You don’t have to be a Bird Nerd to get outdoors and do a little bird watching on National Go Birding Day (April 27). Even if you’ve never cracked open a field guide to identify a bird or ventured out to look at birds beyond your own backyard, we’ve got some basic information to get you started.
What Is “Birding,” Anyway?
Essentially, birding may be considered the “next level” of bird watching. I read an article in the New Yorker recently that explained it well: “Crudely put, bird-watchers look at birds; birders look for them.” I guess you could also use a Venn diagram-type explanation: all birders are bird watchers, but not all bird watchers are birders.
While I’ve always been fascinated by birds, I got my start as a true birder back in 2010 when I got a part-time job at Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, our local bird sanctuary. I worked the desk in the old house that serves as the visitor check-in and gift shop, and I had lots of time to borrow a pair of binoculars from the Center and bird from the big wrap-around porch. Many days after work I’d head out onto the sanctuary grounds either by car or on foot to bird some more. And I was hooked.
What a Beginning Birder Needs (and it’s not much!)
You don’t have to break the bank on equipment or travel to distant locales to get out and get birding as a hobby. In fact, you only really need two things…something to get your eyes a little closer to the birds (usually some sort of binoculars) and a field guide. In the beginning, any pair of binoculars will do (you could even use a pair of opera glasses in a pinch!). If you decide that birding is a good hobby for you then you can invest in a better pair.
I have a pair of Vortex Diamondback binoculars, which were a birthday present from my lovely wife about 8 years ago. I think they were around $200 at the time of purchase. While you don’t need to spend big bucks for a decent pair, if you are serious about pursuing birding, you’ll want to avoid the cheap-o under-$100 pairs. Investing $200-$300 will get you a great pair that will last (with proper care, of course) and provide good results.
An illustrated field guide is a must for identification. Field guides are typically organized by type (or “group”) of bird (eg. birds of prey, shorebirds, warblers, flycatchers, etc). Field guides use either drawings or photos of each bird, including variations–male/female, winter/summer, and adult/juvenile. They also contain detailed descriptions of markings, sounds, behaviors, and habitats for each bird. Additionally, you’ll find zone maps that show where each bird typically lives (including both summer and winter locations plus migration routes).
There are several good field guides to choose from. I use the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America and I love it. It contains photos instead of drawings and it’s a little bigger than a pocket guide, but it has a flex binding and I can still cram it in my back pants pocket. The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America also uses photos but is less portable than Kaufman. The Sibley Guide to Birds is considered by many to be the best for illustrations. Finally, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America is compact and is used by many serious birders. If you’re birding outside North America there are, of course, excellent field guides for other regions as well.
Optionally (or additionally), there are now apps that offer the same information as a field guide. Apps also typically have one more identification gem–recordings of actual bird calls and songs. (One important tip: in the spirit of observation not interference, please make sure you are using headphones when listening to calls so that the birds you are observing are not influenced by them). Many apps also allow you to keep track of what you see by creating lists. Avid birders typically maintain a Life List–basically, a list of all of the birds they have seen. When you identify a bird you’ve never seen before, you’ve found yourself a “lifer”!
What to take when you go birding…
Water (and more water!)
Always carry water with you if you are walking. Also, take a cooler with extra water in your vehicle…I often find that I drink all of my water while I’m in the field, and it’s so nice knowing that I’ll have a cool drink waiting for me when I get back to the car.
Sunblock and bug spray
You can get the worst sunburn on an overcast day because only the strongest rays get through! Always wear sunblock and keep extra in your car to reapply as needed.
Bug spray is always a good idea as well, especially if you’re birding near water. Because mosquitoes!
Especially if you’ll be using an app for identification and keeping track of your sightings, carrying an extra battery is a good idea. We each have an Anker PowerCore 10000. It fits easily in a pocket and charges a phone quickly.
Small notebook and a pen
It’s sometimes easier to jot down new species and add them to your Life List later (unless you want to use GPS to make note of exactly where you saw it).
…And What to Wear
You never know what you’ll have to step in, on, over, or around when you’re birding. Doing any of these in flip flops, sandals, high heels (!!!) or shoes other than sneakers or boots is not the best idea.
This one’s a maybe/optional, depending on where you live, the time of year, and the environment in which you’ll be birding. Personally, the thought of wearing pants while walking outdoors in the summer in South Texas is nearly unfathomable to me. Use your best judgment.
Getting the Most Out of Your Birding Adventure (a.k.a. the “tips” section)
Read up a little beforehand
Thumbing through a field guide can be immensely helpful to new birders. Familiarize yourself with the book’s layout (you’ll be using it a lot!) and the terminology used for bird identification.
Also, check out websites like ebird.org or allaboutbirds.org. Both of these sites offer a wealth of information about birds and birding. All About Birds is the official website for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and in the birding world, it doesn’t get much better than that!
Low talking is fine–and encouraged if you’re birding with a friend or group–but avoid shouting or making other loud noises.
Birds are all around you, and it’s guaranteed that they are aware of your presence before you are aware of many of them. Sometimes sitting or standing quietly in one spot for a while is necessary to allow birds to adjust to your presence.
Avoid big movements
You don’t have to be a statue, but running, making wide gestures, or otherwise causing a commotion will cause birds around you to take flight (or avoid coming around you in the first place).
Avoid brightly colored or white clothing
It’s not so much about the colors (birds don’t have great color vision) as it is about contrast. Bright colors and white stand out against the natural environment and are more easily perceived as movement. Camouflage is not necessary; simply choose neutral or dark clothing.
Bird with the sun behind you
Even if you’re not looking directly into it (never do that!!), having the sun in front of you will cause whatever you’re looking at to appear in full or partial silhouette. If this happens you’ll be unable to view colors and markings correctly. Which can lead you to overuse the sentence “Ooh…I never knew there were so many black birds!”.
Don’t wear sunglasses
Tinted lenses will alter colors and make identification more difficult.
Flock to the flocks
Hanging out near large groups of birds is a great way to practice your identification skills.
You also may see a more unusual (or new for you) bird or two mixed in with a flock that is comprised of a few different species.
Making a small kissing-type sound (called pishing) can sometimes cause small birds to pop up out of ground cover or tree branches…they want to see what that little sound is!
Hopefully, we’ve given you some inspiration to get out into nature and get to know the birds in your area (and beyond!). To learn lots more about birding, please visit the Audubon website. There you’ll find helpful guides about choosing binoculars, spotting scopes, and other equipment; how to get started birding; where to find birds in your area; the best guides and apps to use; and so much more.
Happy birding, everyone!!
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A Special Thanks To Our Sponsors:
- CheeryBird Vintage (formerly Old San Antonio Trading Post)
Further Reading and Resources Used for this Episode:
- Binoculars And Beyond: Nine Tips For Beginning Bird Watchers
- Top 10 Tips for Better Bird Watching
- How To Begin Birding
Thanks for listening!
Peace and Veggies,
Vickie and Larissa