Everywhere you visit, whether it is the beach, the park, a city centre or just outside your house, you’ll find plenty of birds fluttering around.
If you, like me, enjoy nature and the outdoors then consider taking up birding. Even if you start from the comfort of your own home, you’ll find it to be an enjoyable hobby and of course, it’s another excuse to go further afield and explore the outside.
My name is Claire Mitchell, welcome to our beginner’s guide to birding, here you’ll find hints and tips on how to get started, what you’ll need, which apps to try, etiquette and much more including a list of resources to get you started.
What is Birding?
Birding is the identification, observation and recording of birds in the wild and their natural habitat as a recreation activity.
For most participants, birding is a hobby that helps bring them closer to nature and this is a key part of the activity.
For others, the logging of specific details is the most enjoyable part, the data can be shared and used to determine if a species of thriving or declining in a given area.
Whichever aspect of birding tickles your interest, we are sure you’ll find it educational and enlightening.
While birding is a hobby that anyone can enjoy, some may find it a little intimidating for beginners.
You may think that you need extensive knowledge of ornithology to be able to get the title of a birder or bird watcher. In fact, there are many misconceptions out there, some of them bizarre:
Misconceptions About Birding
Several misconceptions revolve around the activity of birding. Some of the main misconceptions include:
- All birders must wear a pith helmet and a pair of khaki pants, preferably shorts!
- All bird watchers have to set up bling in the woods and dwell in it for several weeks while waiting for the arrival of a rare bird species (no we really don’t behave like this!)
- To become a birder, you require extensive knowledge of ornithology and be extreme naturalists.
- Birders are all preachy vegetarians and vegans.
While some birders do partake in such behaviours, they are not a must-do for all birders. The pith helmet has nothing to do with bird watching, and surprise surprise, there is no specific uniform that all birders wear either!
Like other types of hobbies and professions, birding attracts people of all kinds and characters.
Some take the hobby very seriously and spend hours every week looking for rare bird species. On the other hand, some people enjoy light activities like watching birds from the comfort of their back yards, windows, and porches.
Benefits of Birding
Below are some of the most significant benefits of birding;
- Birding will help you learn more about the eco-system and is a great way to introduce children to nature.
- If you’ve always wanted to get into photography, this is a great way to hone skills and practice zooming and focusing. Both bird and landscape photography can be enjoyed on the same trip.
- Birding could be a stepping stone to a career in ornithology especially for people who start partaking at a young age.
- It would also help bring you closer to nature and is a great excuse to go wandering.
- Birding will help you acquire incredible information about different species of birds and how they behave.
- Birding is also an excellent way to have fun, be adventurous, make friends and be part of something special.
Birding Guide for Beginners
Getting started with birding is easier than you may think.
Below are some tips that would help you get started;
To get started with birding, you don’t need to spend a fortune but we do recommend a few items to get started.
• A field guide – the first thing we recommend is a properly drafted field guide. Even with the modern era and internet access, we think a traditional book guide is the best place to start.
We suggest one that covers your local area and the birds you can expect to encounter. An excellent guide should contain more than photos of birds, it should have information like their natural habitat, patterns of migration, what they eat, and the sounds they make etc.
• Binoculars and monoculars – almost as essential as a field guide is a pair of binoculars. There are several brands and types of binoculars in the market. For a birding beginner, you do not need an elaborate brand that is too expensive. A pair with an 8X magnification element would be the best choice for a newbie as it’s the industry standard for birding.
As you become more experienced in the field, you can explore better types in the market, depending on your needs and budget. The role of the binoculars is to help you get a better look at the birds in your environment and for easier identification at a distance – in birding, you really don’t want to get closer the birds than you have to, especially when they are nesting young.
Some birders, however, prefer to use a monocular because it’s lighter and smaller. Do consider this as keeping your equipment small and light is beneficial when walking long distances!
We also suggest looking at the second-hand market rather than paying full price for a new item.
• Notebook – we also suggest a notebook for keeping records. As a birder, you will need to keep a log of the birds that you encounter and their unique features also where you saw them. The notebook entries can be made seasonally because you will encounter different species of birds during different months. Some people, however, prefer to keep a lifelog of all the birds they have ever come into contact with. The notebook also acts as proof of your birding activities and can be used to share and compare stories with fellow birders. Make sure the notebook is weatherproof because you will encounter different climates while birding
• Birding app – you may also benefit from having a birding app, these have become increasingly popular in recent years. Check out the apps listed below:
The Best Birding Apps
• iBird Pro Guide to Birds – see iPhone here and Android here, UK + US Versions available
This app consists of a field guide to birding. It can be used on any smartphone or tablet and can be found on iTunes and Google Play. It is an easy tool for searching different types of birds based on their features like size, colour, and location. The app provides a variety of photos and drawings that can be used with the guide. It also consists of a sound gallery for different kinds of birds so you can what they sound like (we really liked this feature).
• Audubon Birds of North America – see iPhone here and Android here
This is a regional bird watching guide app for birders. It helps to make the process of identifying the different kinds of birds easy. It comes with a collection of photos and sounds and can be acquired without a cost on iTunes and Google Play. However, the app is a regional app that cannot be used away from North America.
• e-Bird – see app details here
This is, in our opinion, one of the best birding apps available. It helps you keep track of all birds that you have ever encountered. You can see real-time maps of species movements, store and view photos and set alerts so when another user logs a certain species in an area you’ll get a notification. The app is available on iTunes for free.
How to Find Birds
Start at home and let the birds come to you!
Well, that’s the best way for a complete beginner to get started.
We feel that the first step a complete newbie should take is to get a bird feeder.
A feeder will help you attract the birds as opposed to you going around looking for them, you’ll be surprised at how many species you’ll see in your local area, even if you live in a town or city.
Make sure to add more than one kind of bird feed because it will make it easier to attract different species to your garden. Don’t forget to top it up with feed regularly, birds will remember your garden as a possible feeding spot and will check in frequently to see what’s on offer.
You’ll soon learn which seeds attract which birds, you can then adjust your feed accordingly.
We also suggest you add a water feature to your yard, especially if you live an area far from a natural water source. By providing both food and water, you can start your birdwatching hobby from the comfort of your window, back yard bench, or deck. This is referred to as backyard birding or armchair birding and is a great way to get started.
Pay Attention to the Basics
For a beginner, it’s best to pay attention to the basics.
The first essential detail you need to acquire is to recognize the different types of species. You would also benefit significantly from learning bird songs and understanding their different characteristics. Make sure to keep records of the information that you gather. You can acquire this information from armchair or backyard birding, and it will come in handy during field trips later on.
Birding in the Field
Once you have become comfortable with the basics of home birding and have purchased some basic gear, you can now proceed to birding a little further afield.
We suggest you start by visiting a well-known bird habitat, rather than just blinding going out into the wild.
Apps, guidebooks and even seasoned birdwatchers (easily found via online forums and Facebook groups) can point you in the right direction here.
If you want to go truly wild then look for water sources and places away from human habitation, preferably with lots of treecover and natural food sources nearby.
You’re far more likely to find a suitable location by downloading one or more of the apps recommended earlier.
The Dos and Don’ts of Birding
As with any sport or hobby, there’s always an etiquette to follow and birding is no different.
- While in the wild, it’s essential to maintain silence or at least a certain degree of quietness so that you don’t spook away the birds.
- Wear appropriate clothing and try to blend in with the environment.
- Plan your trip in advance and try to stay on tracks and paths as much as possible.
- Be respectful to others, ie cyclists, hikers and other birders etc.
- Don’t be afraid to bring your field book with you to see if you correctly identified a bird.
- Don’t approach or stress out nesting birds.
- Don’t trespass on private property.
- Put your phone on silent.
- Take your waste home with you.
Here’s a complete list of ethical guidelines, it’s well worth exploring.
We think you should explore these resources further:
American Birding Association Facebook page – A great place to start for anyone birding in the US.
How to Attract More Wildlife to Your Garden in 12 Steps – plenty of these tips attract birds.
How to Identify a Species in Four Steps – Perfect for beginners, a handy guide explaining the four things you should observe if you want to identify a new bird species that you haven’t seen before.
British Birdwatching for Beginners – Does what it says on the tin, with over 15,000 members and typically over 500 new posts a day. A great place to start.
British Facebook Birders – Plenty of lovely photos and a good place to communicate with other birders.
UK Bird Identification – Post a photo here and let others identify the species of bird for you.
RSPB Bird Identifier – For the UK and overseas birds that visit the UK.
Birding, while a little quirky, can be an enjoyable hobby for those that enjoy the peace and quiet of the natural outdoors.
If you already enjoy outside walks, hikes or photography then it’s only a small extra step to get involved with birding.
For a first time birder, the trick is to learn the basics at home first, then hang out with other birders, and enjoy the countryside. Do join Facebook groups and download apps to help you get started.
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About Daniel Woodley
This guide to getting started with birding was created by Daniel Woodley, aka The Bald Scrambler.
Daniel also enjoys wild camping and publishes reviews of products he’s used and tested.
Daniel Woodley aka The Bald Scrambler