If you’ve been considering joining to the birding community there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge—or at least dip your toes in. But wait. Where should you go? How do you even find a bird? Which bins should you choose? If you’re a novice, this handy primer will give you the tools you need to venture into the field with confidence. (First tip: Always casually refer to binoculars as «bins.»)
- HIT THE FIELD.
Finding birds is much easier said than done. Scoping them out requires a bit of skill, and once you’ve got your eyes on the prize, you’ll want to figure out what exactly it is that you’re gawking at. Here’s how you do it.
A. How To Find A Bird
These four basic steps will make spotting birds in busy habitats way easier.
Some people seem to have a sixth sense for locating birds, but don’t be fooled—there are no wizards in birding. All it takes is practice. Finding birds is mostly a matter of being aware and knowing where to look. Next time you go birding, try these four steps to hone your powers of observation.
Step 1: Stop
If you’re in a car, park and get out. If you’re with a group of people, finish chatting and stand still. Tuck away your phone, field guide, and anything else in your hands (except binoculars). Spotting birds requires attention, so take a moment to clear your mind, heighten your senses, and soak in your surroundings.
Step 2: Look
The trick is to scan with efficiency and purpose. Don’t just gaze around; try to think like a bird. Scrutinize exposed perches—snags, power lines, fence posts, tree tops—and investigate any interesting shapes or silhouettes. This is the best way to spot foragers sitting in wait, like bluebirds and kestrels, and singers out in the clear, like meadowlarks and towhees. Keep an eye on the sky for flyover hawks and eagles.
In fields, mudflats, lakes, beaches, and other open areas, scan slowly and intently across the full panorama. As you sift through the scene and the birds, try to identify the different groups. For example, you might find a sandpiper blending into a muddy spot, or a distant loon on the water. It’s a good idea to work up the optical scale: Look with unaided eyes before using binoculars, and try your binoculars before going for a spotting scope. Be alert for movement and for anything that seems out of place. If you see a bird and think you know what it is, don’t immediately pass it off—study it closer to be sure it isn’t something unusual.
Step 3: Listen
Your ears can help as much as your eyes, especially while birding in dense forests. Good birders spend up to 90 percent of their time just listening. The tap-tap-tapping of a woodpecker is unmistakable, and vocalizations—like the croaking of a raven—are as distinctive as visual field marks. It’s hard to sift through the noise at first; the best way to learn is to spend more time in the field and chase down anything you don’t recognize. As you visually scan a landscape, always keep an ear cocked, too, and listen to the birds around you.
Step 4: Repeat
After you’ve thoroughly studied a scene, it’s time to move on. In general, you’ll see more birds by covering more territory, rather than letting the birds come to you. Walk at a meandering pace, and keep scanning the sky and listening to bird sounds while wandering along. When you see a bird, or when you arrive at a promising vantage point, stop, look, listen—again and again.
B. How to Identify Birds
Before you judge a bird by its color, use these clues to guide you.
Birds come in all sorts of eye-catching hues, which makes them easier to spot in busy backdrops. But color isn’t always the best place to start when trying to identify a species. Bluebirds aren’t always blue, goldfinches aren’t always gold—if we just focus on color, we may have to learn the same species over and over. Here are some other hints birders can rely on to get to the bottom of the mystery.
With over 800 species of birds in North America alone, it’s helpful to narrow the choices down from the get-go. Scientists use dozens of different families to group avians: It pays to learn which traits define each family. Noting that a bird is gray isn’t as useful as recognizing that it’s a gray owl, or a gray gull, or a gray sparrow-like bird. Hone it down to the family level, or to a group of families, and you’ll be halfway home on the final ID. You’ll even learn the subgroups in each family as you go along.
This is really an extension of the first clue: A bird’s shape lets you place it in the right group. Even among closely related birds, practically no two species share the same exact shape. Sandpipers, for example, all differ in leg height, bill shape, neck length, and other elements of shape. On some similar pairs of ducks, such as Greater and Lesser Scaup, or Common and Barrow’s Goldeneyes, the silhouette of the head and bill is really one of the best ID clues. Even when you’ve identified a bird by some other means, it’s a good idea to spend an extra minute studying its shape so you can recognize it in the future.
This gets only half a point, because it’s such a tricky thing to judge on a lone individual. If you can view a mystery bird in direct comparison to one that you recognize, it’s good to note whether the bird is a little smaller than a robin, larger than a coot, and so on.
Sometime we become so captivated by a bird’s good looks that we fail to notice what it’s actually doing. Is the bird hopping on the ground, climbing a tree trunk, wading in water, or flitting in the treetops? If it’s climbing a tree, is it hopping up like a woodpecker, creeping along the bark like a Brown Creeper, or scuttling upside down like a nuthatch? Is the bird all alone, or part of a flock? These behaviors can all point to its identity.
Creatures on wings are highly mobile, and can wander outside of their typical habitats, especially during migration. But most of the time, habitat is an excellent clue. You might see a Horned Lark on the ground in a plowed field and a Red-eyed Vireo in a forest treetop, but you’re very unlikely to see them trade places.
Birds are surprisingly predictable when it comes to timing—for many it’s a matter of life or death. Local books or checklists can tell you about the seasonal occurrence of species in your area. For example, in much of the northern United States, the easiest way to tell two rusty-capped sparrows apart is to glance at the calendar: Chipping Sparrow if it’s summer, American Tree Sparrow if it’s winter.
It’s also good to get into the habit of looking for certain kinds of markings. Does the bird have a white ring around the eye, or a pale stripe above it? Is the body marked with round spots, lengthwise stripes, or crosswise bars? Does the target have white outer tail feathers? These “trademarks of nature” often will pin down the species for you.
Most birders start with a visual ID, and don’t really tackle “birding by ear” until later. But if your mystery bird is making some distinct sound, it’s worthwhile to try to make a note of it.
. . . And then, finally, it’s good to muse on the bird’s colors! With practice, you’ll be able to recognize most birds by the kinds of clues listed above. Then you can relax and just enjoy the striking hues for their own sake.
2. KNOW WHERE TO GO.
You don’t have to stray far from home to go birding: Any green space or open water source will do. Use virtual maps to pinpoint good spots and plan your itinerary right from home.
Basically, they’re everywhere.
One of the biggest epiphanies of becoming a birder is that you realize that birds are everywhere—from the South Pole to the Amazon to the Bronx. Wherever you live, birds live there, too. The first step is to simply pay attention.
The perfect place to start looking is in your backyard—even if it’s a tiny one. Many species are attracted to native flower beds and gardens; putting up a feeder will help bring the party right to you. Once you’ve gotten to know your yard birds, it’s time to start searching the rest of your neighborhood. Do you have a city park nearby, or a small pond, or an open field? Any green space or body of water will do. As you explore, keep looking up. Lots of birds like to sit on exposed perches, and power lines are a perennial favorite.
At some point, you’ll be ready to venture farther afield to meet some new, different birds. But how do you know where to go? Here are five easy ways to discover your local hotspots.
Find out which national wildlife refuges are close by and go exploring. There are about 560 national refuges in the United States, covering more than 150 million acres, most of which is prime bird habitat. Use the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service locator map to find your nearest refuge.
Check out nearby national or state parks. Some are less ideal for birding, because they were set up for appreciating features (geologic formations, historic buildings, the Statue of Liberty) rather than wildlife. But you’ll find interesting birds in most parks and open spaces. The National Park Service has an excellent map to help plan your adventure, and you can pinpoint state parks on the America’s State Parks website.
In recent years, states have created dedicated birding trails to promote their finest birdwatching destinations. These can be a big help in discovering new places. The routes generally link together sites across a logical path. For instance, the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, the first and longest such trail in the country, includes 310 points of interest along more than 2,100 miles of the Texas Gulf Coast. To get started, visit the American Birding Association’s state-by-state listing of trails.
Important Bird Areas
You can discover great birding spots, and help protect them, through the Important Bird Areas program, a massive conservation initiative by BirdLife International and Audubon. Each IBA is of particular importance for one or more species of birds, and they are all categorized by state, continental, and global priority, reflecting the world’s most significant bird habitats. Some organizations lead bird walks in IBAs; contact your local Audubon chapter for details and schedules. See a map and get involved with this program at Audubon’s IBA homepage.
For sheer information on where to find birds, nothing beats eBird. Since its launch in 2002 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, it’s quickly become one of the world’s largest citizen science projects, and is now used by hundreds of thousands of birders who enter their sightings into a single database. You don’t need an account to access eBird’s wonders. Just go to eBird.org, click on “Explore Data,” and choose how you’d like to view the information. The “Explore a Region” option will show you which bird species have been seen in any country, state, or county; “Explore Hotspots” displays an interactive map of specific locations. Better yet, sign in and add your own sightings. It’s free and slightly addicting.
3. DO YOUR HOMEWORK.
Prepping for your first big birding outing means more than studying your field guide (though you should do that, too). Birding can be an adventure, but it should never be reckless. Study the American Birding Association’s set of guidelines to help you minimize your impact on birds and other wildlife when you’re in the field, and be sure you know how to keep yourself safe, as well. Finally, developing a quick pre-birding routine can save you a lot of pain in the long run: Check the elements, consider the season, and look up your local species occurrences prior to any outing.
In the pursuit of birds, it helps to know before you go. Planning your trip—no matter how short it is—at home makes things more fun and productive in the field, especially when you’re just starting out as a birder. Besides figuring out where to go, it’s important to check yourself . . . and the weather . . . and the time of year . . . to really capitalize on the adventure.
Here are five things to consider before bursting out the door.
You don’t have to memorize the entire field guide, but it’s a good idea to know ahead of time what bird species to expect. Otherwise, whenever you see something new, you’ll be flipping pages instead of looking through your binoculars. At the very least, take the time to figure out how to use your field guide. Most guides list waterbirds near the beginning and small songbirds in the second half, and many have quick menus inside the front or back cover for easy reference.
Play the Calendar
One of the great joys of birding is watching the seasons change, and admiring the ebb and flow of long-distance migrants. Birds come and go on predictable schedules, and it’s useful to know when and where certain species arrive so that you’re primed to find them. Look for sparrows and raptors in January and February, waterfowl in March, songbirds in April and May, nesting and high-altitude species in June and July, shorebirds in August, southbound migrants in September, seabirds in October, more waterfowl in November, and northern wintering birds in December.
Check the Forecast
A little rain is all part of the great outdoor experience. You can go birding in any conditions, but it’s important to be prepared. Bring enough layers to stay comfortable in the field no matter what happens, so you can keep focused on the birds out there.
Dress for Success
Don’t worry, you need not dress in full-body camouflage to go birding. But you shouldn’t stick out like a neon sign, either. Comfort and practicality are key. What you wear is up to you—birders are not generally known for their fashion sense—but you can’t go wrong with khaki, a floppy hat, a pocketed vest, and comfortable shoes. Leave the noisy clothing at home (Gore-Tex jackets, for instance, can get in the way of hearing all those peeps, trills, and chirps). In general, choose drab, environmental colors to blend in. In hunting season, you might accessorize with a bright red or orange hat—and maybe attract a hummingbird looking for a flower along the way.
Unplug and Go
Nothing can prepare you for your first full-on binocular view of a decked-out Multicoloured tanager or Rufous-capped warbler. So turn off your phone, switch off your computer, stop reading this article, pack a snack, grab your field guide and binoculars, and head out the door. Birds are everywhere in the analog world, just waiting to be seen and heard by your eyes and ears. Save the tweets, status updates, and Instagrams for when you get home.
4. GEAR UP.
Every hobby has its essential gear, and birding is no exception. All you need to get started on backyard birding is a field guide, a weather-proof notebook, and an easy-to-use birding app. If you want to take it to the next level, binoculars are a very useful tool.
5. JOIN THE CLUB.
Ready to see who else is out there? Meetups, chapters, online communities—there are plenty of ways to tune in and meet other birders. Read on for ideas on how you can make those connections.
How to Meet Other Birders?
Birders are a fun, diverse, caring, inclusive, passionate, adventurous, and occasionally wacky group of people. And lucky for you, they’re way easier to ID than the birds they seek. Just look for the badge; whenever you see other people with binoculars, ask if they’ve found anything interesting, and then introduce yourself. Pretty soon, by doing what you enjoy, you’ll get to know the most active birders in your area—and you’ll build a whole new social circle.
If banter with strangers isn’t your thing, don’t fret—here are five other ways for you to find your people.
Go on a bird walk.
Many groups, including most Audubon centers and chapters, offer regular excursions to birding hotspots, led by local experts. Most field trips are geared for beginners and unintimidating, so feel free to ask lots of questions.
Join the club.
Across the country, Audubon includes more than 450 local chapters with hundreds of thousands of active members. These clubs offer meetings, trips, and other ways to get involved. The American Birding Association, a non-profit organization dedicated to recreational birding, also presents numerous opportunities to connect with other birders locally and nationally. Most states have regional ornithological groups, many of which organize regular events, and some cities have their own birding clubs. “Birds and beer” meetups have become popular in many places, like Tucson and Olympia.
Volunteer for the birds.
The Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, the eBird Global Big Day, Celebrate Urban Birds, and the Breeding Bird Survey are all great ways to meet other birders and make a difference. Citizen science projects like these help document bird populations, and every observation counts! Talk to people in your local birding clubs or skim the Internet for hands-on opportunities, which might include helping at banding stations or raptor counts, monitoring birdhouses, working with youth groups, or aiding with rehabilitation efforts.
Try catfishing (not really).
It’s easier than ever to find your flock in the digital world. Most states have at least one email listserv for reporting sightings and discussing local bird activity, and you can find a full listing of these groups on the American Birding Association’s Birding News digest. Many groups also maintain active Facebook pages. If you’re traveling and want to do a little birding abroad, check out BirdingPal, an international community of local hosts who love to forge new friendships—or sign up and show off your own area to visitors.
Swing by a festival.
Birding festivals have exploded in popularity in the past decade: Hundreds are held each year in North America (and beyond). These range from small, one-day meetups to week-long conventions hosting thousands of birders. Most festivals include field trips, speakers, vendors, and workshops, with after-hours events such as dinners, game shows, activities for kids, concerts, and other entertainment.
Original Article: https://www.audubon.org/birding/how-to-start-birding