Looking to learn more about our fine feathered friends in the sky?
Bird watching continues to grow in popularity among folks of all ages.
The hobby—otherwise known as birding—is an excellent way to enjoy nature and become acquainted with all things winged.
To help you launch your birding adventure, we’ve created a step-by-step beginner’s guide to bird watching.
We’ll help you find the right tools and equipment, plot out perfect locations, and identify those wondrous creatures. Let’s get started.
What is Bird Watching?
Virtually anyone with the sense of sight and/or hearing can take part in this popular hobby.
Bird watchers observe all types of birds in their natural habitats.
Some enthusiasts simply enjoy spotting and identifying birds, while others delve deep into bird study.
Many bird watchers document their adventures and confer with other bird buffs.
Most people don’t realize that many bird “watchers” rely on sound even more than sight. Our feathered friends are often easier to identify with a keen ear than with a watchful eye.
Why Get Into Birding?
Bird watching as a hobby began in the 20th century. With the invention of binoculars came the ability to observe the creatures from afar; this fascinated people of all ages and continues to do so today.
In addition to pure fascination, people take up the hobby for a variety of reasons.
Bird enthusiast and author Jack Connor published an essay back in 1984 highlighting the pastime’s appeal, and his reasons still hold true today.
Connor shared that birding gives folks something interesting to talk about, a reason to explore the world, and the chance to meet likeminded people and make lifelong friends.
Unlike many hobbies that have the equivalent of a shelf life, bird watching is a pastime that can continue into old age.
It’s an activity that grandparents can share with their grandchildren, making it excellent intergenerational entertainment.
How to Start Bird Watching
Getting started bird watching is relatively simple.
You’ll want to pick up a nice set of binoculars, a good monocular, a well-written field guide, and a bird feeder to attract local birds.
Additionally, you can download bird watching apps on your smart phone; these apps often include bird sounds that are incredibly helpful to birding newcomers. Plus, they can replace bulky bird watching books if you prefer to pack light.
Next, get in touch with fellow birders.
Visit birdingonthe.net to connect with local bird watchers and to stay informed about local bird clubs and outings. Even if you plan to bird watch solo, seasoned bird enthusiasts can provide a wealth of knowledge and tips gleaned from first-hand experience.
Finding the Flock
Whether you want to stay local or take your bird watching adventure on the road, there are some excellent resources to find tried-and-true birding spots.
Birdwatchingdaily.com allows you to enter your location details to find bird watching “hotspots” in your area.
Planning a trip? Most-likely there are hotspots nearby. Best of all, this service is completely free.
To make things easier, we’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks to find ideal birding spots both locally and nationally.
Tips for Local Bird Watching
- Always be on the lookout: Many seasoned bird watchers will tell you that birds are everywhere. Keep an eye out, even in areas you frequent.
- Buy or build a bird feeder, bird bath and birdhouse: Birds are resourceful creatures, and they’re bound to flock to you if you have some backyard bird essentials.
- Head to the woodlands: Where there are trees, there are most-likely birds. Visit areas with tree canopies in your area.
- Keep your eye out for moving branches: Don’t shift your gaze too often. Birding takes patience and persistence.
- Get out before dawn: Timing is everything when it comes to bird watching. If you don’t see much action in the afternoon or evening, try scoping in the morning when birds tend to be active.
- Always carry binoculars: You might just spot birds at surprising times, like when you’re running errands or out on a midday walk.
- Check to see if there is a “birding trail” in your area: These spots have been handpicked by bird experts and promise plenty of bird spottings. Audubon.com offers a simple guide to birding trails. You can find it here.
- Keep up on birding news in your area: Visit the American Birding Association to find mailing lists for the latest news and announcements about bird watching.
- Visit a local national park or national wildlife refuge: The S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s website offers an interactive map to help you find a refuge near you.
- Tag Team: Once you’ve located other local bird enthusiasts, ask them for tips on spotting birds locally.
- Help other birders: Bird watchers can help other locals by visiting ebird.org and recording the birds they’ve spotted.
Branching Out (Excuse the Pun)
Taking your birding adventure on the road? Be sure to research the best bird watching places before booking a trip.
Top contenders include:
1) Southeastern Arizona
Hummingbird, Sonoran Desert, Arizona
According to the site, there are no less than 24 hotspots in the area. It’s best to visit these locations April-September for the best spottings.
2) Cape May, New Jersey
Peregrine Falcon, New Jersey
Spring and fall migration are exciting times in this U.S. region. New Jersey birders enjoy hawk and falcon watching and spotting spring songbirds. Fall migration takes place in September and October, while spring migrators take flight in May and early June.
3) N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida
Roseate Spoonbills, Darling National Wildlife Refuge
This hotspot on Sanibel Island is the perfect location to view wading birds. The picturesque area is home to approximately 300 bird species, and Wildlife Drive allows visitors to birdwatch without leaving their vehicles. Popular birds here include the Mangrove Cuckoo and Wood Stork. Visit this area December-April to spot a variety of birds.
4) Everglades National Park, Florida
Purple Gallinule, Everglades
This famous birdwatching location is home to the White-Crowned Pigeon and Smooth-Billed Anis, amongst many others. In fact, approximately 400 bird species have been spotted in the area. Located on the southern tip of the state, it’s best to visit in December-April.
5) Point Reyes Peninsula, California
Turkey Vulture, Point Reyes
Stunningly beautiful and home to more than 460 bird species, Point Reyes is best known for its vast array of nesting species and busy migration seasons. Just minutes from San Francisco, you can visit this birding hot spot all year round.
Now that you know where and when to visit, it’s time to build your birding toolbox. Pick up a field guide online. Be sure to pick up a guide specifically for your area.
Some of our favorites are:
- The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Sibley: This compact, comprehensive guide includes listings for 650 bird species with a multitude of illustrations, and has been recently revised.
- Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman: This easy-to-navigate guide includes helpful illustrations and plenty of field maps. The book is well-written, and birds are easy to find within its pages.
- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 7th Edition by Jon L. Dunn: Recently revised and ideal for both beginners and advanced birdwatchers, this guide is one of the most up-to-date resources on the market. Included are a variety of maps and illustrations.
While all of the guides listed above are compact enough to carry on your adventures, there are several smartphone apps that are so resourceful, we’d be remiss not to mention them.
Our top picks include:
- Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Labs: This app is user-friendly and quick with its identifications. Simply answer a few questions and/or snap a photo of the bird in question, and the app will do its best to identify the creature. The best part? All of the information you record while birding is compiled for research at Cornell University.
- Audubon Bird Guide: With no less than 808 species, this app is bound to help you identify virtually any bird you spot. List and log sightings, listen to birdcalls, and share your observations with others via the app. From backyard birders to serious bird enthusiasts, this easy-to-use app is ideal for any skill level.
Tools and Equipment
Once you’ve picked up a field guide and/or downloaded a birdwatching app, you’ll want to pick up a set of binoculars. There are endless options at various price points. Here’s what to look for when picking out a pair:
- Determine your birding goals: If you’re planning to delve deep into birdwatching, you might opt for high-end binoculars. If you plan to tiptoe into the hobby, however, there are plenty of budget-friendly options to get you started.
- Try them yourself: While an avid birdwatching friend may swear by his new, pricy binoculars, keep in mind that your preferences might differ. Testing the waters is best when it comes to binocular buying.
- Consider weight and portability: Ergonomic binocular options are out there. We suggest picking up a lightweight pair. Most modern versions are compact and much lighter than older styles.
- Consider magnification: When binocular shopping, opt for 7-10x magnification. Some birders prefer the lower end of the magnifying spectrum, whilst others prefer greater magnification. Just another reason it’s important to try before you buy.
Many avid birdwatchers will tell you that bird-spotting scopes are an essential item for them. Or if you want something smaller, check out my guide to the best monoculars for bird watching.
Birdwatching-bliss.com encourages folks to splurge when it comes to a scope. After all, there’s nothing worse than a blurry view when it comes to spotting birds.
Most scopes are available in straight or angled models. As with binoculars, a scope isn’t one size fits all, so be sure to test them out before purchasing.
A few things to consider are:
- View and brightness: Opt for a scope with bright, sharp views.
- Portability: Look for a scope that is lightweight and easy to carry for long periods of time.
- Waterproof: If you plan to birdwatch near water, choose a waterproof version.
- Zoom: We recommend purchasing a scope with at least 20-60x zoom.
Who says you have to leave the house to spot beautiful birds? Backyard birding is a popular hobby that virtually anyone can take part in.
Birds need three things: water, food, and shelter. Make these essentials readily available, and you’re bound to attract new feathered friends.
Keep bird baths in a sheltered area for your bird visitors’ comfort. Also consider the following when investing in bird feeders:
- Place in a sheltered area: It may take time for local birds to become acclimated to new feeders, so be patient. Place multiple feeders in various areas of the yard, but not in wide, open spaces. Opt instead for spots near the house, or in areas where birds will feel sheltered and safe.
- Offer a variety of foods… and feeders: For small spaces, we recommend offering basic bird feed options. Black-oil sunflower is popular among backyard birders and will attract a variety of birds. In fact, finches, cardinals, and sparrows are big fans.
- Consider adding a thistle tube feeder for flocking goldfinches, and a hummingbird feeder complete with nectar, along with a seed mix for various bird species. Birds who are impressed with your bird feed selection will most definitely come back.
- Make space: To ensure bird visitors get their fill, set up multiple feeders of the same type around your yard. This will give picky birds plenty of options and space.
- Stock up for cold months: Birds need extra TLC (and calories) in colder weather when food may be difficult to find. Offer plenty of food in the winter, and never stop offering feed once you’ve started.
The Cornell Lab offers a fantastic comprehensive guide to food and feeder types, along with tips on cleaning your feeders and how to discourage animals, such as squirrels, from stealing food.
The lab even provides a printable booklet on how to create a garden for local birds. You can download and print it here.
Spread Your Wings
Now that you have your birdwatching toolbox at hand, and you know exactly where to go, it’s time to take flight!
In addition to watching birds, there are plenty of fun things for birders to do.
Below are a few of our favorites:
Document your findings
Pick up a notebook or birdwatching diary. We’re particularly fond of David Sibley’s The Sibley Birder’s Life List and Field Diary. The interactive book features space to jot down where and when birds are spotted. Plus, there’s dedicated space to reminisce.
If you prefer technology over pen and paper, there are plenty of birdwatching apps that allow you to note your spottings and share your notes with others.
Those who record their findings on the Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Labs app are helping researchers who also happen to be bird enthusiasts.
Brush up on your photography skills
If you have any interest in photography, pick up a nice camera, and consider taking a course or watching tutorials with tips on how to take beautiful outdoor photos. Compile your photos in an album with the date and location each was taken. This is a great activity to share with children and other birdwatching hobbyists.
Plan a trip
Vacation planning is especially fun for bird lovers who will be visiting a place that is known for its bird population. Do your research and plot out the hot spots you’d like to visit in advance.
Find local events
The birdwatchingdaily.com website offers an up-to-date listing of birding events and activities throughout the country. Events are listed by month, and bird lovers are encouraged to update the list with local happenings. A few fun favorites include:
The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival
Utah celebrates the spring bird migration every year in May. The tradition has been going for 20 years and counting.
The North Maine Birders
The North Maine Birders host birdwatching trips ideal for bird enthusiasts. Trip-goers will visit the Reed Preserve—the largest old growth forest in New England.
Draw your feathered friends
Consider picking up a sketchbook and drawing the birds you spot. Many birders have an artistic side, so spread your wings and give it a try.
Once you have been out in the field and have a better understanding of the birds in your area, contact local schools or senior centers, and offer to teach students or members about birding in your area. You could even take new enthusiasts on a guided tour.