Bird Watching (Birding) – Getting Started

There are as many reasons for people to become interested in bird watching as there are different kinds of birds. Often the “bird bug” bites as a result of observing the birds attracted to a backyard feeder, and the desire to be able to identify the different kinds of birds that show up. Or a local bird walk or Christmas Bird Count may spark an interest in learning more.

As the hobby of bird watching has progressed, new terms have been introduced to describe the hobby and those that participate.

Birding
Bird watching is now sometimes called birding.

Birder
A person who watches birds is sometimes called a birder.

There is a distinction, although a poorly defined one, between the bird watcher and the birder.

Those that feed birds in their backyard, and make little effort to go beyond their yard in search of new species and new challenges, are still referred to as bird watchers, and their hobby is watching and feeding birds. Many people that fall into this category are very knowledgeable about the birds that visit their yards.

Those that take to the field, either alone or with others, in an attempt to see a greater variety of birds, are birders, and their hobby is birding.

There is nothing official about the new terminology, but if you call an avid birder a bird watcher, you will really ruffle some feathers.

Becoming a birder

Whether you are interested in becoming more knowledgeable about the birds in your yard, or are ready to move further afield by identifying birds found in local parks, wildlife refuges, or the beach, you will need three things.

1. Binoculars

In order to identify the birds you see, you will need a good pair of binoculars. A poor pair of binoculars will make your job much more difficult, while a good pair will yield more beauty and detail than ever expected.

Such elements as magnification, field of view, and close focal distance will impact the quality of your viewing experience. Serviceable binoculars can be purchased for under $100, with more expensive units breaking the $1000 barrier. If you can afford as much as $300, you can obtain a really fine pair of binoculars that will provide years of good service.

The basics of selecting a good pair of binoculars are included in the binocular section.

birds

Roll your mouse over the images to see the names of the birds.
Note the shape of the bills.

2. Bird Field Guides (identification guide)

As you start to study the birds more carefully, you will need a book of some kind to help you identify each species. There are a multitude of books available, ranging from those aimed at the beginning birder to very advanced species profiles for the expert birder.

You may wish to start with one of the beginning guides from Stokes, Audubon, or Peterson, or you could select one of the more comprehensive guides. Different birds are found in different parts of the country. If you live in California, you will need to purchase a guide for the Western United States or one that covers the entire country. There are also guides specific to some of the "birdier" states such as Texas and California.

The Field Guides section provides an introduction to several of the more widely used guides.

3. Birding friends

You will find it easier and much more fun to spend some time in the field with more experienced birders. Here are some possible contact points. Don't be shy. Most birders love showing off their identification skills and will be more than happy to have you along.

Audubon chapters
Most local Audubon Societies offer field trips where beginners can rub shoulders with the more experienced birders.

Bird specialty stores
There are over 1000 stores in the United States and Canada that specialize in selling products for those that watch and feed birds. These include the Wild Bird Centers and Wild Birds Unlimited franchise stores. While their primary focus is feeding birds, some provide bird identification classes and field trips.

State or national parks, wildlife refuges
Many parks and wildlife refuges offer local bird walks that are very good for beginning birders. The U.S. national wildlife refuge system is also becoming more birder friendly and offers some excellent resources for both advanced and beginning birders.

Local colleges and junior colleges
Check with local colleges and community or junior colleges. Some offer non-credit introductory courses on bird identification.

State ornithological society
Joining the state society is a great way to learn more about the birds in your area. Most have annual meetings which provide a great forum for meeting others with similar interests, and for learning more about birds. They often have newsletters and scientific publications with information about birds in their state.

Check the State Based Information section under Birding to locate your state and contact information for the state ornithological society. Don’t be intimidated by the scientific sounding name "ornithological society." Ornithology is one of the sciences in which there is a long and important history of contributions by amateurs. You will be welcomed even as a beginner.

Tour companies and bird guides
There are hundreds of tour companies and bird guides that can help you sign up for a trip to a particular area. Their experience and skills will help you see more birds and improve your own birding skills.

Birding festivals
Many parts of the country now have annual birding and nature festivals. These are great events that introduce birders to new locations, new birds and new friends. Again, check the state based information section to find birding festivals in a particular area, or do a broader search in the Festivals section.

shore birds

All three of these birds are in a group generally known as shore birds.
Again, note the variety of bill shapes.

What you'll be learning

As you start to watch birds, you'll begin to pick up special traits of different species. Color and size will be important clues as you get started. As your knowledge and skills develop you'll begin to use other clues.

  • Some birds almost always stay high in the trees (some warblers)
  • Some birds soar (hawks and vultures)
  • Some prefer to frequent low shrubbery and feed primarily on the ground (robins and sparrows).
  • Some species have a very distinctive flight (Spotted Sandpiper)
  • Some birds are present in an area all year round, others may only be present in a particular time of year
  • The songs and calls of birds are a very good way to identify them

Keep in mind that learning to identifying all the birds that you see can be a challenge, and even the experts cannot identify everything they see or hear. If you see a bird you cannot identify, make good notes:

  • Appearance and field marks
  • Apparent size, use nearby object for comparison
  • When it was seen
  • Where it was seen
  • Its behavior

As you gain experience, you can refer back to your notes and often identify the species yourself. Sometimes a more experienced bird watcher will be able to identify the bird based on your description.

Keeping a list
You may become so involved that you decide to keep a list of the different species that you have seen. This may be a list of the birds in your back yard or you may develop your own "life list." You can learn more about keeping a list of the birds you see in the "Keeping a List" section.

Good luck and good birding!