Tips for Beginning Birders
Bird watching can be enjoyed on many levels. Simply looking at birds on your backyard feeders is bird watching and trying to identify them is the first step toward learning bird identification for many people. The next step might be a walk with binoculars in your local park. If you are serious about improving your birding skills the tips outlined below will help you get started.
- Be particular about identification:
- Gather as many details and reasons why a bird is what you or someone else thinks it is. Ask questions if you are birding with a group.
- Beginners tend to identify common birds as rarities. The bird you are trying to identify most likely is a common bird, not a rare bird.
- Stay on the bird until you have exhausted all identification details and the bird’s habits. What is the bird’s size? What is its shape? What shape are its wings? What shape is its bill? What shape is its tail? How does the bird behave? Go to the field guide only after an exhaustive look or when the bird disappears. Beginners jump too quickly to field guides.
- Study common birds. Get to know them very well. Field guides frequently refer to them when giving details that identify less common birds: the size of a Robin, smaller than a Song Sparrow.
- When a field guide describes that a bird is a half-inch or an inch longer than another bird the difference in length almost always will be accompanied by a corresponding difference in bulk though guides rarely mention this. This is particularly true with shorebirds.
- The dimensions given in field guides were obtained by minutely measuring specimens. The bird may appear slightly smaller in the field.
- After a birding trip, sit with the trip list of birds seen and a field guide and look up each bird you saw. Reinforce the identification characteristics. This is a great learning tool for beginners.
- Learn at least the basics of bird topography: nape, crown, lores, undertail coverts, primaries, secondaries, mantle, and mandible. Diagrams are in the front of any field guide.
- The common name for a bird can be different in different parts of the world. Latin names are not.
- Your car is a great birding blind. Birds image for shapes that are threatening to them. A car is not threatening.
- Talking is okay while birding but sudden arm movements or loud noises will startle birds. Avoid bright colored clothing.
- Generally, birds are most plentiful at the transition zone between two different plant communities or habitats. For example, you likely will find more species and individual birds where a forest borders a field than the field itself or the deep woods.
- Getting used to binoculars can be a frustrating experience for beginners. You see a bird, lift your binoculars to your eyes and there is no bird. But it hasn’t budged an inch when you lower your binoculars! Yet you see experienced birders easily getting on the same bird with one swift motion of binoculars to eyes! What are you doing wrong? The answer is your eyes are responding to the approaching object reflexively; your eyes are dropping to see the object moving toward them and you lose the bird. It’s a natural reaction and happens to all beginning birders unless they have a lot of experience using binoculars in other activities. Controlling this reflex takes concentration and practice. You can shortcut the learning curve considerably and stay on that bird by moving your binoculars to your eyes in two quick moves instead of one. Start by staring very intently at the bird as though you were staring it down. Then lift your binoculars to just below your eyes. Don’t relax the concentrated stare. You will be sighting across the top of your optics at the bird. Pause for a moment and then lift the binoculars the remaining distance to your eyes. You will be on the bird. Use this technique for a while and soon you will find yourself lifting your binoculars to your eyes with one move and your eyes will not drop. Here are several more tips for using binoculars:
- Pre-focus when you change habitats. If you walk from a field into a forest, focus on a branch 30 or 40 feet away. You likely were looking at birds at some distance in the field, perhaps a bird flying overhead, and pre focusing in the forest will increase the likelihood of getting a quick look at a bird that doesn’t hang around for very long. You will have reduced the time it will take to focus on that bird.
- Your binocular strap should be around your neck at all times! You’ll never see a serious birder carrying binoculars in his or her hand.
- The trip’s over when you get home. Don’t put away your optics prematurely.
- List the birds you see and positively identify for the first time. They are called lifers and the list a life list. Give name, date, where and whatever other details you want to record. You soon will learn that experienced birders keep many lists: yard or feeder, county, state, field trip lists, etc.
- Time of day: Best birding for passerines is early morning or late afternoon. Birders are not late risers.
- While some birds are located by scanning with binoculars, most are first located with the naked eye because your field of vision is not limited. Watch for motion or look for that lump in a tree line that looks out of place.
- Some birds are described in guides as skulkers. These are hard to find and see.
- Some birds will pose for you; others are extremely active and will give you just a fleeting look on most occasions. A good look at the hard to get species is a treat! Waterfowl can be the easiest family of birds to view.
- You won’t see every bird others on your trip see, or every bird you hear, or every bird that darts in front of you. Birds of all species are masters at disappearing. They also are great at positioning themselves so the sun is to their backs and in your eyes!
- Warblers are the sought after Spring species but can be difficult to see. They are small, very active and many remain high in the forest canopy. Birders call the discomfort that can occur from prolonged efforts trying to see these birds Warbler Neck. But their beauty is worth the effort and any discomfort.
- Voice identifies that there is a bird and where it is even though you cannot identify the call or song. Experienced birders may identify the bird by its voice but at least you will know where to look.
- You will hear experienced birders imitate bird distress calls to attract birds. This is called spishing. Generally, it works only with smaller passerines and a few of the larger passerines. It does not work with crows and raptors.
- Study your field guide. Read the introductory pages on how to bird or how to use the guide. Learn which birds most likely are found in your area.
- Join a club. There is no better way to jump-start your birding hobby than to go on field trips with experienced birders. Most clubs welcome non-members on field trips. The West Chester Bird Club has a well-deserved reputation for helping beginning birders. We are great birding mentors!
- Use the vast Internet birding resources to learn where to find birds, particularly sightings of rare birds in your area. Try Birding on the Net or eBird.
- Birders’ Words:
Birder & Birding: Most experienced birders prefer these words over bird watcher or bird watching.
Flyover: a bird or birds spotted in the air and that remain in the air
Bins: Short for binoculars
Ecotones: the transition zones between two different habitats:
Marsh – Forest
Ocean – Shore
Field – Forest
Woods – Stream (stream and river edges are called riparian habitat)
Generally, more species and more individual birds are found in ecotones than in the middle of specific habitats.
Resident bird: a species that lives and breeds in one geographic area. In other words, resident birds do not migrate for the winter or for breeding.
Neo-tropic species: birds that winter in the tropics, particularly Central and South America, and breed in the north.
Gull: there is no such thing as a seagull
Turkey and Black Vultures – there are no buzzards in North America. Buzzards are hawks in the genus Buteo that can be found in Europe and Asia.
Canada Goose: not Canadian Goose
Dihedral: V-shaped. The way Turkey Vultures hold their wings in flight
GISS: General Impression Size and Shape or a bird’s gestalt. This is an essential tool for shorebird identification and a useful tool for birding in general. When you glance at the silhouette of a bird on a wire overhead as you are driving by and know instantly that it was a Mourning Dove you are using GISS. Sometimes called JISS: Just an Impression Size and Shape
Crenelation Pattern: Crenelations are the notches in a castle’s battlement, the cutout portions at regular intervals that provided places for archers. Birders mimic this pattern when scanning a large area such as the ocean or a tree line from close range with binoculars: up, across, down, across, up, across, down, etc. It is an organized method for examining such an area.
Lifer: A bird of a particular species, identified positively, that you see for the first time. Many birders keep life lists detailing each lifer, when and where it was seen.
Twitcher: a British term used to describe a birder who travels long distances to see a reported rare bird. In North America generally such a birder is said to be chasing the rare bird.
Spishing: Imitating bird distress calls to attract passerines for better views.
Links to more information for beginning birders:
- The Beginner’s Guide to Bird Watching
- Cornell: Nine Tips for Beginning Bird Watchers
- About.com Birding