9 Tips for Beginner Bird Watchers
Spring is an excellent time to begin bird watching in earnest. Eugenio Marongiu / Cultura / Getty Images
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We’ve been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we’ve begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
When COVID-19 hit, I too found myself spending much more time in my apartment. Living in New York City during a pandemic presented fewer opportunities to safely get out into nature – an unfortunate struggle for myself and many other outdoorsy urbanites.
Yet, when I began birding, I found myself paying more attention to the nature that was, in fact, all around me. I noticed the European starlings perching in the holes of London planetrees, red-tailed hawks circling above the park, and a persistent red-bellied woodpecker with a penchant for the wooden post in my backyard. Looking for birds was a way to appreciate and acknowledge nature wherever I was; I could be excited about spotting birds anywhere – even outside my Brooklyn apartment, when I was forced to slow down and look around.
Spring is an excellent time to begin bird watching in earnest. While many common birds we come to recognize are “permanent residents” – such as starlings, mockingbirds, juncos, house sparrows, and black-capped chickadees – springtime might bring some new feathered friends into view as populations travel back north for the season. There are different types of migration, but birds generally travel north-south in North America (northbound in the spring, southbound in the fall), primarily in search of nesting locations or food.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
About 40% of birds are migratory, so whatever flyway you live within, there will be plenty of new species to look out for. The Atlantic Flyway alone (covering much of the east coast) sees 500 migratory species every year. Unless you live very far North, from February through mid-April, you should see migrating birds passing through as they head for their breeding areas.
Birding is unique in its accessibility and universality; no matter where you live – whether a bustling city, a rural town, or the South Pole – there will always be birds to learn about and look for. If you’ve never birded before, here are some things to keep in mind as you get started.
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars
Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren’t able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have binocular loaning programs for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.
When you’re ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some major considerations might include size, ease of use, magnification, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of ,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under 0. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you’re interested in investing in a premium pair.
For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn’t within your budget.
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area
When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn’t ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to recognize common birds in your area, you’ll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will vary by region, as will those migrating through it.
3. Get Out and Explore
Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I’ve found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).
If you are able to travel a bit further from home, national wildlife refuges and state/national parks are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists birding trails by state, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify Important Bird Areas (IBAs) across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat
The National Audubon Society recommends the “stop, look, listen, repeat” mantra when seeking and identifying birds.
First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.
When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.
While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you’ll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon’s Bird Guide app or by learning from their Birding by Ear series.
Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you.
When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you’re hoping to spot some new species – you’ll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. Major considerations when identifying birds are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.
The Sibley Guide to Birds and the Peterson Field Guide are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many specialized guides focus on specific species or regions as well.
Plenty of bird identification apps have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a field guide in your pocket. I’m partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird’s habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.
6. Recording Your Sightings
While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more structured birder’s journal with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.
Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the eBird app.
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard
Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.
Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with “fillers” (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with seeds that will appeal to them.
Beyond filling a birdfeeder, transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.
While it’s widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often foster unlikely interactions between different species, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be cleaned to prevent the spread of infection.
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community
Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the Black & Latinx Birders Fund, Birdability, and Feminist Bird Club highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like Corina Newsome and Tykee James. The work of Christian Cooper, Camille Dungy (read her poem Frequently Asked Questions: 10), and J. Drew Lanham – including his essay “Birding While Black” – are a great place to start.
Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of Christian Cooper and J. Drew Lanham – including his essay “Birding While Black” – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.
9. Get Involved
To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a directory of birding festivals across the country.
Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.
Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A 2019 report released by the National Audubon Society found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent Migratory Bird Protection Act – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.
Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor’s degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.
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