Friday, February 14, 2020

Bird Watching Basics: How to start bird watching

Many people seek the peace and beauty that the natural world brings. Birds are frequently the most active and colorful living creatures encountered in the out-of-doors. They are found everywhere and active during daylight hours. No wonder bird watching is so popular.

But you may have wondered: How do I start bird watching? What equipment do I need? Are there any special "rules" I need to know about?

This is the first article in a series. See the footer for other articles.

Photo of a Western Bluebird on a fencepost
Western Bluebird
Photo by Greg Gillson

Bird watching your way: How to start out

Good news! There aren't any rules to bird watching. You can do it however you like, whatever is most enjoyable to you. You can start watch birds out your living room window, sitting on a park bench, on a strenuous hike up a forested mountain, on a foreign business trip, or even while kayaking! You might watch birds only occasionally while on vacation. Or perhaps you get bit by the birding bug and plan bird watching excursions every chance you get.

You can choose to feed birds at home and have them come to you. You can scour remote wilderness areas to find birds you've never seen before. You can chase after reported rarities. You might care only about hummingbirds, or ducks, or hawks. You can spend a lifetime observing the behavior of just one species. You might spend a day driving quickly from place-to-place trying to see 100 different species in a 24-hour period. It is all bird watching!

Don't forget that bird watching (also known as birding) is not necessarily all about your eyes. Birds also give a variety of calls and delightful songs. Each bird species can be identified by their unique songs. The dawn chorus is the amazing simultaneous singing of scores of bird species just before sunrise in spring. In wooded areas many bird detections are first made by hearing them. And a majority of the birds you find in such woodland hikes may actually be heard only--never seen. Now that birding-by-ear skill takes lots of practice!

Many bird watchers take photographs of the birds they see. I always carry my binoculars and a DSLR camera with a very large lens around my neck! Only a very few use audio recording equipment to record bird songs and calls.

[This short and delightful video below is of nature journaling instructor Jack Laws on why bird watching is better than mammal watching]

What equipment do you need to get started watching birds?

When most people talk of birding they mean 1) seeing birds, and 2) identifying birds.

To start watching birds you need binoculars to help you see birds better and a field guide to help you identify the birds you see. Everything else is optional.


Your binoculars can make or break your bird watching experience. A poor pair of binoculars can cause excessive eye strain as well as giving a substandard view. If all you have is a cheap $60 pair of binoculars, realize you are missing out. On the other hand, for your first pair of birding binoculars, I don't recommend you buy the very best $2500 brands.

For starting out I suggest a pair that is 8x42 and waterproof/fog proof. If you are in the open looking at distant ducks or hawks primarily, then a 10x42 is an acceptable choice. In general, 8x are better than 10x for brightness in dreary weather or in the woods, ability to focus on closer birds (<8 feet), providing a wide field of view to find active birds in the tree tops (>390 feet @ 1000 yards), and ability to be used with eyeglasses (>15.5 mm eye relief).

You want roof prism binoculars with ED glass that is fully multicoated, BaK-4 prisms with phase and dielectric coatings, and nitrogen (or argon) purged waterproof/fog proof.

I would say that the minimum quality binoculars, even to start with, cost about $150. The best lowest-priced binocular for bird watching is the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42. Don't go cheaper if you can at all help it. If you can afford $500 you will be able to have a binocular that is nearly as good as the very best and will last you a decade or even a lifetime.

Read my articles on birding binoculars available for under $200 and also best birding binoculars under $500.

For backyard feeder watching, a lesser binocular may be all that's necessary: Best binoculars under $100 for backyard bird watching.

You may like: How to use binoculars for bird watching

Field guide

If you are just getting started you may want to use a local state birding field guide. These show the 50-100 most common bird species of each state. Stan Tekiela has written such bird books for every state. Click on this link to be taken to the Amazon page of Mr. Tekiela's bird books.

However, if you become interested in birds and bird watching it won't take long before you encounter species or plumages not illustrated in the simpler state guides. Each state will have 400-500 species recorded, maybe 300-350 regularly. The simpler state guides will not show all female and first-year birds, or may scrimp on summer versus winter plumages, or variation from place to place.

I recommend the National Geographic Birds of North American, now (February 2020) in the 7th Edition. Here is the Amazon link for this, my favorite field guide.

I also have the Sibley app downloaded on my smart phone. It is about $20. Let's see, I have an Android phone. So I go to the App Store on my phone to purchase and upload The Sibley eGuide to North American Birds. This is basically just the paper field guide in digital format with some audio calls and songs to play to remind you what the birds sound like. There are newer and fancier birding apps with additional features. But when I'm in the field, I want to be looking at the birds, not my field guide, paper or digital.

I've created a new YouTube channel about birds, bird watching, and bird identification.

Notepad and pen

New bird watchers just starting out will frequently encounter birds that they just can't name at the time. Write down what you see to look it up later. First: size, shape, bill type. This will get you to the family group. Then the colors of head, back, breast, belly, wings, tail. Note field marks such as eye rings, eye stripes, wing bars, tail spots. Don't forget habitat, behavior, calls or songs.
You may like: How to identify a bird in 7 easy steps

Dress properly

Birding often starts at dawn when it may be cold and continues into late morning when it may become hot. Be sure to have clothing for the day to keep you comfortable.

Wear sturdy shoes appropriate for the weather and terrain. Do you have to worry about snakes or thorns or rocks or mud puddles?

You don't need to wear camouflage as hunters do. But don't wear bright colors. Wear dull earth colors: brown, navy, green. And make sure your clothes or jacket isn't made of material that rustles or squeaks as you walk.

Water and a snack

I often bird in remote areas, or explore areas new to me. Then I find that I am nowhere near a town for food at lunch time! So bring snacks. Carry water and drink it. I often don't carry water, and when I do I often don't drink it until I'm back at the car. So, don't be like Greg--carry and drink your water!

Where do you go bird watching?

Deciding where to go bird watching can provide hours of research and planning. For those just starting out, you may learn much about your local area you didn't know before.

If you are looking for a specific bird you need to find the right habitat. Many large parks and wildlife refuges have checklists that tell when and how common species are.

Where do you look for public places to watch birds? State refuges, National Wildlife Refuges, National Parks, National Forests, State Parks, State Beaches, BLM areas, Open Space Preserves. You can look for hiking trails or Auto Tour routes.

Check the websites for your local Audubon Societies. They will often list places to watch birds. Seek "birding site guides" for your site or area. Even Googling "where to watch birds in [your city/county/state]" will lead to web sites of interest.

Join your local birding email list

Learn from others by joining such lists and "lurk" for a while [read without responding] before making your first post. Read the postings and see what kind of information each list conveys. Some lists are for only reporting rare birds. Some lists are more geared toward more social aspects. The American Birding Association has a list of birding email lists right on their home page.

Look for local field trips

Your local Audubon Society will often lead free bird walks for beginners and more advanced birders alike. So may a local backyard bird shops. Do you have any Nature Centers in your area? Check them out!

To help you I wrote: Tips for your first bird walk

Photo of male Cinnamon Teal stretching his wings on the shoreline
Cinnamon Teal
Photo by Greg Gillson

Best practices when you start birding: Fieldcraft

Would you like some tips for bird watching? Tips on finding and approaching wildlife are called fieldcraft. Fieldcraft includes your behavior and the bird's behavior--understanding what you see.

Bird watchers need patience and perseverance. Go slow and examine trees and bushes for movement. Listen for soft feeding calls. You may find that several species are traveling together and feeding, with not much bird activity away from this feeding flock.

Birds are most active at and just after dawn. You may need to arrive early. The early bird gets the worm. The early bird watcher gets the bird!

Examine your surroundings. Is there water nearby? A grove of trees? Do any of the adjoining homes have bird feeders visible? Birds generally love edges between two habitats. Walking that edge slowly is often a good place to start birding.

On my blog of San Diego birds I wrote several articles on fieldcraft: the art of finding more birds. When you are done reading this article you may wish to check out some of those fieldcraft articles. I suggest you start with the article: Stalking birds: 25 tips to get closer to birds without scaring them away. The fieldcraft label will lead to more of my articles on that other website.

Most of all, be quiet and observant. Curiosity about the natural world will often lead to finding birds.
I always recommend Birding Essentials for learning about bird watching. But I think this is a great little book whether you are a beginner or have more experience.

Recording your observations: eBird

The free birding app, eBird is an online checklist program where you can record the birds you see. It becomes a powerful tool as it combines tens-of-millions of bird records by birders around the world.

eBird is great for beginning birders. Even if you never enter a bird species yourself, you should use it to find birding hotspots in your local area and view the both the bird checklists and the birds recently seen in the hotspots or in your county as a whole.

I recommend that new bird watchers sign up for an eBird account and begin submitting checklists right away. Start by going out in your backyard and recording a stationary checklist for 5 or 10 minutes of all the birds you can see and hear. Submit it to eBird.

The eBird program will tell you which species are expected for your area and which species are rare. If you report a rare species you will need to write a brief report of what you saw into the eBird checklist: remember describe size, shape, bill type and field marks and behaviors. Provide a photo if you are into bird photography.

There are local birders who act as eBird Reviewers for rare bird reports. They may contact you by email about your rare bird reports. Don't be afraid of being wrong, or the reviewer asking for more details, or suggesting a more common look-alike species. Think of these volunteer Reviewers as a free tutor!

Bird Watching Basics Series


January 2023: Thank you so much for visiting! I am working on a YouTube channel on birds and bird watching. Check it out here:


Legal Disclosure
As an Amazon Associate I earn commissions from qualifying purchases.

Legal disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn commissions from qualifying purchases. Thank you for your support.

Featured Post

Best budget birding binoculars: Celestron Nature DX ED

My review: Celestron Nature DX ED binoculars for birding Is the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42 binocular any good for bird watching? My perso...