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Bird Watching (Birding) – Getting Started

There are as many reasons for people to become interested in bird watching as there are different kinds of birds.  Often the “bird bug” bites as a result of observing the birds attracted to a backyard feeder.

Becoming a birder

As you interest in bird identification grows  you will need three things.

1. Binoculars
In order to identify the birds you see you will need a good pair of binoculars.  A poor pair of binoculars will make your job much more difficult while a good pair will yield more beauty and detail than ever expected.

Such elements as magnification, field of view, and close focal distance will impact the quality of your viewing experience.  Serviceable binoculars can be purchased for under $100, with more expensive units breaking the $1000 barrier.  If you can afford as much as $300 you can obtain a really fine pair of binoculars that will provide years of good service. The basics of selecting a good pair of binoculars are included in the binocular section.

American Kestrel, Red Crosbill and californai Thrasher

Note the shape of the bills of these three distinctive species.

2. Bird Field Guides (identification guide)
As you start to study the birds more carefully you will need a book of some kind to help you identify each species.  There are a multitude of books available, ranging from those aimed at the beginning birder to very advanced species profiles for the expert birder.

You may wish to start with one of the beginning guides from Stokes, Audubon, or Peterson.  Or you can purchase our Nifty Fifty Birds of New York Guide.

The Field Guides section provides an introduction to several of the more widely used guides.

3. Birding friends
You will find it easier and much more fun to spend some time in the field with more experienced birders.  Here are some possible contact points. Don’t be shy. Most birders love showing off their identification skills and will be more than happy to have you along.

Audubon chapters

Most local Audubon Societies offer field trips where beginners can rub shoulders with the more experienced birders.

Bird specialty stores

There are over 1000 stores in the United States and Canada that specialize in selling products for those that watch and feed birds.  These include the Wild Bird Centers and Wild Birds Unlimited franchise stores.  While their primary focus is feeding birds some provide bird identification classes and field trips.

State or national parks, wildlife refuges

Many parks and wildlife refuges offer local bird walks that are very good for beginning birders.  The U.S. national wildlife refuge system is also becoming more birder friendly.  The refuges offer some excellent resources for both advanced and beginning birders.

Local colleges and junior colleges

Check with local colleges and community or junior colleges. Some offer non-credit introductory courses on bird identification.

State ornithological society

Joining the New York State Ornithological Society is a great way to learn more about the birds in your area. They have annual meetings which provide a great forum for meeting others with similar interests, and for learning more about birds. 

Tour companies and bird guides

There are hundreds of tour companies and bird guides that can help you sign up for a trip to a particular area. Their experience and skills will help you see more birds and improve your own birding skills.

Birding festivals

Many parts of the country now have annual birding and nature festivals. These are great events that introduce birders to new locations, new birds and new friends. 

shorebirds American Golden Plover, Dunlin, American Oystercatcher

All three of these birds are in a group generally known as shore birds.  
Again, note the variety of bill shapes.

What you’ll be learning
As you start to watch birds you’ll begin to pick up special traits of different species. Color and size will be important clues as you get started.

As your knowledge and skills develop you’ll begin to use other clues.
    •    Some birds almost always stay high in the trees (some warblers)
    •    Some birds soar (hawks and vultures)
    •    Some prefer to frequent low shrubbery and feed primarily on the ground (robins and sparrows).
    •    Some species have a very distinctive flight (Spotted Sandpiper)
    •    Some birds are present in an area all year round, others may only be present in a particular time of year
    •    The songs and calls of birds are a very good way to identify them

Keep in mind that learning to identifying all the birds that you see can be a challenge. Even the experts cannot identify everything they see or hear. If you see a bird you cannot identify make good notes:
    •    Appearance and field marks
    •    Apparent size, use nearby object for comparison
    •    When it was seen
    •    Where it was seen
    •    Its behavior

As you gain experience you can refer back to your notes and often identify the species yourself.  Sometimes a more experienced bird watcher will be able to identify the bird based on your description.

Keeping a list

You may become so involved that you decide to keep a list of the different species that you have seen. This may be a list of the birds in your back yard or you may develop your own “life list.”  You can learn more about keeping a list of the birds you see in the “Keeping a List” section.

Good luck and good birding!

Birding Quick Hits

Blue Jays do Johnny Appleseed one better.  After the retreat of the last ice age, oak trees spread back north faster than might have been expected.  There is speculation that Blue Jays helped the process by caching acorns underground, some of which grew into new trees.