Birding For Beginners

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Whether you're casually taking note of your surroundings, or traveling the nation in search of birds to add to your checklist, people of all ages can enjoy identifying birds by sight and sound.
Downy Woodpecker
You can find birds anywhere, like this downy woodpecker (picoides pubescens) at the World War II Memorial in Washington, DC.

NPS / Nathan King

Why Bird?

If you're curious about nature and want to learn more about what's around you, birding is a great skill and a fun hobby. When you start to take note of the birds around you, you might find yourself more perceptive of other things. You might notice sounds you previously overlooked. You might start to notice small details in your surroundings, like individual trees, insects, fruits, and flowers. You might find yourself more in tune with the passing of the seasons. Birding can be a gateway into recognizing and appreciating a wider world that was there all along.

Here are four great reasons to get into birding today:

  • 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.
  • You can bird anywhere, anytime. It's a hobby you can do in your back yard or take with you around the world.
  • It's very rewarding to see something new, to be able to name what you see, and to make discoveries. It's also only as much work as you want it to be.
  • Birding can also be a social activity (or not). Beyond being a fun family activity, birding clubs and park rangers offer programs where you can meet other people and look for birds together, pooling knowledge and providing more pairs of eyes and ears. See our list of upcoming bird programs in national parks. Even informally, birders generally "flock together" and share notes. But if you'd rather keep to yourself, there's plenty of space to do that, too.
American Oystercatcher 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). This photo was taken through a spotting scope.

Courtesy Nathan King

What You Need

Birding is a low-cost hobby that you can take with you anywhere in the world. There are only three things you need to get started:

  • bird guide

  • binoculars

  • positive attitude

Choosing the right bird guide

Bird guides are essential for learning and identifying bird species. Guides are available in all shapes, sizes and formats. So which is the right one?

The simplest kind of guide is a bird ID card. Usually a folded, waterproof sheet, it's the lightweight option. These guides only list a few of the most common species, so you're more likely to see the birds on the card. They are inexpensive and usually available in park visitor centers. These cards are a great way to introduce children to common birds they might find in the park.

For beginners, a bird book arranged by color may be the easiest way to get started. However, these types of books typically only list common species. You may find your interpretation of a bird's color differs from the book's!

Intermediate guides are usually arranged by shapes of birds, for example "duck-like birds" or "perching birds." These types of guides may show either photographs of birds or illustrations. Illustrations were used in the earliest bird guides and their use continues to the present day. Illustrations may highlight features of a bird that are difficult to capture in a photograph. Photographs are often a more precise representation of color.

The most advanced books are arranged taxonomically, meaning by families of birds. Once you have studied enough to know a warbler from a chickadee, this may be the best type of resource for you. 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.

Mobile apps are also very useful to help you ID and log the birds you find. Apps may include sound clips you can use to help confirm a bird ID, and may have a log feature to help you record your observations. Studying bird sounds can help you identify several times more birds in the field. One benefit is that you were likely to have your phone in your pocket anyway, so this is no additional weight in the field. However, a book may make browsing a bit easier.

A number of websites also help with bird information, and may offer assistance making an identification based on what you observed.

Further down on this page, we have lists of bird species by park. These lists may also be available in park visitor centers.

Which guide is right for you? As your skills progress, you may find your tastes changing. Start with the basics and work your way up.

A woman looks through binoculars while sitting in a canoe on a lake
Binoculars are essential for spotting identifying features of birds.

NPS

Binoculars and spotting scopes

Binoculars come in all shapes and sizes. Generally, smaller binoculars are lighter but have less magnification. Larger binoculars usually have more magnification but are heavier. Try out different sizes to find out what fits best.

Binoculars each have a specification, such as "10x50." This number tells you about the lenses on the binoculars:

  • The first number tells you the magnification. A "10x50" binocular will magnify an object 10 times its actual size.
  • The second number tells you the size of the objective lens, the lens furthest from your eye. A larger objective lens gathers more light, which means the image will be clearer, especially in low light. A "10x50" binocular has a 50 millimeter objective lens.

A spotting scope is like a telescope. They provide the most magnification but are the bulkiest. If you're going to be staying in one spot for a while, spotting scopes are a great option.

There are other features and factors to consider, but magnifying power is the main criteria to focus on (pun!). Your retailer can help you choose the right fit for your needs.

Attitude

The right attitude is the final supply you will need. Presence, curiosity, and patience will all help you start birding.

Be present while you are in nature. Take note of your surroundings. What's around you right now? Feel the air, hear the sounds, and the natural world will reveal itself to you in surprising ways. As John Muir said, "In any walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks."

Curiosity is a key ingredient. To become a better birder, you can explore different habitats, different seasons, and different places. You should want to be able to name the birds you find, and learn about them in your bird guide.

The last ingredient is patience, both with yourself and with the birds. The birds don't always cooperate, even for experienced birders. For you, there are a lot of birds to get to know. You will get better with practice. Just keep going!

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

Courtesy Nathan King

How to Bird

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. Many birds sing more 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 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. If you're not a morning person, it's not a deal-breaker.

Time of year. Birds go where the food is, and for some that means moving from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back every year. Though you will likely have some year-round residents, some birds in your neighborhood may only appear in the summer, others only in the winter, and still others might only be glimpsed during spring and fall migrations.

Blend in. Camouflage is not required, but it's also well known that birders don't wear white. By wearing inconspicuous colors and being quiet, you'll avoid scaring birds away. Staying still helps, too. If you're you're in a good birding spot, the birds will 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 partly why the activity is rewarding.

Take Notes. Try writing a list of the birds you see, and where and when you saw them. 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 have seen 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. You might notice other interesting things, too!

Where to Bird

This map shows national parks that have at least one webpage about birds in the park. You might also try some of the excellent birding locations in the national wildlife refuge system.
Common nighthawk perched on a branch with its eyes closed
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.

NPS / Nathan King

Bird Responsibly

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

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.

Avoid approaching or disturbing 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.

Using bird calls is typically illegal in national parks.

Bird Photo Gallery

Bird Checklists

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Bird Programs

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Last updated: July 9, 2020