A Newcomer’s Guide to Bird Watching

What is Bird WatchingNature is a beautiful and wonderful thing to behold. It’s fun to take a moment each day to appreciate the peacefulness of trees blowing in the wind, or the sunlight glistening off the ocean. Landscapes may change, but no matter where you are in the world, you are likely to have the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful sights and soothing sounds of birds.

Many people consider themselves to be bird enthusiasts, a.k.a. birders. Ornithology, otherwise known as the study of birds, is a natural fit for those of us who enjoy the outdoors. Whether you’re hiking or paddling, chances are you’ll meet fellow birders. Bird watching can be done with the naked eye or with binoculars to sight smaller birds or birds in the distance. In addition to bird “watching”, there is an auditory aspect to birding. Ornithologists study the sounds of birds by using recording devices to capture their calls specific to their species. Some birds are easier to detect with the ear than with the eye.

History of Bird Watching

Bird watching has been a recreational outdoor activity for hundreds of years and even is mentioned by Shakespeare in a line from The Merry Wives of Windsor from 1602. Today’s avid bird watchers observe their local species but also make trips to other locales to observe birds native to different areas. Bird watching is most popular during the spring and fall seasons due to bird’s migratory habits. Professional bird watchers rely on many amateur bird watchers to monitor the behavior patterns and migration counts of birds to help track their studies.

Bird watching has even turned into a competitive sport in some areas of North America. One event gives teams 24 hours to identify as many bird species as possible.

Tips for First-Time Bird Watchers

Binocular TripodFor the first time bird watcher, if you are not going in a group, it helps to bring along a reference guide, so you will be able to tell what kinds of birds to look out for or listen for in certain areas. Along with a reference guide, you should pack a camera so you can match the bird in your photos to that in your reference guide. A video camera is also a common item to bring while bird watching. Birds are usually small or not close to the observer, which will require binoculars to view them. Birders tend to prefer binoculars with a large 10x magnification. These can get heavy and hard to hold steady without experiencing arm wobble. You can get a binocular tripod which is great for viewing at longer distances for a long period of time.

Before you invest in a new pair, first see if birding is a hobby that you want to pursue. In the meantime, your lower magnification 7x or 8x compact pair of binoculars will work just fine. If you want to attract certain kinds of birds, you can bring portable media players to play bird calls that will get their attention.

Among birders, the use of recorded bird vocalizations to attract birds is a hot topic of controversy. Mobile devices, such as MP3 players, smart phones and recorders can be used to draw in elusive birds that otherwise would be difficult to observe. In some situations, this can be detrimental to the bird, for example, causing it undue stress defending its territory against an invisible intruder. On the other hand (or wing), recorded bird calls can help locate birds. Some, such as owls, are best located at night by playing their calls. In each situation, the bird’s welfare should be the primary consideration.

Bird watching may become a passion from the moment you give it a try. So, don’t forget to bring along a small notebook, so you can start your very own life list. Along with the species you’ve identified, record the date, time of day and location. Other birders will be interested to know where and when you spotted something, especially if it’s not a common sighting.

Bird watching will also involve a great deal of walking. With this in mind, it is important to have decent shoes to wear, possibly even hiking boots for rocky terrain. A lot of the birds can be followed on certain trails, but others cannot, which will lead you into areas where it might be unsafe to walk. It is important to be careful at all times while walking in in the wilderness.

Already an avid birder? Or, are you trying to pick up the hobby? Leave your comments and questions below!


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  • Birdy

    Awesome cassowary, but lots of better videos to link to for newby birders! (The bird seemed to be attracted to the combo of that guy’s clothes. Beware, those birds can really hurt you!) Cornell lab of ornithology has a new “game” for identifying birds by sound! And, always, Audubon, the national organization for birders