How to Birdwatch
Are you a frustrated amateur ornithologist because you can’t identify all the birds at your feeder, in the woods, along the roadside, or at the beach? Grab your hiking gear and read on for some quick tips for beginning birders. Be encouraged by the fact that you can learn at your own speed, be social or alone while you learn, can birdwatch most anywhere, and physical disabilities are only minor issues.
So read on and start a new avocation.
Be sure you have a decent pair of binoculars and have adjusted and practiced using them. See the Binoculars page.
Always locate a bird first with your naked eye. The field of view through binoculars is much narrower, making it harder to search.
Consider colors a bonus. Except under the best of conditions, it is hard to see feather colors accurately. Light reflection and shadows often distort, dull, or exaggerate colors. Consider other factors first. Of course, there are species for which accurate color determination is essential for accurate identification.
Size is helpful, but conditions can be misleading. A bird soaring overhead or flying by may seem much larger or smaller than reality. A reference object is helpful – a tree, fence post, telephone pole, etc.
Observe the shape or profile of the bird. A long-bill, long legs, or tufted head immediately eliminates many possibilities.
Habitat is always a useful consideration. In the midst of a coniferous forest you expect to see a different set of birds (avifauna) than you would on an ocean shore or in a city park.
Note the behavior. Wading in shallow water, climbing a tree trunk, swimming, diving through the air, emerging from a mud nest, or sitting on a fence post, all narrow the choices down considerably.
Songs and calls are excellent identification mechanisms and sometimes the only way to distinguish them in the field by their calls; and it is not uncommon to hear birds but not be able to find them. This takes a lot more practice than learning visual characters. I find it easiest to learn songs and calls if I am able to watch the bird singing or calling.
Use a good field guide as they identify characteristics (field marks) most helpful to identification.
Finally, my most important recommendation for the beginning birdwatcher: go out in the field with those folks who know the birds. If you don’t have a friend who does, there is most likely a local Audubon Society nearby. And next time you travel, you can find a local birder who will show you around. You can also meet traveling birders who are interested in your area. Connect with a local birder who knows the local hot spots and have a great time birding. For world travelers, visit Birding Pal.
How to Birdwatch-Helpful Sites
Glossary of Birdwatching Slang
Pictures of Common North American Birds
Birding with Kids
An Introduction to Birdwatching
Birding Tips for FamiliesTop Five Birdwatching Tips
Birdwatching for Beginners
Six Tips for Birding by Ear
You might be a birder if…