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Birdwatching for Beginners

Everything You Need to Get Started
April Reid

April Reid

Birdwatching, or “birding,” is a pastime that’s seen a surge in popularity in recent years, likely fueled by an increased appreciation for nature’s beauty in a post-pandemic world. 

Of course, millennial birders spreading the joy and wonders of birdwatching on platforms like TikTok (shout out to Keith Paluso) doesn’t hurt, either. 

Either way, more and more people are heading outside to check out the birds. 

Birdwatching can seem daunting, especially when you see pictures of individuals decked out in professional gear and khaki attire making the rounds online. But don’t let that put you off it. 

Birding is an incredibly accessible pastime for anyone, and it’s easy to get started!

Today, we’ll cover everything you need to know for your first official birdwatching venture, from must-have equipment to how to find stellar birdwatching spots.

Birdwatching for Beginners: Must-Have Equipment

Technically, you don’t actually need any equipment for birdwatching — you can usually spot many captivating birds with a keen ear and some patience. But if you want to find some more elusive species or get the most out of your time, investing in some basic birdwatching gear can help.

A few of the things that’ll help you get started birding include: 

Binoculars

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A pair of binoculars can take your birdwatching experience up a whole notch. They allow you to get a closer look at the birds you’re observing without disturbing them (and causing them to inevitably take flight), and they reveal intricate colors, details, and textures that can’t be easily seen by the naked eye.

Binoculars can range pretty drastically in both price point and performance, and some premium models like the AX Visio binoculars are even equipped with AI technology that can automatically identify bird species for you. 

But as a fledgling birder, there’s no need to go all out and splurge on a high-end pair of binoculars. You just want something reliable that’ll give you a clear image (ideally with specs around 8×42).

The Nikon Prostaff P3 binoculars will get the job done without breaking the bank, and they also come with a pretty high-quality strap. Plus, the binoculars aren’t too bulky or heavy, making them easy to carry with you, whether you’re exploring a dense woodland or trekking through a mountainous nature preserve. 

Do keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to fork out on a pair of binoculars. If you join a local birding group, they often have binoculars available to loan for free (or for a small fee) during outings, which may be  more cost-effective if you’re only going birdwatching every other weekend. 

Field Guide or Bird Identification App

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A birdwatching field guide is an illustrated reference book of different bird species, covering their distinctive physical characteristics, natural habitats, sounds, migratory patterns, and any other important information that’ll help you locate and identify them.

You can find field guides that focus on particular parks or nature preserves, which can be helpful if you’re hitting up those specific spots, but there are also guides that cover broader areas. Whichever field guide you pick, just make sure it’s relevant to where you live and where you plan on birdwatching. 

As a beginner, start with a field guide that’s digestible and won’t overload you with birdwatching lingo — field guides from David Sibley are usually great options. And if you don’t want to lug around a bulky book during your first birdwatching expedition? Then download a bird identification app like Merlin instead.

Notebook

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You’ll want a small pocket notebook that you can keep on hand to jot down all your encounters. Whenever you see a bird, make a note of their unique features, where you spotted them, and the sounds they made. You can cross-reference this information with your field guide (or app) at a later date, if you don’t have the time to do so in the moment. 

Any notebook can work, but try to opt for one that’s waterproof. As a birder, you’ll often be battling the weather and frequenting damp areas. Rite in the Rain is likely the best one around, given that it’s compact, durable, and comes in a range of gorgeous colors and patterns. 

Other Handy Birdwatching Gear

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A pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a notebook are the must-have essentials for birdwatching, but here are a few other extras worthy of consideration: 

  • Camera: You can use your phone’s built-in camera to take snaps of any birds you spot, but it likely isn’t going to capture all their details, especially when you hit that zoom button. A high-quality camera like the Nikon D850 will allow you to take some spectacular shots, and it’s definitely worth the investment if you’re looking to get into wildlife photography too. 
  • Backpack: Sure, it may not be much of a challenge to manage a pair of binoculars… but when you bring along your field guide, notebook, water bottle, keys, and snacks? It all quickly adds up and things become cumbersome. Even if you don’t have a lot of stuff on you, we still recommend investing in a sturdy backpack. You want your hands as free as possible so that you’re always ready to whip out your binoculars if you catch a glimpse of plumage (aka feathers) in the distance.
  • Hiking boots: Locating birds is only half the battle as a birdwatcher — you also need to battle the elements (and wade through a whole load of mud). A pair of hiking boots that are waterproof, comfortable, and equipped with good ankle support will save you from wet socks and foot pain.
  • Spotting scope: A spotting scope or “field scope” is a compact, portable telescope that provides more magnification than binoculars, meaning it can let you see faraway objects in greater detail. A spotting scope can come in handy when you’re trying to see a bird species renowned for being elusive and difficult to spot up close, but the device is bulkier and typically requires a tripod. As a beginner, you likely aren’t going to need (or want) this just yet, but it’s good to be aware of what a spotting scope is.

How to Find a Place to Watch Birds

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You don’t need to trek deep into the wilderness or take a five-hour-long drive to your nearest nature preserve — there are likely plenty of good birdwatching spots within walking distance of your home! 

Here are a few things to consider that can help you find the ultimate birding “perch”:

Find a Spot With Habitat Diversity 

Different types of birds are drawn to different environments, so picking a location with plenty of habitat diversity gives you the best shot at spotting a whole range of species. You can also research biodiversity hotspots (regions known for significant levels of biodiversity) and check if there are any near you. 

Consider Which Birds You Want to See

If you’re searching for a specific bird species, you should familiarize yourself with their usual diet, habitat preferences, breeding season, and migration patterns. All this information will make it easier to identify areas where these birds are likely to be present. 

As an example, if you’re trying to catch a glimpse of a wood thrush, you’ll want to stick to damp woodland areas with plenty of shade and leaf litter. 

Look for Water Sources

When in doubt, heading to your nearest body of water is always a good call (think creeks, lakes, marshes, and ponds). Birds generally tend to congregate there, and you’ll often be spoilt for choice. 

Get in Touch With Local Birders

Don’t be afraid to reach out to more experienced birders in your local community! They’ll be more than happy to help and can recommend some easy-access birding spots aligned with the season and your interests.

You can get acquainted with fellow birders by joining a local birdwatching club or signing up for bird walk events. Many regions also have dedicated birdwatching groups on Facebook, like Delaware Birding and Western Mass Birders.

Remember Your Field Guides and Use Birdwatching Apps

We’ve mentioned it before, but we’ll stress it again: Field guides virtually always offer a wealth of information about optimal birding spots! There are also birdwatching apps like eBird that can provide you with details on recent sightings in your area (based on data submitted by fellow birders).  

On that note, here are a few more handy online birdwatching resources to browse:

How Can I Attract Birds to My Backyard? 

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You don’t have to go out of your way to find birds; you can bring them to you by transforming your backyard into a place where they can feel comfortable and at ease. Buy a bird feeder and some feed, making sure you buy the type suitable for the species you’re hoping to attract, and add a shallow bird bath in a shaded area of the yard. Top up the bird bath with fresh water daily to prevent the spread of diseases.

You can also provide somewhere safe for birds to nest by adding small-holed nesting boxes up trees (for bluebirds or other cavity-nesting species) or open-fronted nest boxes (if you want to attract a few robins).

Birdwatching Tips & Tricks

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We’ll finish up with a few tips and tricks that can help you get the most out of birdwatching (without disturbing the natural world in the process).

Familiarize Yourself with the ABA Code of Birding Ethics

The ABA Code of Birding Ethics is essentially a “code of conduct” for birdwatching that every birder, regardless of experience, should always strive to embrace. The code covers ways to support birds and their natural environment, like maintaining safe feeding stations and being cautious around active nests, as well as things to be mindful of when birdwatching.

We strongly advise familiarizing yourself with the ABA code, as it’ll give you a good understanding of how to birdwatch in a way that keeps the welfare of birds and the natural environment at the forefront. It even gives you tips on how to engage (and avoid conflict) with others in the birding community. 

Go During the Morning

The start of the day — between dawn and 11:00 AM — is generally the best time to go birdwatching. Many bird species (especially songbirds) are most active around this time and your ears will likely be blessed by their chirrups, songs and mating calls. 

If you’re not a morning person, then try to go birdwatching in the late afternoon. Birds usually have a last burst of energy before the sun sets and they settle down for the night. 

Approach Birds with Caution 

While it can be tempting to step forward to get a closer peek at a bird, you should always approach with caution. Bold movements or the sound of a twig snapping underneath your boot can startle a bird and scare them away. 

It’s best to either stay still and wait for them to (hopefully) approach you, or indirectly walk toward their general direction as slowly as possible. When you get the hang of things, you can also try timing your movements with theirs. Take a step closer when they’re distracted or have their head turned away, but remain still if they make direct eye contact with you.

Keep to the Path (and Be Mindful of Private Land)

Despite what Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” poem may lead you to think, you’ll want to take the more traveled one as a beginner birdwatcher.

It can be easy to misstep into private land if you leave the trail, especially when you’re not familiar with the area, and many places do have local laws and regulations about where you can go.

Birding may not be an extreme sport — well, depending on who you ask, that is — but it is a pastime filled with plenty of thrills and life-changing, treasurable moments. With our tips above, your first birdwatching adventure should allow you to experience all its wonders in a way that gives the natural world the respect it deserves. 

Are you excited for your first birdwatching trip? What birds do you hope to see? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

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