Newbies and Wannabees

The trouble with most of the info ‘out there’ is that it is aimed at those with a mere passing interest in birds, or, worse still for newbies, the very experienced birder.

Those of you who are developing an interest, love birds and wild places but have never actually been birding, often ask me where and how to begin.

The temptation will be to hang on the coattails of your birding mate or local bird watching group… but hold hard there… first you need to have an inkling of what sort of birder you are, or want to become.

So, what do you need to ask yourself?

What is your motivation? Have you been caught up in a friends excitement at seeing rarities? Do you just love the birds that come into your backyard and sip from the birdbath or visit the feeders? Is there something magical about flight? Do you long to capture their beauty with a brush or camera? Perhaps you just want to see more and know more. There is no right or wrong answer, but knowing your personal responses will make a difference to how you set off on the birding journey.

However you intend to start, whatever your aim or motivation… one thing holds true in all cases – start small, local and cheaply.

Why? Well you don’t want to join the crowd of people taking up hobbies, spending thousands on kit that, a few months later, sits unused at the back of a cupboard or is sold back to suppliers at a great loss!

There are two essentials for new birders, optics and a way of identifying birds. Start with cheap, but good optics. Some really good makers cater for the low end of the market with very good quality optics that may not be as durable or fancy looking as the top-end stuff, but will get you started. My recommendation would be Opticron. Their lenses are excellent. The entry level may be a bit clunky, not as robust or as lifelong guaranteed, but will cost little enough for you to have no regrets if birding turns out to not be for you. If you do retain your interest and move up to more durable and prettier kit, those inexpensive optics can sit in the glove compartment or on the kitchen window so you are never without some when some rare beauty turns up when you are pursuing other life aims.

Don’t buy a fancy camera. If you have a decent mobile phone it’s going to have a pretty good camera. It won’t get you those crippling shots the long-lenses enable, but its not going to be an expensive mistake either. Moreover, you can join the local camera club or teach yourself the basics on line with your phone, only upgrading when your growing skills get you frustrated with the kit. To be honest, it’s the same with the binoculars… you will know when you’ve outgrown the entry levels and want something with the stabilisers taken off!

By ‘starting small’, I mean don’t throw yourself into the pastime like there is no tomorrow… once a week birding sessions will get you out in nature, exercising and enjoying without it being an obsession. Wait until that too frustrates you when you hear of a ‘good bird’ locally when work or domestic commitments prevent you taking a look.

Why stay local? Because you need to know the common birds of your area well enough to know them from a fleeting glimpse. You will end up relying on other people’s identification if you start with uncommon birds. The more you recognise the everyday birds the better equipped you are to spot something less ordinary.

Start with your own garden. Of course, like most people, you will recognise a dozen species because they are common in your area… but can you tell male from female? Do you know an immature common bird or that same bird in winter AND summer plumage. Time spent seeing the subtle changes will really stand you in very good stead when going further afield.

The next step is your local park or nearby farmland. Most of those birds will be seen on your own property, but a handful are common there and unfamiliar at home. By now your ID skills will be honed and you won’t need prompting to spot cocks and hens, ducks in ‘eclipse’ or in moult.

You will soon be ready to try out common local habitat types. Many of the birds you see near water will be different to those in your local wood or scrubland.

If you have never really got into nature you might now need to think about appropriate wear… for birding there are two considerations, colour and noise. Why do birders wear greens, browns and khaki? Because, that way, you blend into nature… steady movement is hard to see then, but the slightest twitch when you are in bright red will startle even the dullest bird. When trying on that coat see if it rustles or otherwise makes noise when you move. It’s all about ‘fieldcraft’, a skill sadly lacking in lots of people not experienced in being in nature. Trawl the net and see what that is all about.

Lastly, you need to know what you are looking at. There are hundreds of great books and apps. Get the one that is most local to you first. But there are some classics depending where you are in the world such as Collins Field Guide for Europe, David Sibley for North America, Slater for Australasia and so on. Take a look at the page for your state or country and see the fieldguides listed. Most of these are also available as apps with the added advantage of having recordings of the birds’ calls.

Now you will be ready to star off and see if you are going to be a life-long birder!

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