The Ultimate Guide To Birdwatching

There is not much more relaxing than taking out your binoculars and watching beautiful flashes of color crossing the sky and dancing through the trees. Many people enjoy passing the hours identifying and spotting birds, and they take great pride in keeping a personal record of every bird they’ve managed to watch.

Once you find the ideal birdwatching area and get situated, the sun will be setting before you know it. You’ll be able to pass every day with new birds, excitement, and challenges. No matter your age, collecting the correct birdwatching equipment can open you up to a whole new world of fun and relaxation.

Today we’ll be looking into the art of birdwatching, why you should try it at least once, and how you’d go about beginning your birdwatching adventure. We bet that you cannot wait to get started, so let’s not hold you up any longer!

A Brief History of Birdwatching

Birdwatching is the observation of live birds in nature, which has been a popular hobby dating back to the early 20th century. The 1880s began an intense interest in the different species of birds, but the only way people would identify them would be by killing them beforehand.

Gilbert White was among the first people to examine birds for research and science rather than for food and sport.

Stretching through the 1900s; however, more people attempted to display the beauty of birds to prevent people from shooting them all down. Roger Tory Peterson was an American ornithologist, which is an expert on birds, who wrote the Field Guide to the Birds. Books such as these were critical in the creation of modern birdwatching as we know it.

It wasn’t only the books; however, that helped birdwatching get noticed by nationwide media. Other publications, such as the Audubon Magazine, gave birds the much-needed attention to prevent people from endangering them before they could even be admired.

The 1930s brought a surge of birdwatching photographers in Great Britain. The British Trust for Ornithology worked with the photographers, giving them an incentive to preserve the wildlife and capture them in their natural habitat.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the Audubon Society was founded and began getting a lot of attention due to their work in preventing the feather trade from endangering species in the wild. The American Ornithological Society further helped the cause by making information about birds more widespread.

The invention of vehicles allowed birdwatchers to travel further to hot spots so that they find more birds, and birdwatching groups were formed in Great Britain and the United States. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 20th century that other developing countries began birdwatching for themselves. After they had done so; however, birdwatching quickly became recognized as a relaxing pastime for people all over the world.

Why Get Into Birdwatching?

Around 45 million people observe birds around and away from their homes in the United States, according to the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation. Moreover, an online survey showed that 12.34 million Americans participated in birdwatching in 2018 alone.

If that many people are birdwatching around you, then maybe the question ought to be why aren’t you into birdwatching? Birdwatching is an incredibly peaceful, relaxing, and enjoyable experience that people conduct by themselves or as a part of a group.

You can keep track of every species that you find, making it a mission to find every single one out there. Many people have found that their love of birdwatching has taken them all around the world in search of the rarest of species.

Perhaps one of the most common reasons why people get into birdwatching is because it isn’t a particularly expensive hobby, and it helps you to connect with nature. There are around 10,000 different species of birds out there, according to the RSPB, so you’ll never stop searching!

With so many technological advances coming out every day, everyone could benefit from spending a little more time in the great outdoors. Birdwatching is a physical and mental activity, so you’ll be working your entire body while doing so. Your health and well-being can easily be benefited from regular birdwatching, so why don’t you give it a go?

How To Start Birdwatching

So, you’ve decided that you want to start birdwatching but don’t exactly know where to start. Never fear, we’re here to help you on your journey. Birdwatching is considered a fun and inexpensive hobby, but there are some important pieces of equipment that you’ll need to invest in. Let’s go through a basic checklist of equipment that you will need to start your new hobby.

Basic Checklist

There is always more equipment that you could use for your birdwatching adventures, but there is something so nice about traveling with a minimal amount of equipment. A key attraction of birdwatching is the simplicity involved, which is why less is often more when it comes to equipment.

You’ll be able to carry out very successful birdwatching trips by taking only the below essentials with you.

Binoculars

To be honest with you, you could have a successful birdwatching trip by merely taking yourself and some binoculars. Sure, you might not be able to identify all of the birds, but you’d still be able to find and watch them, and isn’t that the entire point of birdwatching?

In all seriousness, though, you need a good pair of binoculars to take with you on your birdwatching trips. Some people can enjoy themselves without the binoculars, but you’ll be able to appreciate the birds much easier with something to help magnify their beauty.

As birds are often timid creatures that don’t involve themselves in the lives of humans, they tend to stay high up in the trees or far off the ground. Unless you have amazing vision, you might struggle to see the birds in all their glory without a pair of binoculars.

Binoculars often get a bad reputation among the public for being incredibly expensive, but this isn’t always the case. In fact, some binoculars are very inexpensive for the quality. Beginners are advised to opt for a cheaper pair of binoculars as to not waste their money if they don’t continue with the hobby.

There are plenty of styles of binoculars that come with all sorts of interesting features, such as night vision, extra magnification, or special eyepieces for glasses wearers. However, if you’re not sure that you’re going to stick with them for a lifetime, you might want to consider a cheaper pair for the time being.

You can often find that binoculars range from $50 to $1,500. The lower end of the spectrum is likely to be low-quality and warp your vision. The higher end of the spectrum will be numerous state of the art models. For beginners, we’d suggest sticking to the $100 to $200 mark.

Field Guide

So, now that you’ve got your binoculars, you don’t really need to take any more equipment with you. However, to make your trip more enjoyable and interesting you might want to invest in a field guide for the individual area that you’re going to be in.

Field guides are detailed lists of all of the birds that can be found in that particular area, along with images, distinguishing features, and species names. Birdwatching has been incredibly popular for many years, and therefore there aren’t many areas that don’t have a field guide for them.

In fact, there is a field guide for each state in the United States of America, so you can easily pick one up no matter where you live or are traveling to. Beginners can find field guides very beneficial when they’re just beginning the hobby.

Many birdwatchers begin their journey with one or two field guides, and before they know it they’re overwhelmed with one for every state. Field guides are beginning to turn digital with the rise of smartphone applications, which we’ll talk about later, so you can even opt for one of these and have every location at your fingertips.

This might take away from the novelty of spending hours looking through a book to find the right species, but it might also save you a lot of time. Of course, some people prefer to only carry their phones and binoculars with them, so a birdwatching app can be very beneficial.

If you’d prefer to go old school and carry a field guide with you, they can be purchased online or at almost any bookstore. Many bookstores will often have an entire hobby section that can be perused, and you’ll often find that a lot of it is to do with birdwatching.

Don’t blame us if you walk out with three new bags of books!

Checklist

A checklist is another very useful piece of equipment to take with you on your birdwatching adventures. The checklist will be more tailored to you and where you’re going to be situated. A checklist is primarily used to keep track of which birds you’ve spotted and when.

Checking off each bird gives you a great sense of satisfaction and allows you to keep a hold of records for when you found each bird. Once you’ve been birdwatching for a while, you’ll need to be able to go back and remember which species you’ve found and which ones have escaped you, trust us.

Much like the field guide, there are now apps that can work as a checklist for your birdwatching sessions. These allow you to only carry your binoculars and your phone which is sometimes preferable.

On the other hand, some people still prefer physical copies of checklists and therefore use the good old pen and paper method. Which one you choose is up to your personal preference.

Useful Additions

Now that we’ve gone through the essential equipment, let’s talk about the beneficial additional equipment that you might want to use. By all means, you can head out on your birdwatching journey without these things – a lot of birdwatchers do – but your adventure might be improved with the use of these pieces of equipment.

Protective Gear

No matter what the weather is doing, you’ll want some protective gear to shield you from it. The majority of birdwatchers like to go out in the glorious sunshine, so a good sun hat could be very helpful. A hat that includes a lip will be able to shade your eyes while you’re looking through the binoculars, giving you a much better vision than if you weren’t to have that additional shade.

On the other hand, rainstorms are not the best weather to go birdwatching in. However, some birds are easier to spot while it’s raining. For this reason, some birdwatchers like to go out when the forecast is less than desirable. If you’re planning on doing so, you’ll need protective rain gear.

While holding heavy binoculars, you might find it difficult to hold an umbrella overhead. So, a raincoat or waterproof clothing could be very beneficial.

Heavy-Duty Shoes

Birdwatching requires a lot of walking, so some durable shoes will be very helpful for you to use to avoid painful steps and blisters. Birdwatchers tend to follow trails which can be uneven and muddy, so be prepared to ruin your shoes if you don’t wear the proper footwear.

Birds can be found almost anywhere in the world, and they don’t always stick to the path. In fact, most birdwatchers find themselves wading through swampy areas, muddy, sandy, or mulchy ground. It’s best to be prepared before you ruin your shoes and foot health.

Backpack

Backpacks are beneficial to carry all of your belongings that you need with you. As you don’t need too much equipment, your backpack doesn’t need to be that large. Just make sure that it can fit your binoculars, field guide, checklist, protective gear, and lunch in it!

It’s a good idea to use a waterproof backpack just in case you get caught in the rain. This will prevent your books from spoiling and you have to endure soggy sandwiches. Many seasoned birdwatchers will attest that you should always carry some dry socks in your bag.

Notebook and Pen

Your checklist is helpful, but there might not be all the information you need on them. If you see a bird that isn’t listed, you’ll need a notebook and pen to make a note. Taking a notebook with you will also allow you to make observations about your findings for your personal collection.

A notebook is also helpful to use to write quick notes about the birds that you’ve found. You can jot down a few distinct features and then use them to rifle through the field guide after the bird has flown off. Without this, you might miss the opportunity to identify the birds that you’ve seen.

Tips For Identifying Birds

Accurately identifying birds can be very difficult and stressful when you’re worried about the bird flying off, never to be seen again. For this reason, we’ve detailed some of the most important tips to follow to make sure that you identify birds correctly and accurately. As we mentioned above, a notebook can be a very useful tool when out in the field. Make sure you note down these below features of the bird so that you can find it in the field guide.

Color

The color of the bird is the first thing that you’re going to see when spotting a bird. You should make a note of the plumage patterns of the bird, and try to get the best view possible. Birds will often have different coloring all around their body, so make sure to look at their wings, back, chest, and beak.

Try to spot bright colors that might distinguish the species from the rest. If there is no obvious color, look for markings or unique patterns. Observing the coloring of the birds is not always clear, so it’s important to focus on other features of the birds as well.

Size

You’re not going to be particularly close to the bird, so you’ll have to try and estimate their size. This measurement is not going to be extremely accurate, but the benchmark size will help you determine whether the bird is a blackbird or a magpie.

Birds look larger in poor light conditions, so you won’t always be able to get a clear look at the bird. However, if other birds around it are easily identifiable, you can compare the sizes and get a rough estimate that way.

Beak and Leg Shape

Shorter beaks are often seed-eaters unless the bird is large enough to be a bird of prey. This can help you narrow down your search of the species. If the beak is longer and thinner; however, the bird might be a hummingbird or something similar. The beak shape is very important to note down.

The legs are another important part of the bird to look at, as you can determine the species by the unique differences. Look for webbed feet, talons, and color variations.

Area Found

Not all birds are found everywhere – some prefer to be hidden by trees, while others will happily prance about open fields. Knowing where you found the bird could be the best way to find out which bird you’re looking at.

Many people forget to note this down as they think they won’t be able to forget where they’ve been birdwatching – but when you have pages upon pages of notes, you’ll thank yourself for noting down the habitat.

Birdsong

One of the main tips of birdwatching is to close your eyes and use your ears before looking at the birds. This will shut off your other senses and allow you to only focus on the sound of the bird. As the birdsong is one of the most significant methods of identifying birds, being able to research their birdsong is incredibly important.

Finding The Right Spots

Birdwatching has been around for centuries, and in that time people have been able to collate all of their information together to help beginners understand where the best hotspots are for birdwatching. A field guide will tell you which birds are found in each state, but how do you know where to situate yourself to see as many birds as possible?

All we can say is that research is key. A simple internet search will tell you where the best birdwatching spots are around your area. As a good rule of thumb, the majority of birds enjoy forested areas with plenty of shelters, food, and water sources.

The best place to find different species of birds is in their natural habitat. No two birds will have the same ideal habitat, so it’s not guaranteed that you’ll find a whole heap of birds in one area. However, if you have one species in mind that you want to find, visiting their habitat is a good way to find them.

Birds love forestation and plants, so head towards the greenery. Woodlands is a particularly great hotspot for many birdwatchers, and water is another place to seek out when interested in waterbirds.

Backyard Birdwatching

If transportation is what you’re concerned about when it comes to birdwatching, why not give it a go right at home from your backyard? Although travel is often one of the benefits that come from birdwatching, we understand that not everyone has the means to go very far away from their houses. Luckily for us, birdwatching has been a popular hobby for centuries and as a result, has accumulated some great equipment to use.

Although you might not be lucky enough to capture a glimpse of the rarest of birds from your backyard, you’ll certainly still be able to marvel at the local visitors. Some of the most common birds that you can find in your backyard are the European Starling, the American Goldfinch, the Mourning Dove, and the American Robin.

You might be dismissing backyard bird watching by thinking that you don’t normally see birds in your backyard, so what’s the point? You’re only going to waste your time and not see anything. This might be true if you’re not willing to purchase some equipment that will help you to draw birds to your backyard.

Bird Feeders

One of the main methods of getting birds to visit your backyard is to invest in a bird feeder. These come in all shapes and sizes and often come with holes for the bird to peck into to reach the food that you leave out for them. There are a number of different foods to offer out to birds, and different foods will attract different species of birds.

Seed

Seeds are the most typical bird food to use in a feeder, and you can pick this up in almost any superstore or pet shop. Sunflower seeds are loved by songbirds but often disliked by other species. If you want to attract other birds to your backyard, use safflower, nyjer, or millet seeds.

You can use a mixture of seeds to attract a variety of birds as well. Take the time to research different seed types to see whether they’re enjoyed by the species that you want to spot the most.

Fruit and Nuts

Not only is it a great candy bar concoction, but fruit and nuts are also excellent choices to leave in your bird feeders. Nuts will commonly attract jays and magpies, and fruit is the best option for orioles.

You can use either shelled or chopped nuts depending on your feeder, or even peanut butter if you’re prepared to tackle the clean up after! For fruit, you can either use fresh or dried fruit – the juicer the better.

Flowers

While not one of the most common foods to offer the birds, seed-bearing flowers and flowers rich with nectar are loved by many birds. If you don’t have any luck with a bird feeder, try planting some flowers for the birds to nibble at. Shrubs are much homier to birds than a garden feeder.

Suet

Suet is a type of tough beef or mutton fat that is very popular among woodpeckers and nuthatches. There are plenty of fat balls on the market to choose from, and you might be interested to discover how many different birds love fat.

Nectar

Hummingbirds love nectar, and other birds will sometimes sample them as well. Hummingbird feeders are colorful bottles that allow the long beak of a hummingbird to reach in and drink the nectar.

If you’re hoping to have other birds drink the nectar, consider getting a feeder with larger holes or a dish that houses the nectar rather than a closed-off bottle.

Scraps

Scraps aren’t the healthiest food for birds, but sometimes the guilty pleasures are the best! Many birds will stop by to take a bite of your bread, pasta, rice, or meat fat. Don’t leave it out for too long; however, as unwanted animals might turn up wanting a go.

DIY Bird Feeders

There are plenty of DIY ideas online that can guide you on how to make your own garden bird feeder. The below option is incredibly easy and popular among backyard birdwatchers. All you’ll need is a clean plastic bottle, some string, two wooden pencils, and a type of seed to fill it with!

Take your clean, dry bottle and cut two holes on opposite sides of the bottle and thread your pencil through to make two perches. Slightly higher up the bottle, do the same so that you have perches all around the bottle for the birds to rest upon.

Make some feeding holes higher up the bottle for the birds to retrieve the seeds from. Around the neck of the bottle make two smaller holes and thread the string through to make a loop. This can be hung from a tree branch.

Make some small holes on the bottom of the bottle for drainage should it rain. These should be smaller than the seeds so that they don’t fall out. Now fill the bottle with seeds, hang it up, and wait and watch!

Bird Shelters

Another method of enticing birds to your backyard is with shelters. Bird shelters can make your garden the bird’s new favorite safe haven, and therefore they’ll keep coming back to their spot. Birdhouses are very beneficial and many species react well to them, and they’re not too expensive either.

Having said that, some birds prefer natural environments and therefore would prefer natural shelters from your landscaping. Towering plants and trees are a great place to start, but this can be more expensive and perhaps more work than you want to put in. Alternatively, brush piles are also good sheltered spots for birds.

Bird Baths

Every bird needs water to survive, so a birdbath is a great investment if you want to attract birds to your backyard. Water features are even better than birdbaths, but these can be more expensive. Moving water will attract birds from farther away as it’ll be easier to spot from the sky.

Fountain bird baths are the most popular choice for backyard birdwatchers, and they’re very effective. Alternatively, if you already have a successful birdbath but want to attract more birds, you can add more than one to your garden.

More than one water source will prevent the baths from becoming overcrowded. If the birds feel threatened in your garden due to lots of species flocking to one birdbath, they might be deterred from coming back.

In the winter, you might want to invest in a water heater to attract the birds. Birds still feel the cold, and warm water will be exactly what they’re looking for when struggling from the weather. Heated water will make your back garden their favorite spot for a long time.

Useful Birdwatching Apps

One of the most enjoyable aspects of birdwatching is identifying the species and ticking them off of your wishlist. If you have a list of birds that you desperately want to find, a birdwatching app can be very useful to carry with you.

Alternatively, beginners will find birdwatching apps very useful when they’re just learning about the different species. Many species look similar to one another, and it takes a keen eye to notice the tiny differentiating details.

For example, a Cuckoo and a Sparrowhawk look very similar, even down to their size, shape, and coloring. For this reason, it’s incredibly easy to mistake a common bird for an ultra-rare, never seen before species of bird. That’s where the app comes in.

It can be rather embarrassing when you mistake a common bird for a rare one, so we’d suggest getting a birdwatching app even if you pride yourself on your keen eye. Below are the top five that we’ve come across.

EBird

Ebird is a free app that is excellent for beginner birdwatchers. It allows you to record the birds in the field as you observe them while entering them into the online database. Ebird offers you a tailored checklist for birds that you can expect to see depending on your location and time of year.

This app gives you a better idea of which birds you’ll be seeing while birdwatching. The app will also identify the bird for you if you’re unsure of the species. All you need to do is get the bird to stay still for long enough to take a picture!

Ebird is an incredibly popular birdwatching app all over the world, so there are plenty of other logs to compare your findings with, and this makes the app all the more reliable. It also doubles as a personal diary for your birdwatching adventures.

Merlin Bird ID

Merlin Bird ID is a great app that helps you to identify every bird you see. It asks some simple questions and tailors the results to your findings. You will then get a list of bird species to compare the real bird too, so your identification will be much more accurate than if you were to merely guess.

The app also allows you to submit pictures for identification which can sometimes be more beneficial than answering questions if you cannot get a good look at an active bird. Currently, the app only identifies American and Canadian birds.

BirdsEye

BirdsEye is another great app to have at your fingertips, as it makes identifying birds much easier than if you were without it. The app has records of birds from all over the world so it doesn’t limit you to one region, which is a nice and welcomed feature.

The app also has pictures and bird calls of the different species, making it easy to identify birds even too far away to get a proper glance at. The app is free to download but offers you the chance to buy added benefits once in the app.

Larkwire Water Birds / Land Birds

Larkwire is only available for IOS at the moment, and they offer two different apps for birdwatchers to use depending on where you’re situated. The Larkwire apps focus mainly on birdsongs, which is one of the easiest methods of identifying birds.

The Larkwire apps are not free to download but the price is reasonably low considering how beneficial they are. They are only available in North America and allow you to learn the distinct differences between the species birdsong.

iBird Pro Guide to Birds

iBird Pro is another very popular app for many birdwatchers and it is easy enough for even beginners to use. You can search for all different species on the app according to distinct features of the birds that you’re viewing, such as the size, coloring, and location.

There are many images offered for each bird, so you can be certain that you’ll find an accurate identification of all of the birds that you find. There is also a library of birdsong clips that you can use to match with the birds in the wild.

This is another paid-for app and it is available in North America, Hawaii, and Great Britain.

Summary

And that concludes our ultimate guide to birdwatching – we hope that you’ve learned some useful information to take with you on your next birdwatching trip. Birds have been a subject of interest for centuries, dating as far back to the 1880s when they were primarily used for food. However, moving through the 20th century saw more organizations founded to protect birds and spark the popular hobby of birdwatching.

Birdwatching is an incredibly fun, relaxing, and interesting hobby that many people take up, and it’s relatively easy to immerse yourself in. What’s more, is that the sense of accomplishment that you feel once checking off different species from your checklist is unmatched.

The fact that you don’t need much equipment to begin birdwatching is another incentive, as you really don’t need to spend much money at all. All you need is a high-quality pair of binoculars, a field guide, and a checklist. Of course, there are other helpful pieces of equipment, but sometimes the bare necessities are more than enough.

A notebook is a great piece of equipment to carry with you as you’ll often need to make quick notes of a bird that is getting ready to fly away. Make sure to note the size, shape, coloring, and habitat of the bird so that you can identify it properly later. You’ll be able to find the majority of birds easiest by visiting their natural habitat.

If you don’t have the means to travel far and wide to look for different species of birds, you can always draw them to you instead! Backyard birdwatching is very popular and you can entice more birds to your garden with the use of bird feeders, shelters, and water features. The type of food you use will attract different types of birds, so do your research!

There are plenty of birdwatching apps out there that can greatly help you identify and track your birdwatching adventures. Apps such as iBird Pro, EBird, and Larkwire all offer up different services that you can take advantage of during your journey. These can eliminate the need for field guides and checklists.

Thank you for reading our ultimate guide to birdwatching – now get out there and experience your new favorite hobby!