being knocked out of alignment which can cause you to see double when you look through them. If you are buying porro prism binoculars, try them out first to ensure the alignment is right.
- Roof prism binoculars are lighter and easier to use. They have a straighter shape and are easier to make waterproof. While they are less likely to get knocked out of alignment, it is going to cost more to get a pair that offers good optical quality.
Basics of Binoculars
When choosing binoculars for birdwatching consider the following factors:
- Magnification – the magnification is the amount of enlargement you will see through the eyepiece. Most birding binoculars offer 7-10x magnification. The majority of experts say 7-8x magnification works best when birdwatching. This is a magnification that lets you see the bird closer without losing too much field of view, focus or brightness. If you choose higher magnifications, you are more likely to experience motion from the natural shaking of your hands which will make it far more difficult for you to observe the details of the birds.
- Field of view – the field of view is the width of an area seen at 1,000 yards. This is determined by the eyepiece on the binoculars. Generally, you will want to go for a minimum of 330 feet at 1,000 yards (or 6.3 degrees of arc) when using the binoculars for birdwatching. This gives you a large enough field of view that you will be able to track a moving bird.
- Focus – it’s best to choose binoculars that have a centre-focus to adjust both barrels at the same time.
A spotting telescope is also a common piece of equipment for long-distance bird watching. They can be a useful tool when watching raptors, waterfowl and shorebirds. It is personal preference when choosing between a scope and binoculars but binoculars are recommended for beginners.
Prism or refractive spotting scopes are best for birding as they are simple to use, lightweight and provide high image quality. If you will be spending a lot of time at lakes or in an area where you are going to be quite a distance away from the birds then it may be worthwhile for you to get a spotting scope. When using a scope you will also need a tripod to keep it sturdy and stable.
These guides can help you when choosing binoculars or a spotting scope:
Taking a camera can add a new challenge to birding. Photographing the birds you see will help you identify the species. Being able to look at the pictures you have taken and compare these to a field guide or bird ID sheet will help a lot when you are just starting to learn the differences between bird species. You will also end up with a beautiful collection of bird photographs which will allow you to share your love of birds with family and friends. If you decide to take a camera with you, don’t use the flash as this will disturb the wildlife.
You may also want to take a notebook with you so you can write down the species you have seen. It can also be handy for jotting down descriptions (particularly if you are not going to be using a camera) as these notes can help you identify the birds later on. Your notebook can also be the start of your bird list (many birders keep a bird list so they can keep track of the number of species they have seen and what species they were). Now you have your equipment, you just need to be patient and keep your eyes and ears open.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a big city or the countryside, you will be able to birdwatch locally. Trust us when we say you don’t have to go far. Your yard, the local park, woodland or town are all excellent places to start birdwatching. Birds are all around us and once you begin to watch out for them you will soon see there are many different bird species right where you live. Some patience and curiosity are all that you need.
Is There a Best Time to Birdwatch?
Some birds are out during the day, others are nocturnal but the majority are active during sunrise and sunset. This is why early mornings and late afternoon tends to be the best time to get outside. Many birders like to wake up early and watch the sunrise, this is the perfect time as birds will be singing as they start their day with the sun. If you want to spot a certain species, find out when they are most active and plan your birdwatching around this to increase your chances of seeing them.
If you are going out to parks and nature areas to birdwatch, avoid wearing bright colors and make sure you wear comfortable shoes. Take your time and avoid making sudden movements when watching birds. It doesn’t take much for a bird to get scared away which is why the binoculars are such a great piece of equipment to have on hand.
Encourage Birds to Your Yard
If you have a yard you could encourage the birds to come to you by putting some bird feeders up and filling them with seed. You can also landscape your yard in a way that will encourage local bird species to spend more time in your area. In addition to bird feeders, consider putting up birdbaths and houses/ nesting boxes too. With bird feeders up, you can sit on your porch or in the kitchen and simply watch the bird feeder. Audubon encourages bird-friendly communities and provides great advice regarding plants for birds, birdhouses and bird-friendly buildings.
You can birdwatch anywhere, so why not head out to local nature areas and birding hotspots too:
Identifying Bird Sightings
Learning to identify birds takes time and practice. It is tricky, especially as birds are fast-moving, well-camouflaged and sometimes small in size. When you see a bird try to take note of key physical characteristics such as color, shape and size. Also, observe the bird’s behavior such as their feeding, nest building, flight patterns and mating displays as these factors all help you paint a fuller picture of the species you are watching. Keep in mind where you have seen the bird as the habitat can also give you vital clues as to which species you have seen. Having a field guide on hand will certainly help with identification and using binoculars or a camera to get a look at the closer details can be of great benefit too.
Listen Carefully for Bird Calls
Another helpful factor is the sounds the bird is making. Listening to and learning the bird calls in your area is a fantastic way to get to know the different species. There are many apps and online resources that can help you learn bird songs. The more you watch birds and hear them sing, the easier it will be for you to identify which bird is which just by hearing them.
Use A Field Guide
A guidebook is a wealth of useful information that you can carry with you in your backpack. These books contain information on all the different species in an area alongside illustrations, descriptions, range maps and more. A field guide is a staple of bird watching. You will quickly learn the key sections of the book and will find yourself flicking through the pages to help you identify species and learn more about the birds you are observing. There are lots of field guides available including “The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America” and “National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America”.
Check out this bird field guides list to find the best option for your area:
Other Useful Resources
You may also find apps and websites that help with your identification and birdwatching. Some of the best options include:
- Merlin Bird ID – this is an app that gives you free, instant bird identification help from your smartphone.
- eBird – this is an online citizen science project for people to find, record, track and study birds. It helps map bird’s locations, distribution and migratory patterns. You can use it to explore the maps or you can create an account and put in information of your sightings. It is also a great way of tracking your personal species list. eBird can be used to compare sightings with other birdwatchers in your area too.
Birdwatching is a popular hobby and there are standard practices that should be followed in order to avoid harming or impacting the birds. The general rules include:
- Respect wildlife and their environment
- The welfare of the birds and their environment comes first
- Keep away from nests and important feeding sites
- Minimize disturbance by staying on paths and tracks where they exist
- Avoid using recordings to attract birds
- Avoid using artificial light for photography and filming
- Respect the law and rights of others
- Practice common courtesy
- Keep group sizes limited to reduce environmental impact
More complete information on the Code of Birding Ethics can be found here:
Birding can be an activity you do alone or it can be enjoyed as a group. It can be a lot of fun and incredibly interesting to join a birding group. You can learn a lot from these groups and you will likely find new places to bird and see lots of new species you haven’t yet spotted.
The below websites can help you find birding clubs in your area:
Tips for Bird Watching
You are now ready to get out there and start your bird list. When you are birdwatching, make sure you:
- Always look and listen out for birds
- Encourage birds to your backyard using feeders, birdbaths and birdhouses
- Birdwatch early in the morning or late in the afternoon
- Take binoculars or a camera with you
- Keep practicing
- Respect nature
- Join a birding club
These resources can help you get the most out of your new hobby: