It’s one of the first eye-openers for people who are just starting to pick up birdwatching: the experience of hearing a birder call out names of birds in quick succession as a flock passes by, seemingly without looking. But like anything, it’s mainly practice—and it’s surprisingly easy to learn. You can watch (and listen to) birds pretty much anytime you’re outside. You mainly just need patience, careful observation, and a willingness to let the wonder and beauty of the natural world overtake you. Here are some tips on how to get started:
1. Binoculars. Your enjoyment of birds depends hugely on how great they look through your binoculars, so make sure you’re getting a big, bright, crisp picture through yours. In recent years excellent binoculars have become available at surprisingly low prices. So while binoculars under $100 may seem tempting, it’s truly worth it to spend $200 to $300 for vastly superior images as well as better warranties, waterproof housing, and a great feel.
2. Field Guide. Once you start seeing birds, you’ll start wondering what they are. An informal poll of my coworkers showed a clear field guide favorite: the Sibley Guide, in either its full North America version or smaller, more portable Eastern and Western editions. Other useful guides are Kaufman’s, Peterson’s, and the National Geographic guide. Don’t forget that on the Web you can get information and sounds.
3. Bird Feeders. With binoculars for viewing and a guide to help you figure out what’s what, the next step is to bring the birds into your backyard, where you can get a good look at them. Bird feeders come in all types: we recommend starting with a black-oil sunflower feeder. Add a suet feeder in winter and a hummingbird feeder in summer (or all year in parts of the continent). From there you can diversify to millet, thistle seeds, mealworms, and fruit to attract other types of species.
4. Spotting scope. By this point in our list, you’ve got pretty much all the gear you need to be a birder… until you start looking at those ducks on the far side of the pond, or shorebirds in mudflats, or that Golden Eagle perched on a tree limb a quarter-mile away. Though they’re not cheap, spotting scopes are indispensable for getting those last few clues about a species ID—or to simply revel in intricate plumage details that can be brought to life only with a 20x to 60x zoom. And scopes, like binoculars, are coming down in price while going up in quality.
6. Skills. Once you’re outside and surrounded by birds, we recommend practicing a four-step approach to identification. First you judge the bird’s size and shape; then look for its main color pattern; take note of its behavior; and factor in what habitat it’s in.
7. Records. Birders like the ones who inspired the 2011 movie The Big Year are called listers—people who love (or are obsessed with) compiling lists of the species they’ve seen. But you don’t have to be a lister to reap benefits of writing down what you see—think of notes as a kind of diary with a focus, chronicling the days of your life through the birds you’ve seen and places you’ve been. Many people keep their records online in our free eBird project, which keeps track of every place and day you go bird watching, allows you to enter notes and share sightings with friends, and explore the data all eBirders have entered.