Bird Watching For Beginners: Bird Watching Guide, Complete With Tips & Advice To Get Started With This Fun Hobby

December 29, 2021 // 12 minute read

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bird watching for beginners

Birding is becoming the fastest-growing outdoor activity in the country. Why? This is partly due to the fact that you can watch birds from inside, looking outside at a bird feeder in your backyard, but you can also go to a local park. It’s easy, fun, and a great way to get outside. It is a fun family activity, and a perfect hobby for beginners and advanced birders.

Also, birds are fascinating creatures that can be found practically anywhere, including rural, suburban, and urban spaces. And once you start looking more closely at birds, you’ll be joining ranks with many famous other birders, including John James Audubon, FDR, Albert Einstein, Laura Bush, Jimmy Carter, the Duke of Edinburgh, Paul McCartney, and Margaret Atwood. 

And while birding, you’re taking in the clean air, listening to the chirps & nature, while relaxing. Yes, it has been proven that bird watching helps reduce stress and improve health! Simply put on a jacket or sweater, head out for a walk and start enjoying other bird enthusiasts.

But what if you’re not sure how to get started?

No worries, here are some top tips on how to get started with bird watching and join the birding community. 

11 Bird Watching For Beginners Tips

1. Birding Equipment

Luckily, birding is a low-cost hobby, unless you choose to get the fancy equipment. Heck, you can start birding with no equipment at all! Simply familiarize yourself with bird habitats, bird species, coloring, etc by reading up on common birds in your local area, and then head out for a walk! You can also check out the National Audubon Society website for more birding information.

But, I do find that a reliable field guide is handy. You could use an app on your smartphone, but there is something about a book-styled field guide that I find to be incredibly handy. 

If your budget allows, you may also want a set of binoculars (or spotting scope), a camera, a waterproof notebook, or even a tape recorder. But none of these are mandatory to start birding.

before heading out to join the ranks of other bird watchers, familiarize yourself with how your field guide works, and pay special attention to what are called field marks. These are specific colorations or markings on birds, that help us identify them at a glance, even when they’re far away or high up in a tree.

Binocular Tip: So I would spend at least $200 – $300 if you can, and it’s good to get something that focuses close, has a wide-angle, you can find things easier. Try to avoid the little tiny binoculars that have very low light-gathering, and a narrow field of view, so you can’t find birds. So yeah, spend what you can there, and especially if you’re on the coast, get a waterproof pair.

2. Pre-Focus Your Binoculars

So let’s say you spot birds several thousand yards away, you focus your binoculars, and get a good look. Then right after that, you go walking through the forest and you know you’re going to see small songbirds no more than like 20 or 30 yards away from you in the branches, right up above you.

After spotting the birds off in a far distance, you want to at least change back your focus to a decent ballpark range that you know you’re going to work within the forest, because the less time you spend focusing your binoculars when you got your eye on a bird, that is less time at that bird has to fly away before you can actually get a good look at it and identify it.

3. Locate Local Birding Photographers

One thing I suggest to you is, whether you’re going to a new area or you are beginning birder just starting to learn the birds in your area, try to follow bird photographers that are actually located around you.

When you’re scrolling through Instagram, instead of it just being a mundane task, you’re actually learning how to recognize and identify your feathered friends. Follow people that actually put the names of the birds under their photos and you’ll see. It might not seem like you’re learning them, but over time you’re going to start picking up these names really quickly.

As you are using a bird guide or viewing different species in a photographer’s Instafeed, pay attention to the habitat the bird is in. What kind of tree is it in? Is the bird in an open field or on a shrub?

Recognizing the surrounding habitat will provide clues to successfully identify more birds.

bird watching with a spotting scope
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4. Birding Field Guide

The best book for identification, I think, is definitely Sibley. That’s what pretty much all the experts say. This is a great bird book to reference a bird species name, help in spotting birds, and in general, improve your overall birding skills.

The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition

Used by millions of birders from novices to the most expert, The Sibley Guide became the standard by which natural history guides are measured.

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Use Sibley!

5. Use Your Smart Phone To Record Your Findings

I use my phone to record bird sounds in the wild that I haven’t heard on prior bird walks and then play it back later. I can also go back to my Sibley guide on my phone, go through some calls in the guide and try to match the call.

bird watching with smart phone
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Not only can you do that with sound, but you can also take notes, which I highly suggest you do. No matter what type of smartphone you have, there should be a place where you can just write notes down in your phone.

When you’re trying to identify a bird and you don’t know what it is, write down everything about it, right when you see that bird in the field, because chances are, you’re not going to remember it. Most people know what a blue jay looks likes, but a yellow warbler may trip you up. Writing down markings, coloring, size, shape, etc will help in the identification process.

And, take photos for identification.

Just for the sake of becoming a better birder and better at identifying birds, taking photos in the wild can help you identify that bird afterward, even if the photo is not the best quality!

You can also send those photos to other people on the Internet (Facebook groups and other social media channels) for help in identifying birds.

Also, photography is a cool hobby too! You might find that you really get into the art of photography and start taking some totally awesome good photos. With the right light and touching up your photos, you’ll find that it is a ton of fun.

6. Go Bird Watching With Others

Go bird watching with as many different birders as you can. Everybody has different experiences, different knowledge, different insights, and you just want to be like a sponge and absorb as much as you can.

Studying an Audubon Bird Guide at home to help improve your bird id skills will only take you so far. The field guide is the most optimal you’ll ever see a bird. It’s perfectly lit, clear and the focus is on the bird.

But, when you get out into the field, there are branches in your way, the birds are at a substantial distance, there is sun glare, etc. For beginning birders (as well as advanced ones too), it could be pretty difficult to see the field marks needed to id the birds.

Having a birder next to you that can tell you what they’re seeing in real-time is way more effective and it’s way more realistic than just learning your birds through a field guide.

7. Look For Clues To Help In The Identification Of Birds

So knowing your trees, knowing your plants, knowing your habitat are great ways to give you clues as to what birds are in your area.

Make use of all the clues that you can use to potentially identify a bird. Visual field marks, geography, where in the world and what specific region are you in at the time.

What time of day is that bird most active? Is it in the morning, or at night? Because, in general, the best time for birding is early in the morning, or in the evening, but there are birds that are active at all times a day. 

Also, time of year. Birds are migratory. Some birds are more active at certain times a year. For example, spring and fall migrations may impact when and where you’ll see certain birds. And, climate change may play a role in where and when you’ll have some bird observations.

Pay attention to the habitat. Does the bird live in water? Does it live in the forest? Does it prefer the edges of a field? Is the species one that specializes in a single habitat, where it only lives where one type of tree lives? 

Pay attention to the sounds that birds make. Their behavior as well. For example, is it hopping around the ground in a weird way? Or, is it sitting on a perch and flying up, catching an inset, going back to its perch, doing that behavior repeatedly? For some species, there are other clues as well. These are all clues that you can use to identify a bird.

8. Learn Bird Noises & Calls To Improve Your Bird Watching Skills

Focus as much as possible on the sounds as you do visually with the birds, because birds, obviously, in general, are very vocal. They’re a great way to identify birds when you can’t see them, of course. 

When you get to be a really advanced birder, depending on what type of habitat you’re in, most of your identification can be done just sound. There are different ways you can learn the calls of birds. You can be in the field. There are mnemonics to help as well.

Some birders opt to clue in on sound first, then rely on visual clues. I made it a point to learn the sounds of my favorite birds first and then I spent the time to learn new birding sounds prior to going out. I focused on the types of birds I expected to encounter in the natural world. I also asked local birders for their input on what I should be listening for.

9. Create a Life List

Once you’ve started looking at birds, you might want to record your observations. Many birders keep a life list, that includes the date and location for the first time you saw a particular species. There are also many websites and citizen science projects that are happy to collect your birding data.

The website eBird contains thousands of bird sightings from all over the world. You can explore records on eBird, to figure out which birds you are most likely to see in your area. And scientists can use the data on eBird to make predictions about future bird populations. You could also participate in the Big Backyard Bird Count and the Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count.

10. 80/20 Rule

Focus on learning 20% of the most common birds in your local habitat. These will make up about 80% of the species that you will typically see when bird watching. So basically, most of the individual birds out there are comprised of just a relatively small number of species. And obviously, it’s not always 20% to 80% or, or even 10% or 90%.

But, the general concept holds true. So just know that if you’re trying to identify a bird, and it’s in the guidebook, chances are that the bird is a common species, not a rare bird. To experienced birders that might seem obvious, but many beginners tend to forget that.

11. Use Pishing To Attract Birds

Now I will stress that you want to do this only in certain situations and do it with caution. Basically, pishing is the act of making sounds that attract birds to come to you. This works because birds operate as a team, they hear the sound and are attracted.

And some birds, especially a lot of songbirds, actually come towards you. And, whether they’re alarmed or curious, they’ll come near you and get a close-up look at you! Sometimes they’ll stick around for a while.

Now, again, I want to stress that you should be very careful when you do this. As a rule of thumb and just to be safe, never do it on a species that is of concern. So just do it to species that you know their conservation status is really good.

12. Minimize Your Impact On The Environment

While out on your bird watch adventures, keep in mind that you should minimize any impact on the environment. It is helpful to consult resources like the American Birding Association, the National Audubon Society, and the National Geographic Guide

Keep in mind that bird conservation is a must and while many birds are in the Least Concern (LC) conservation status, there are other birds that need our protection. Everything you can do to minimize human impact on the environment will help protect birds.

13. Create a Backyard Bird Paradise

One of the simplest tips for most birders embarking on this exciting hobby is to install a backyard feeder or several bird feeders. Feeding birds is a great way to attract a favorite bird for you to watch every morning!

I am a morning person. There is nothing more satisfying than birding from my kitchen breakfast table, seeing my favorite early bird feeding from the feeders in my backyard. A perfect start to the day then incorporates a nice hike with other birders and bird watchers in my local community!

Happy Birding!

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