Birdwatching for Beginners: A Complete Guide

This article contains affiliate links. If you click a link then make a purchase, we may get a small get commission at no cost to you.

What is birding?

Birding is the act of going outside and looking for birds. It’s really as simple as that. There are many levels of intensity to birding. Everything from visiting a local park to see what birds are in your neighborhood to flying across the country chasing a rumor of a rare sighting. But the objective is the same. Go out into the wild, with the specific intent to look for and observe birds. People who engage in birding as a hobby often use field guides and bird calls to identify the birds they hear and see, and enjoy recording data in the form of field notes and species lists.

What is the difference between birding and birdwatching?

Mother's day gift idea for the bird lover: Birds stained glass sun-catcher! 50% OFF WITH FREE US SHIPPING - BUY NOW ON ETSY

There may not seem like much of a difference between birding and bird watching, and some people may use the terms interchangeably. However the main difference stems from the act of searching. If you are sitting on your deck enjoying the birds that happen to come to your feeder, or watching seagulls while at the beach, you are bird watching. You’re not out searching for the birds, you are just enjoying watching the birds that happen to be near you. Birding however implies a certain amount of effort in locating the birds. You’re going to a specific location and actively searching for birds. Maybe you want to see what you can find, or maybe you are looking for one species in particular. It’s an activity, and sometimes and adventure.

What are bird watchers called?

Bird watchers are simply called just that, “bird watchers”. People who are engaging in birding as we distinguished above, are called “birders”. It’s not too important to call yourself one thing or another, but those are ways people might use the terms differently. If your family and friends think you are crazy, they might call you a bird-nerd. But that’s their problem!

bird watching tips infographic


HOW TO IDENTIFY BIRDS

Learn How To Look For Field Marks

The numbers change a little bit year to year but in general, you’re starting with a list of 900+ different species of birds in North America (north of Mexico). How do you narrow that down?

The big four you will likely start with are size & shape, color, behavior (soaring in the sky, climbing a tree, swimming etc) and geographic location. Those characteristics alone will narrow your list down quite a bit. Sometimes that is all you will need! However many birds look similar, and you’ll have to investigate their details a little more closely. These differentiating details, the defining characteristics in plumage or anatomy that make each bird unique, are called “field marks”. Things like stripes, spots and beak shape.  Some key field marks are;

  • Body shape
  • Wing shape when flying
  • Bill shape
  • Tail shape and length
  • Tail patterns
  • Rump patches
  • Eye stripes or eye rings
  • Wing Bars
  • Wing Patterns
  • Breast stripes or spots
Example of common field marks (from the TTBSD committee; ttbsdc.ttfnc.org)

Sometimes the only way to tell certain birds apart are fairly minute details. Sparrows and finches can be notorious for this.

Field Guides

The most important tool to have at your disposal is a good field guide. There are many different types. Some are illustrated, while others use photographs. Some are fairly basic while others include a lot of detail. They can even be organized in different ways, some go by bird color while others might group birds in the same family or habitat together. The good news is, most are pretty inexpensive. You may find you end up with more than one that you like for different reasons. (If you’re like me, you might even start to collect them).  Field guides will provide you with not only pictures of the birds, but information about what their geographic range is, and point out each birds most important field marks to help you know what to look for when trying to make the identification.

Field guides can point out the field marks to distinguish hard to tell apart birds, such as the Downy (left) and Hairy (right) Woodpecker.

Field guides can also help you learn. If you spend a little time looking through them you’ll start to become familiar with the shape, color, and markings of different groups of birds. It will improve your identification skills before you know it!

Recommended Field Guides

Here are some of the most popularly used field guides

Tip: If you know you’re only going to be birding in one general location, you can buy a field guide for your specific region. Sibley’s and Peterson’s mentioned above both have “eastern” and “western” North America field guides, to narrow the variety of birds discussed down to just certain parts of the country.

Identification & Field Guide Apps

With the popularity of smartphones, many field guides are available as Apps. I personally think having one hard-copy book is a good investment in learning your birds, but these apps are great if you don’t have the space or the budget. They are also very handy for bird IDing “on the go”.

Top Pick: our #1 favorite birding app is Merlin, which was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It is a unique app that asks you questions in order to help create a tailored list of possible birds. In this way it takes the information of a field guide and makes it interactive. It will ask you questions such as the date, your location, the size and color of the bird you saw, and what the bird was doing, then create a list of possible birds for you to look through. You can download different “packs” for different locations. You can also use it to look up specific birds by name and see pictures, get information, see range maps and even listen to bird calls. The extra benefit of being able to hear what the birds sound like can often be a huge help in identification. Oh yeah, and it’s free!

Some other popular bird apps

It's never too late to start feeding hummingbirds. Here's a quick list of things you'll need to get you started!

  1. Hummingbird feeder poles
  2. 12oz hummingbird feeders
  3. Ant moats (optional)
  4. Make your hummingbird nectar at home
Fill your feeders with the nectar, and put them out! Hummingbirds can start showing up anywhere between late February and early May, depending on where you live.

For more information on how to get started with identifying birds, check out this short video by the Cornell Lab, and visit their YouTube page for more in the series.


BIRDWATCHING GEAR

Binoculars

Binoculars, or “bins” as the birders tend to call them, are definitely a birding essential whether you’re a backyard bird watcher or are out in the field. Most birds don’t particularly like letting people get up close and personal, so you need to keep a little distance. This is why binoculars are so key in being able to fully observe bird behavior and field marks without scaring them away.

For the purposes of looking at birds your best bet is probably going to be a magnification of six, seven or eight and an objective lens diameter between 30 and 42 millimeters. This is the sweet spot that will give you the best image brightness, less distortion, less visible shake from your hands, while still remaining comfortable to hold, not too large or heavy. 7×42 and 8×42 are popular among birders for example.

The Celestron Outland X and Nature DX are great lower priced quality binoculars for the beginning birder. For more information on affordable binoculars for birding you can check out our article on best budget binoculars.

If you want to kick it up a notch and are ready to move into the mid-price range, Audubon highly recommends the Zeiss Terra ED and the Nikon Monarch 7.

Cameras

A good camera can be a huge asset to birding and bird watching. Not only is it fun to capture birds lovely plumage and interesting behavior on camera, but it can be a great memory of when you spotted a rare bird. I personally love to try and get really nice bird photos, but sometimes I also am just trying to grab a few shots of a bird, even if they come out poorly, to help me go back later and be able to study it for identification. How big of a camera you want, and how much you want to spend, are pretty intensive topics that we won’t cover here. But if you’re thinking about a nice camera to take your birding to the next level, here are a few tips

  • Visit a local camera shop. If there is one near you, chances are the employees there are very knowledgeable.  Especially if this is your first nice camera or you want a big upgrade, talking to someone about what you intend to photograph and your price range can really get you the perfect piece of equipment for your specific needs.
  • Buy refurbished. Brand new DSLRs are expensive. However you can typically find refurbished models on Amazon for a deep discount. I bought my first DSLR as a refurb for 40% off what the new model was selling for.
  • Don’t buy the latest model. If you want the latest and greatest of course, go for it! Technology does move quickly, however unless you are looking for a very specific feature, a camera from a few years ago is still going to get you great photographs. You can save a little money by going back a few models. If you combine the previous tip of getting a refurb with an older model, you can save even more.
  • Lens Kits: Sometimes you can find really good camera deals on Amazon by searching for kits. Kits bundle the camera body with one or more lenses, camera bags, lens filters and other accessories. Worth searching for a deal, especially if this is your first camera.
  • Zoom lens with range. For taking photos of birds, especially out in the wild, I find a lens with a larger zoom range to be much more useful and versatile. For example being able to zoom from 55mm – 200 mm, or 200 mm – 500 mm will give you a lot of options depending on how close the bird is without you having to change lenses to get different types of shots.

If you want to make a long term investment, do your research and purchase a Cannon or Nikon DSLR body that has all the functions you want. Then you can grow a collection of different lenses over time.

Pictured: woman is using binoculars while the man has a spotting scope

Spotting Scopes

In an article about birding I feel I have to mention spotting scopes, however I would consider this to be potentially for more advanced birders. Spotting scopes look like small telescopes and provide a lot more magnification than binoculars. They are a much more expensive piece of equipment (it would be hard to find a worthwhile scope for less than $500) and must be used on a tripod. But, for viewing birds out on the ocean, soaring high overhead or across a great field, a scope can’t be beat. Audubon rated the Vortex Viper HD and the Celestron Regal M2 as good quality, lower priced scopes. If you want to try out a scope without committing to the price tag, try finding a used scope on Ebay.

If you can find a local birding group that does bird watching outings, there will usually be one or two people who bring spotting scopes and let everyone in the group take turns looking. This can be another way to get to use a scope and think about if having one would be beneficial for you.


BACKYARD BIRDWATCHING

If you are a beginner birder, don’t have much interest in going out in the field, or don’t have the ability to travel much, you can simply watch birds in your own backyard. Depending on where you live, you may be surprised how many different species you can identify in your yard. I had a home in a suburban neighborhood and over the course of a few years saw 30 different species come and go in the yard.

Make your yard attractive to birds

A bird friendly yard means more birds. So what can you do to attract more feathered friends?

  • Bird feeders: one bird feeder can bring in many different types of birds. Multiple feeders with different types of food (different seeds, suet, mealworms, fruit, hummingbird nectar, etc) can attract even more.
  • Bird houses: Try putting up a simple birdhouse. Certain birds like the House Wren or Tree Swallow don’t visit bird feeders, but will readily nest in a bird box.
  • Bird baths: Water is a big attractant for birds, and by offering a place to drink and bathe you can attract some species that don’t eat a bird feeders.
  • Landscaping: Design your yard with bird-friendly native plants in mind. The right plants not only produce seeds, berries and fruit for birds, but may also host certain insects that are an important part of a birds diet.

Tips for backyard birdwatching

Get some binoculars: your backyard may be small, but if you want to identify a bird at the top of a tree or at the back of your yard, you’re still gonna want some binoculars. Leave them right by a window for easy grabbing.

Spend time outside: Sounds obvious but you don’t always need to be actively walking around the yard looking for birds. By spending time outdoors doing other activities, you will be increasing your outdoor exposure and the likelihood you will notice birds. Listen to who is singing in the yard while gardening or doing yardwork. Make a cozy little spot on your deck or patio that you would like to sit with a book or your laptop – but keep your binoculars close by.

Know when to look: Backyard birds are likely to be most active in the early to mid morning and late afternoon/early evening. These are the times of day they do the most foraging for food. They are less active in the middle of the day.

Backyard birders might especially enjoy this book: National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America


BIRDING IN THE FIELD

You’ve got your field guide, your binoculars and you’re ready to find some birds. But where? Local parks, hiking trails, ponds, beaches etc are all good places to start. Search near you for state parks and nature preserves. It may take a little trial and error before you stumble upon a spot that seems to have good bird activity.

Tips:

  • The early birder gets the bird – most birds will be active and singing in the early morning hours. It is usually better to be up early than to try and look for birds mid-day when they are less active.
  • You may get a higher variety of species if the land has mixed habitat such as meadow, woods and a pond/stream.

Resources for finding birds

A great resource to find where birders near you are looking, and see what they are finding, is the eBird Hot Spots map. Type in a location or “grab and zoom” manually. Each “hotspot” is marked with a colored flag. You can see how many different species have been seen at any given spot, and view even more details such as reports for which birds were seen on a particular day. A great way to find areas of bird activity near you, and also fun to look up a spot you might be going to visit for a vacation and see what is nearby for a little birding excursion.

Example of the Hotspot map
Example of the Hotspot map

If you are looking for a specific bird, make sure to check it’s range map in your field guide to make sure it is located in your area, and what time of year it might be here. Field guides should also give you some indication of the habitat you want to look in, shoreline, meadow, deep woods, etc. Once you have narrowed things down a bit, you can use the eBird Hot Spots map to see if anyone has spotted that particular bird at any of the local hot spots.

You can also subscribe to bird alerts, which can send you a notification when something of interest is spotted near you. You can also go to the ABA page here and browse the list of news in your area and sign up for alerts.

Birding essentials

If you’re headed outside to go birding, you’re going to want to bring some essentials. Here is a list of common birding essentials for getting out in the field

We’ve talked about binoculars and cameras, but what about backpacks. A good backpack is essential for carrying your supplies. Choose a backpack to fit your needs. A simple water resistant day hiking bag will work well for most people. However if you are planning to do birding in potentially wet situations (pelagic ocean boat tours, river walks, very damp forest camping etc) you might want a fully waterproof backpack. If you are bringing a medium to large camera with you a camera backpack would be a good investment. Lowepro has a variety of great quality camera backpacks.


KEEPING RECORDS

Keeping a record of the birds you’ve seen can add an extra layer of fun to just watching them. For many birders, one of their  main goals in going out and searching for birds is to grow the list of species they have seen.

Life Lists

A “life list” is a list a birder keeps of all the bird species they have seen in the wild. It can be over the course of a year, or their whole life. Once you start doing this it may become a bit of an addiction. That’s how the “birding bug” can start. I started keeping track of my life list several years ago, and I get so excited now when I can check off a new bird. There are many ways birders keep their lists, here are a few of the most popular;

  • Create your own computer spreadsheet
  • Keep notes in your own blank notebook
  • Use a field guide that contains a checklist, such as the picture below
  • Keep track on a website or app
  • Use a birding journal
Keep a life list!

If you find keeping lists makes birding extra fun, here are ideas for other types of lists you can keep

  • House List – birds sighted around your home or at your feeder
  • Year Lists – for each year you bird watch
  • State Lists – sighting within a particular state
  • Trip Lists – sightings when traveling / visiting a new area
  • Wish Lists – create a list of birds you would especially love to see one day. See how many you can cross off!

Citizen Science

If you love creating lists of birds at your own feeder, consider participating in Project Feeder Watch. This is a citizen science initiative put on by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology every winter. All you have to do is sign up on their site for a small fee (usually around $20), then record and submit sightings of the birds that come to your feeder. Cornell uses the data from thousands of participants for scientific research including tracking bird populations and migration range. It’s a really cool and fun winter hobby you can do right in your own home.

Another event that allows you to count your backyard birds and submit data for science takes place every February across the world called The Great Backyard Bird Count.


JOIN THE COMMUNITY

Find a birding club

There are many birding groups all over the country. The Audubon Society has more than 450 local chapters, see if there is one near you.  The American Birding Association also has clubs in many locations. Often these groups organize field trips that are low cost or even free to join in. There you can talk to other local birders, get tips from seasoned birders, and maybe make some bird loving friends. There may be other bird associations in your state, I recommend doing a Google search for the name of your state or county + bird watching and see what comes up.

Birding Festivals

Did you know there are also birding festivals? Festivals often include birding field trips, workshops discussing birding technique and gear, and keynote speakers. These can be small local events to giant multi-day gatherings. Most events are held at a birding “hot spot”, a location that is valued for the birds that are found there. They typically center around migration paths and breeding grounds. Most birders would say if you are REALLY into birding, it is worth it to visit at least one festival in your life. Here are just a few well known festivals;

There are so many more. Large or small, here are some resources to find birding festivals near you.

Join a Facebook Group

There are many great Facebook groups for just about every hobby you can think of, bird watching included. Just search within Facebook for birding groups and you’ll get a ton of options to choose from. There are also many regional Facebook groups for birders, think “Tennessee Bird Watchers”, that only post pictures of birds group members have seen in that region or state.


CONCLUSION

Welcome to the wonderful world of birding, we hope it’s a life long hobby for you whether you decide to keep it in your backyard or explore new places. Let’s summarize our tips for getting started

  • Get yourself some binoculars
  • Learn what field marks to notice
  • Have a good field guide or combination of field guides (books and apps) to help you make IDs
  • Start in your own backyard, and make it an attractive spot for birds to visit
  • Use Websites like Hot Spot to find good birding locations
  • Grab some comfortable clothes and a good backpack for the field
  • Start a life list to keep track of the species you’ve seen
  • Check out the birding community through local clubs and festivals
About Melanie

Melanie has been a birding hobbyist for years and loves feeding and photographing birds of all types.