In recent weeks I have come across a few articles about birdwatching and how it has become somewhat of a go-to activity during periods of lockdown or quarantine during the covid pandemic. You might be familiar with the process; working from home, more time to see what is happening in your yard, you see a bird you’ve not seen before, so what the heck is it???
And so you enter the world of birdwatching, or birding, as it is known amongst the old hands and die-hards.
So, exactly how do you do it?? How do you become a birder?
A couple of times a year, I lead a birdwatching for beginners outing on behalf of my local birding organisation in Canberra. I’ve been doing that for 15 years, and each outing is booked out, nay often overbooked (I just can’t say no!) to the point where I need an assistant to help me with the group. A recent participant suggested I document all of the details that I attempt to get across to the beginners as we go about finding and identifying birds.
That sounded like a pretty good idea to me! So here we go …
You are going to need a couple of things to kick off your birding experience, namely a pair of binoculars and a field guide. I will go into further details on what you might need later. But firstly, get hold of some binoculars; it might be useful to borrow some, before you invest in your own.
How to do it
Believe it or not, there is a right way and a wrong way to do this birding thing. I have heard of people giving it a go, finding it difficult or frustrating, and giving up! “I just can’t seem to find the bird with the binoculars, it’s hopeless” was a quote passed on to me.
Indeed, finding a little bird sitting in a shrub through a set of binoculars takes a bit of practice. That might seem basic or downright easy for some people, but I’m trying to break it down to the fundamentals.
Follow these steps:
- Locate the bird with your eyes
- Maintain that line of sight
- Raise the binoculars into that line of sight
The key here is do not move your head!
All too often, I see people adjusting their heads to meet their binoculars as they are raised, thus breaking that line of sight. You can pick which person has done that as they start scanning up and down, in circles or zigzagging, in search of the bird!! On one particular outing, a participant was struggling with this very thing. I stood beside them, watching their movements, and every time they raised their binoculars, they moved their head at the last second. It took four or five attempts, and me saying “no, you moved your head!” before they got it right. And my, what a revelation it was for them!
If you maintain the line of sight, you will find the bird every time! And yes, it takes a bit of practice. Have a go at using your binoculars to look at a small object (a beer can? a baseball? anything will do … ) down at the far end of your backyard.
What am I looking at?
OK, so we’ve mastered finding a bird with binoculars. Now we need to determine exactly what bird species we are looking at.
Narrowing down the possibilities will be greatly helped if you can get a quick assessment of the following:
Size and shape
Was it small, medium, large? Was it round, slender, upright?
Was it black-and-white? Were there patches of vivid colour?
Were there streaks, spots or barring? Where on the body?
Which bit(s) immediately stood out? Was its bill, curved, long and pointy, or short and stubby? Did it have staring yellow eyes?
Where was it? In a woodland? On the edge of a water body?
What was it doing? Did it make a noise?
Good, you’ve memorised (or even jotted down) a description of the bird to be identified. What’s next? Well, it’s time to delve into the field guide!
Now, this is where many people get nervous, or perhaps even overwhelmed. There are a lot of birds in that guide, how are you supposed to narrow it down to just one??
Birds are presented in a field guide in taxonomic order. Taxonomy is the study of classifying groups of biological organisms based on shared characteristics, reflecting evolutionary relationships. Learning where particular birds fit in the taxonomic order will help immeasurably in your use of a field guide. Skip through your guide often, study small sections at a time, and you will quickly get used to the taxonomic order.
There are two main groups of birds, the passerines and the non-passerines. Passerines are in a single Order, comprising roughly 60 percent of the 10,000 or so species world-wide, grouped in 140 families. They are known as the perching birds or song birds. The non-passerines (the poor things that are left to screech, honk, hoot or whistle!) is a collection of more than twenty Orders of birds and makes up the remaining 40 percent of the world’s birds.
Once you have studied your guide a little, you should be able to determine the group of birds that you are looking for in your quest for identification. For example, if you have a small, brown bird that perches in a tree, you can essentially eliminate all of the non-passerines and probably half of the passerines. Alternatively, if you have a tall, white bird with a long neck that wades in a swamp, you can essentially eliminate the passerines and should be able to quickly narrow your search down to at least Order, if not Family.
Local information will help
To narrow down your search even further, make sure you are considering only those species that are likely to be encountered in your area. Consulting the distribution maps is a key part of field guide use. Further, obtaining a species list from your local birding organisation can help immensely. We have around 250 species in the Canberra region, therefore, if I am using a guide covering all of Australia to identify something I’ve seen locally, I can essentially knock 600 species out of the running for that identification task.
Smartphone apps can help even further with presenting a list of species likely to be encountered. Simply drop a pin on the map indicating your location and a list is spat out for you. Some apps even permit you to select a month, which then takes into account species that migrate and may not be present at certain times of the year.
What are the best conditions for watching birds?
There are many factors that can influence what you see, and how well you see it. Pay attention to some of these details to enhance your birding experience.
Get the light right
The better the light on a bird, the better your chances of determining colours and patterns. A dull, overcast day with heavy cloud as a backdrop makes for difficult assessment of these factors. Equally, having the sun behind the target bird generally only provides a silhouette. Try to keep the sun behind you. But, even with poor lighting, you may still be able to get an estimate of size and shape.
Pick your time
Birds are generally quite active in the first part of the day, as they go about finding food. On those blazing summer days though, activity might be reduced to the first few hours and the last hour of the day. Howling wind and pouring rain limit bird activity, but also tend to limit birder activity too!
Do your best to be inconspicuous and the birds will be all around you. Avoid bright clothing, opting instead for muted tones that are similar to the environment you’re in. That bright orange fleece jacket you have might keep you warm, but it is likely to scare away the birds!
On a birding outing, walk slowly to give yourself the best chance to encounter birds. This is not an exercise in getting your daily steps up! Take your time, stop, listen. Oh, and occasionally look behind you; in my experience, some birds can cross the path behind you once you’ve passed! Most importantly, keep the noise down. A quiet approach is less likely to disturb the birds. The ideal number for a birding outing (as it is for any committee!) is one! Small groups work well if the chatter is kept to a minimum. Keep the gossip for the cafe afterwards. Almost like a commando unit, hand signals can be used effectively, rather than have someone shout “there it is, at the top of the tree!!” in an excited screech!
Becoming familiar with bird calls will add an extra dimension to your birding experience. Many birds are easily detectable, and identifiable, by the calls they make. However, learning calls is like learning a language, you need to practice. Think about the common birds you might have grown up with, you may know their calls because you have heard them every day for many years. Constant or repeated exposure to the calls ends up becoming a reaffirmation process. Going birding with someone that knows the calls is a great way to learn. Many of the field guide apps include calls for identification purposes.
On one outing I had a participant that opened up a field guide to a page of little brown birds that, superficially, all looked quite similar. “How do I tell them apart in the field?” he asked. My reply was relatively straight forward: “They all make different calls!”
There are many different types of binoculars and choosing a pair may be a little daunting.
Binoculars are identified by their magnification and the diameter of the objective (front) lens. For example, a 10×42 pair is ten times magnification, with a lens diameter of 42 millimetres. A higher magnification gets you closer to your target, with most birders opting for eight times or ten times magnification. Binoculars with seven times magnification do not really get you close enough, and anything over ten times is more likely to give you an unstable or shaky view.
Generally, a wider objective lens will give a larger field of view, and will have greater light gathering which will provide brighter, clearer views. However, a larger lens means more weight!
Some birders opt for something like 8×25, which are lightweight (e.g. 350 grams), foldable and compact. However, the convenience means sacrificing light gathering. Other birders opt for 10×42, which is probably ideal in terms of magnification and light gathering, but they can be heavy (e.g. 860 grams) if they are hanging around your neck for many hours. Many birders, including myself, choose to wear binoculars on a simple harness that disperses the weight of heavier binoculars across the shoulders.
The choice is a purely personal one, and there is no right or wrong option. Try a few pairs and see what you like!
Most binoculars nowadays are well made, with quality optics, rugged design, and are waterproof. The days of having to spend a couple of thousand dollars on good quality binoculars are long gone. There is a pair for every budget.
Ok, you’ve got binoculars and a guide, and you know how to use them. What’s next?
Get out there and see some birds! Join your local birding group. Go on outings with like minded people. Start your ‘life list’. Keep records for each outing. Explore different habitats. Join organised surveys. Go on a pelagic birding trip. Chase that rarity. Turn your hobby into a lifetime passion. Share that passion. Teach others. And, always remember the beauty of birds.
5 thoughts on “Birdwatching for beginners”
Hi there and thanks for this. It’s always interesting to read others’ takes on interesting topics, especially when they actually know what they’re talking about! I do something similar in my Understanding Birds course at the ANU CCE – or at least I hope I’ll be able to do it again some day. However you should be able to reach more people than I can, in this way. Re your very pertinent comments under Behaviour, I’m very fond of the great Graham Pizzey’s observation on the matter: “…learn to move slowly with your eyes and ears open. Drift through the woodland, don’t chatter and don’t whisper. Talk, if you must, in a normal low speaking voice. But better still, shut up completely and let the birds do the talking!” I tell about that in the first week of the course and remind them before we set out on our first field excursion. Doesn’t always work of course.
Well done on a thorough and pertinent contribution to developing birding skills, which sadly seem to be under-valued these days, with cameras increasingly replacing binocs (rather than supplementing them).
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Thanks so much for the feedback! I hope it reads ok in my somewhat naive style.
I’d be keen to know if you would add any particular tips.
Love that snippet from GP, he certainly knew what he was talking about. I can’t bring myself to tell people on my outings to shut up! It’s not just the talking either, I once had a participant wearing a goretex jacket that rustled so loudly I couldn’t hear a thing.
Thanks for mentioning cameras. I did have a short section on cameras but scrapped it as it warrants its own in depth discussion. Lots to cover there. I might run a draft by you?
Very good article Anthony, one I will share with anyone interested in taking up this most rewarding of endeavours.
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Thanks mate, appreciate your feedback and support!