The Basics of Bird Watching: A Beginner’s Guide

 Birding Basics by Guest Blogger Fatbirder

Bird watching is a popular hobby that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and backgrounds regardless of how deep their pockets are. It’s a great way to connect with nature. When you learn about different species of birds, and observe their behaviour and habitat you will build up a knowledge of all-round nature too. In fact, almost all birders love all aspects of nature and get a kick out of seeing any animal and fungi, plants and landscapes.

Lots of websites out there set out the basics you need to get started. However, they are not always accurate in what they say. The truth is all you actually need are the senses you were born with and a love of the natural world. There are plenty of things that will enhance your enjoyment but my advice is to start with the most basic of kit, once you get frustrated you will want to move on to better gear and will more clearly understand what you need as well as what you can afford.

Here are some recommendations drawn from magazines and websites and my take on them:

  • Get the right equipment: All you need to get started is a good pair of binoculars and a field guide to help you identify different species. You may also want to invest in a spotting scope for longer distance viewing. Better still borrow some binoculars and get an inexpensive fieldguide. When you buy get the best you can afford… but prices isn’t always the guide to quality. Read lots of reviews and narrow down to a few pairs then try them out. ALL good retailers will be happy to let you. For most places there are lots of fieldguides so, again, read the reviews before deciding. Some of the best are available as apps which include sound recordings and carrying your phone is easier than a big book!
  • Choose a good location: Parks, nature reserves, and other natural areas are great places to start bird watching. Look for areas with diverse habitats, such as forests, wetlands, and meadows. Great advice but… start where you are. Look at the birds in your backyard and neighbourhood. Even cities are home to quite a range of birds. The better you know familiar, ‘everyday’ species the more you will notice when something different turns up. It always helps to assume that the birds you see are the common ones, don’t look for rarities until you know the more mundane birds.
  • Learn to identify birds: A good field guide will have pictures and descriptions of different bird species to help you identify them. You can also download birding apps or use online resources like eBird to help you identify birds by their appearance, behaviour, and vocalisations. Yes learn, but start with the common stuff in your garden and local park. Get really familiar with WHY a species is what it is; its ID features. Use your birding friends – we love to share and show off our knowledge. You will soon understand how certain birds ‘general appearance and behaviour’ makes it easy to ID a bird that flies past fast or you only catch a glimpse of. When something flashes by that isn’t familiar you’ll know to chase after it J
  • Observe behaviour: Birds have unique behaviours, such as singing, mating, nesting, and feeding. Observe their behaviour and try to understand what they are doing and why. The more you understand about a bird the easier it is to identify it. Finches come to your feeders because they are seed eaters. Seed eaters need a short strong beak. Raptors have long talons and curved beak tips to capture, kill and devour prey and so on.
  • Record your observations: Keep a journal or use an app to record your bird sightings, including the species, location, date, and any interesting behaviour you observed. Its entirely up to you… some birders are ‘listers’ and want to know how many birds they’ve seen, where and when etc. You don’t HAVE to unless that interests you. I like to know the date I saw the first swift each spring or heard the first cuckoo, but none of this is essential to enjoying the hobby.
  • Join a birding community: Joining a birding group or club is a great way to connect with other birders and learn from their experience. You can also attend birding events, workshops, and festivals to improve your skills and knowledge. Some of us are joiners, others loners, its up to you to decide. I love the tranquillity of birding alone, others enjoy convivial company. Both can help you learn whether its others knowledge passed on to you, or your own observations. Sharing can be fun, but so can taking time out with nature your only companion.

Remember, bird watching is about as much your enjoyment as it is about learning about nature. There are only two rules… Take your time and have fun exploring the fascinating world of birds and always put the welfare of birds before your own wants and ‘needs’. I hope you enjoy falling in love with nature and wonderful birds and that you will do all you can to make that possible for generations yet to come.

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