How to Start Birding: 4 Easy Steps

This post was written by Timothy Boucher and his wife, Ellen Paul.

It’s that time of year again – birding time! Be forewarned – during this period, you may see and hear some strange things:

  • People stare up into trees, at the tops of buildings, into the sky.
  • A car weaves along a back road, comes to a quick stop, and the occupants spill out, leaving the doors open.
  • Seemingly normal friends show up late to work, then fall asleep at their desks by noon. Occasionally, they dash out in the middle of the day for no apparent reason. When outdoors, they stop mid-sentence, then declare, “Quick, pick up the check!” (the distinctive song of the White-eyed Vireo).

Yes, birding can become an addiction. In the cold months, local birds, winter visitors and the occasional migrant straggling through your neck of the woods tide birders over until spring migration brings the next fix.

And then — for a few short weeks — life is all about a stream of 10-gram bits of feather and song that fly through the night from one stopover point to another, en route to breeding territories across the United States and Canada. Hence International Migratory Bird Day – a one-day celebration marking the richest birding season of the year.

As you can probably tell by now, we’re birding junkies. But there was once a time – a long time ago – when we were just starting out…maybe just like you. Are you curious about birding but don’t know how to get involved? Do you have a child who’s interested in birds and wants to learn more?

Here are four easy steps you can take to get started in birding (without falling asleep at your desk the next day):

1) Get some binoculars. First borrow (and then buy) a pair. If you are intent of buying your own ‘nocs, you should investigate and test out them out first – go to your local Audubon chapter, nature center or local wild birding store – they should have pairs to look through and feel (yes, how they feel in the hand is important), and be able to give other advice.

Look for binoculars that are waterproof, focus easily, and have at least 8x magnification and a 30 to 42mm front lens (which dictates the light gathering capability). So when you see “8×32” or “10×42,” those will work well.

2) Get a bird guide. And look through it before you go out for the first time. Don’t try to memorize all the birds — learn about bird families (swallows, raptors, warblers, flycatchers, herons, etc) to narrow your search down when you are out and about and birds are flying by. Birds are fast and often don’t stand still, so concentrate on these things about what you’re seeing:

  • What is its shape and size (big, long, round, etc),
  • What is it doing (hawking insects, soaring, etc), and
  • What are its defining markings and colors (yellow eyebrow, red feathers, bill length, etc)
  • What sounds it’s making, if any.

Combine these characteristics and you will quickly narrow the bird down to a few species.

Any good field guides will give you the information you need. Some of the more popular bird guides are Sibley, National Geographic and Peterson. Bonus tip: Start with smaller, regional versions of these guides that deal with where you are. You can also get one of the many iPhone apps: iBird is a good start – it will give you a chance to learn your birds with their many fun features.

3) Take a walk. Once you’re at your local Audubon chapter, nature center or bird store, there will probably be local bird walks posted (or on their websites). Go on one, go on many. Go at different times of the year to different places.

Such walks are one of the (many) joys of birding – you get to see places you would never have thought of going to before, with people who will help you see birds you wouldn’t have seen and who are incredibly generous with their knowledge.

4) Use the Internet. When you’re ready to strike out on your own, first scour the internet for great places to see lots of birds –
your local Audubon website should have a list, and there are local listservs that give up-to-date information of what’s where. Find a spot close by that is appropriate for the time of year and go!

When there, take your time – walk slowly, quietly, look and LISTEN for birds (that will usually be your first hint of something there). Later on we can talk about learning birdsongs…

Soon you will be out at dawn to greet them as they wake to refuel. Pulling on rumpled clothes and stumbling out into the darkness to be sure to catch the dawn chorus of birdsong, thrilling to see the same birds seen last year, the year before that, 10 years ago, as if it’s our first glimpse. Our hearts stop when we:

  • Hear that first “zu zu zu ZEE” of a Black-throated Blue Warbler,
  • Take in the cacaphony of hoots, grunts, and whistles that spill out of a Yellow-breasted Chat, or
  • See the glowing orange throat of the Blackburnian Warbler, of which Scott Wiedensaul, the poet-laureate of nature and birding, once said: “It’s a wonder it doesn’t set the tree afire.”

That’s it! Are you still at your computer? Why? Grab your ‘nocs and go!

International Migratory Bird Day celebrates these birds and their astonishing transcontinental journey. Created in 1993, the official date is the second Saturday in May in the United States and Canada. In Central and South America, an October date celebrates the return of the birds to their winter range. Events all over the country focus attention on the warblers, shorebirds, and raptors that visit us each spring and summer.

(Image: Blackburnian Warbler. Image credit: Dan_Irizarry/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)

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  1. In process of setting up a new birdwatching area and educational program in our developing 501-c nature area. Need all the suggestions and help we can get in making this a success. Terry

  2. Anytime of year is a great time to bird watch. Just put out some bird feeders and the birds will find you. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Birdwatching seem to be the Gambia best attractive tourist travelers who came to explore there interest in bird about the Gambia.what is the history of birdwatching in the Gambia and what are the different bidding in the early days and now.

  4. I would like to start up a bird watching project and need some advise from people who know and have sucessfully started one.Please do assist me as your ideas will make a difference.Thanks alot.Paul Kokoreso Papua New Guinea.

  5. I am starting a bird watching park, but do not know where to start can any one point me in the right direction.

  6. I am thinking about going birding this summer, so thanks for sharing this. I like your point about going to different places at different times of the year. This sounds like a good way to see a variety of birds so I’ll be sure to do this.

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