How to Start Birdwatching (Beginner’s Guide + Tips)

Birdwatching is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States. Canadians spend more time birdwatching than gardening.

The most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey found that 45 million Americans travel away from home to watch birds every year, and 57 million Americans feed birds at their homes.

And in the UK, birdwatching has overtaken fishing as the most popular outdoor non-sports activity.

One of the reasons birdwatching is so popular is that it is so easy to start. Birdwatching is a great activity for kids and families, and getting started in birdwatching won’t break the family budget.

In this article we’ll discuss what to do first, the social expectations birdwatchers have for each other, what to wear, how to find birds, and how to take great photos of the birds you see on your excursions. Let’s get started!

But first, let’s review a picky definition:

You will see references to “birdwatching” and “bird watching.”

The first, birdwatching, refers to the hobby or professional activity of intentionally viewing birds. If you go out with the intent to view birds, you are birdwatching.

But if you just happen to see some birds as they fly by, you are bird-watching.

Birds are Everywhere

While you could make a voyage to Antarctica to see the penguins in their prime habitat or make a trip to California to see the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, you don’t have to go very far to start birdwatching.

Chances are that there are birds right outside your window. The easiest way to start birdwatching is to welcome them into your own backyard.

Install a birdbath in a line of sight to your window. Put out a bird feeder where you can watch birds come to visit you.

When you are feeling a little more adventurous, you don’t have to go any farther than the nearest park to watch birds.

Then you can spend time birdwatching when you visit other parks on day trips and on vacation.

Birds are waiting to be watched anytime and anywhere.

They are present in every state and every province, in every kind of weather, and every day of the year.

People with special needs can find opportunities to enjoy the presence of birds in the landscape and in the soundscape and getting to know birds by touch.

Birdwatching doesn’t have to be expensive

You can go all out and spend a fortune on the accouterments of professional birdwatching, but major outlays of cash to start bird watching aren’t necessary.

All you really need are some good walking shoes, a hat, and some sunscreen, a canteen or a water bottle, and a map of where you are going.

It is a good idea to let people know where you are going and when you expect to be back if you are exploring in a remote area.

And you can consider buying a good pair of binoculars.

What do you need to consider when buying binoculars?

No matter whether you are a novice birdwatcher or you have been birdwatching all your life and you are looking for an upgrade, there are binoculars for every budget.

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Every three years the Audubon Society asks dozens of dedicated birdwatchers and ornithologists to test binoculars of every brand and in every price range to come back with their best recommendations.

Serious birdwatchers consider the clarity of the images that come through the binoculars.

They consider brightness, how colors are rendered, and eye relief. Most birdwatchers prefer 8×42 or “8 power” binoculars over the stronger 10×42 or “10 power” binoculars.

This is something so important that we’ll spend a little time explaining why.

For birdwatchers, 8 is better than 10

It seems strange that birdwatchers prefer 8x magnification over 10x magnification, but there are several reasons you’ll have a better experience with 8×42 binoculars than with 10×42 binoculars:

  • Lower-powered binoculars give you a steadier image. Everybody’s hands shake just a little. Shakes and twitches in your hands are a lot more obvious when you are looking through a higher-powered lens. You will see just as much detail at 8x as at 10x, without annoying jumpiness in your image of the bird.
  • 8×42 binoculars give you a wider field of view. When you have less magnification, you see more of the background. Lower magnification makes it easier to see where a bird is going, and maybe to catch a glimpse of its mate or its nest. When you use higher-magnification binoculars to look for birds, you have to get the bird squarely in the middle of your field of vision to see it. But when you use lower-strength magnification for birdwatching, you only have to get the bird somewhere in the field of vision of your binoculars.
  • Eye relief ensures that you don’t miss out on the edges of what you see through your binoculars. People who wear glasses see birds through two sets of lenses, the lens in their binoculars and the lens on each side of their eyeglasses. Wearing glasses means you miss out on the edges of the image that lands on your glasses. When you use lower magnification, you have more of the image coming through your binoculars also coming through your glasses or sunglasses.

Why are we getting so technical in describing binoculars for beginning birdwatchers?

A good pair of binoculars will usually be the first expensive purchase you make when you start getting serious about birdwatching.

A good experience with your binoculars gives you a lot more pleasure in your new hobby.

Getting social and Knowing the Rules of Ethical Bird Watching

After you have gone birdwatching a few times, especially if you go birdwatching in a bird sanctuary, you will notice something besides new birds. You will also notice new birdwatchers.

Birdwatching can be a great way to get to meet new people.

But there are some basic rules of ethics and etiquette that go a long way in keeping good relationships with other birdwatchers. It is important to be ethical toward the birds and polite to your fellow birdwatchers.

Give birds their space

It’s natural for birdwatchers to want to get up close to see birds.

It’s also natural for birds to become extremely stressed as humans approach, especially if they are sitting on their nests.

Birds may perform elaborate rituals to keep you away from their young.

On rare occasions, birds can injure humans that get too close to them, but it is more common for birds to be harmed as they try to defend themselves. Watch birds through your binoculars, not up close.

Don’t disturb the birds

Never take photos of birds with cameras that use flash cubes or strobe lights.

Flashing lights terrify birds.

If you use a laser pointer to help the birdwatchers locate an interesting bird, don’t shine it directly at the bird.

Aim your laser pointer at the general area of the bird, not at the bird itself.

Use recordings judiciously

Recordings of tropical bird songs are a common tool for bringing shy rainforest birds out into the open.

Recordings, whistles, and calls are used less often to lure temperate climate birds into easy view. (Duck calls and calls for turkeys and pheasants used by hunters could also be used by birdwatchers.)

Don’t keep playing a recording or using a call if birds are hiding from it.

Don’t play the same recording or use the same call in the same location twice, to keep birds from ignoring calls and recordings everywhere.

Leave your Tommy Bahama shirts at home

Floral prints and Hawaiian shirts are confusing to birds.

Flashes of red and pink remind hummingbirds of their mates. Orange confuses orioles. Blue attracts Bluebirds and Blue Jays, until they see this giant mammal (you) wearing it.

Yellow befuddles goldfinches and warblers.

Wear neutral colors or even camouflage clothing when you go birdwatching.

Never wear bright colors when you go birdwatching.

Be very careful around rare and endangered species

Rare or endangered birds may only be able to live in an unusual combination of conditions.

Raucous behavior or coming too close may make them flee to a more dangerous setting.

Enjoy your sightings of rare or endangered birds, but be extra sure to give them their space.

Don’t litter

There are birds, like crows, that are attracted to trash.

They are constantly searching for novel (and, we would think, inedible) food items.

That in itself is not a problem for birds. However, the crows that feed on trash also feed on eggs and hatchlings of other species.

Litter not only spoils the landscape for other birdwatchers, but it also endangers the birds you come to see.

Keep your voices down

Even an ordinary conversation between two people can cause birds to flee, spoiling viewing opportunities for other birdwatchers.

Communicate in whispers, if at all.

Be aware of lines of sight

Don’t block another birdwatcher’s view of a bird, especially when they are taking a photo.

Don’t linger in a small gap in the foliage when you know there are other bird watchers on the trail.

Use your spotting scope

A spotting scope is a telescope you set up in a stationary position to view a broad area in fine detail.

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Spotting scopes aren’t something you can carry with you like binoculars. But they give you the ability to catch a glimpse of a rare bird while staying hundreds of yards (up to 500 meters) away.

Give other birdwatchers a chance to see rare birds.

Watch them through your spotting scope and let them get closer to see them through binoculars.

Obey “No Trespassing” signs

In the United States, the public doesn’t automatically have access to private land.

Landowners have the right to restrict access to their property, even if it seems to be wild habitat.

When you see a “No Trespassing” sign, turn around. Stay off private property.

You may avoid being charged with a misdemeanor crime or worse consequences if the property owner becomes irate.

Be nice

It’s always a good idea to be polite to other birdwatchers.

You never know what opportunities they may be willing to share with you.

Taking photos

Birdwatchers no longer have to invest in expensive cameras to take great photos of birds.

Chances are you already have the photographic equipment you need to take you when you go birdwatching.

You can take stunning bird photos with a smartphone.

All of the iPhones since the 6s have had sensors for 12 megapixels or better resolution.

LG phones since the G5 have had both wide-angle and narrow-angle lenses.

Taking photos of birds in the wild isn’t quite as simple as taking a selfie, but you can begin your mastery of bird photography with these simple steps:

  • Timed shutter. Any unsteadiness in holding your phone will spoil your shot. Set your shutter timer for a fraction of a second delay so you will be holding your phone steady after you press the button to take your photo. Or remotely trigger the shutter on your phone through the volume down button on your headphones.
  • ISO. Smartphones automatically set ISO, your camera’s sensitivity to light. You will never need flash again.
  • FIle size. Set your phone to save photos with the most pixels in TIFF format, so they remain uncompressed. That way you will have more to work with when you edit them later.
  • Shutter speed. You’ll need a fast shutter speed (and a higher ISO) to capture a photo of a fast-moving bird. You can play with shutter speed to get special effects, like a clearly defined body with fluttering wings.

Don’t forget to compose your photos. The most important rule: Hold your phone sideways! This way you don’t get two dark bars on either side of your photo.

Don’t rely on zoom. On most smartphones, the zoom feature just crops the image so you have a still-fuzzy cameo of the object in the center of your field of view.

And don’t be afraid to Photoshop. With Adobe Photoshop, you can transform a so-so photo into a stunning image of a bird in nature, a photo you will be proud to share with your friends.

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