Birding for Beginners

Whether you're casually taking note of your surroundings, or traveling the nation in search of life-list birds, people of all ages can enjoy identifying birds by sight and sound.

Why Bird?

A downy woodpecker clings to a tree near the Washington Monument.
You can find birds anywhere, like this downy woodpecker (picoides pubescens) at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C.

NPS / Nathan King

Anyone can do birding anytime, anywhere. All it takes is an ID guide, some binoculars, and curiosity.

When you start to take note of the birds around you, you might find yourself more curious and perceptive. You'll notice sounds you might have previously overlooked. You might start to notice details in your surroundings, like the trees and other plants. You might start to perceive the passage of time differently as birds come and go each season. Birding can be a gateway into recognizing and appreciating a wider world that was there all along.

Birding is very low-cost. After the initial investment on a pair of binoculars and an ID guide, the only costs are what you spend on travel and entrance fees.

Beyond satisfying your own curiosity, birding can also be a social activity. Beyond being a fun family activity, birding clubs and park rangers offer opportunities to meet other people and look for birds together, pooling knowledge and providing more pairs of eyes and ears.

What You Need

An oystercatcher on the beach, viewed through a spotting scope.
Binoculars will help you identify more birds at a distance, such as this American oystercatcher (haematopus palliatus) and laughing gull (leucophaeus atricilla).

Nathan King

Bird guides are the most essential equipment you will need. Guides are available in all shapes, sizes and formats. So which is the right one? 

The simplest kind of guide is an ID card. Usually a folded, waterproof sheet, it's the lightweight option. The downside is that its content is also lightweight, listing only a few of the most common species. They're inexpensive and usually available in park visitor centers.

For beginners, a bird book arranged by color of bird may be the best place to start. However, not all species will be listed, and you may find it difficult to find the bird you saw if your interpretation of the color of the bird you saw disagrees with the book's editor.

If you're more familiar with the different shapes of birds, more intermediate guides are arranged by families of birds (and then, often by color). These types of guides may be either photographs of birds or illustrations. Which is better is a matter of preference. Illustrations often can highlight features of a bird that are difficult to capture in a photograph, though photographs are often a more realistic representation of color.

The most advanced books are arranged taxonomically. Though these may be the most detailed types of resources, they also require a bit more study before they are the most useful guides. However, for the experienced birder, there is no substitute.

For traditionalists, there's nothing better than your favorite bird guide and a pad of paper to write down your observations. Today, mobile apps are a strong alternative. Not only can a mobile app help you ID a bird based on its appearance, it may also include sound clips to help you ID by sound, and can help you log your findings by GPS location.

Which one is right for you? As your skills progress, you may find certain guides are a better fit. Certain guides might be more compatible with how you intend to use it; a backpacker might need a more lightweight guide, whereas a desk reference might be more appealing for keeping at home. Start with the basics, and work your way up.

Binoculars come in all shapes and sizes, like bird books. And like bird books, you really need to try them out to find out what the best fit is. The main tradeoff is magnifying power versus weight.

Binoculars each have a specification, such as "10x50." This number gives you useful information about the optics of the binoculars.

The first number tells you the magnification. For example, a "10x50" binocular will magnify an object 10 times its actual size.

The second number tells you the size of the lens at the far end of the binocular, called an objective lens. A "10x50" binocular has a 50 millimeter objective lens. A larger objective lens gathers more light, which can help you see better in low light conditions, and provides more clarity. The tradeoff is weight.

Larger binoculars may offer better clarity or field of view, but they can also be burdensome to carry. Smaller binoculars can be carried on your belt, saving weight and space.

There are other features and factors to consider, but magnifying power is the main criteria to focus on (no pun intended). Your retailer can help you choose the right fit for your needs.

For more stationary viewing, a spotting scope can provide more magnification, again, at the expense of significant weight. 

Curiosity and patience are the final supplies you'll need. First, a sense of curiosity will help you take note of your surroundings and urge you to keep trying. Patience will help you when a bird gets away before you can ID it.

How to Bird

A yellow warbler perches in a mesquite tree.
Because they are constantly moving among tree branches, warblers can be difficult to identify. The yellow warbler (dendroica petechia) is common throughout the U.S. in the summer; it winters in Central and South America.

Nathan King

Location, time of day, weather, and time of year can influence what types and numbers of birds you might observe.

Get to know your regulars. Some birds in your neighborhood are common, year-round residents. By learning to identify these birds by sight and sound, and by recognizing their habits (How do they move? What do they eat? What do they sound like?) you will better be able to notice when something unusual comes along.

Find a Good Spot. You might go for a drive through a wildlife area, walk on a trail, or sit in one spot and wait for the birds to come to you. One key is to find a place where two habitats meet, such as the edge of a forest and a meadow, or where muddy shorelines meet the water. Finding a spot where birds can find food and water can increase your chances of finding interesting species.

Time of Day. If the early bird gets the worm, then the early birder needs to be up even earlier. Although birds can be found 24 hours a day, many birds sing at dawn and dusk because the cooler air and lower wind helps their song carry farther. These songs are not only nice to hear, they also announce the presence of a bird you may not yet be able to see. While many familiar birds are active during the day, owls and many others become active in the evening and into the night.

Time of Year. With the advantage of flight, birds can go to where the food is. Though you will likely have some year-round residents, some birds in your neighborhood may only appear in the summer, others birds only in the winter, and still others might only be glimpsed during spring and fall migrations.

Blend In. Camouflage is not required, but by wearing inconspicuous colors, you'll do less to scare birds away before you get the chance to watch them. Moving quietly, or staying still can help you avoid scaring birds away. As long as you're in a good birding spot, the birds should come to you!

Be Patient. While some birds sing and announce their presence continually, some birds are quieter and blend in to their environments more than others. They might only become obvious when you stay still for a while, staying alert for motion. Patience also goes for yourself too. Don't be too frustrated when you can't ID a bird; the challenge is part of the reason the activity is rewarding.

Take Notes. Try writing down a list of the birds you see on a particular date. If you keep a logbook, over time, you'll be able to anticipate the movements of birds during migrations. Some birders like to keep a life list, recording every species they've ever IDed in the wild.

Practice! You don't have to actively be looking for birds to practice. Take note of the birds you see and hear on your walk to work or school, while you're looking out your kitchen window, or while you're doing other activities outdoors. Being observant and aware of your surroundings can heighten your senses and help you find other surprises in nature, too. You may discover interesting flowers or other animals at the same time.

Bird Responsibly

A common nighthawk sleeps on a branch.
While enjoying birds like this common nighthawk (chordeiles minor), take care to avoid disturbing their natural behaviors. Avoid nesting sites, and don't feed birds inside of national parks.

Nathan King

Take care of yourself. Bring water and snacks. Protect yourself from the sun by wearing a wide-brimmed hat, and sunscreen on any exposed skin. Wear long, loose fitting sleeves and pants to protect from the sun and biting insects.

Be aware of your surroundings. Don't walk with binoculars over your eyes - you could trip!

Take care of your environment. While feeding birds in your back yard is a fun way to see wild birds, remember that feeding any wildlife in national parks is against the law.

Do not disturb nesting birds, their eggs, or their nests. If you find juvenile birds out of the nest, leave them alone. Nature knows best, and their parents are nearby.