10 Tips for Getting Started in Birdwatching

Photo by W. Clark
Photo by W. Clark

It is no secret that the number of bird watchers has climbed exponentially since March 2020 and the onset of the global pandemic. If there is a silver lining to these challenging times, it is that so many have turned to nature for solace and joy. In light of this, we would like to introduce a new series to our blog specifically for new bird watchers. We hope you enjoy this first post, and stay tuned for more to come! 

What has piqued your interest in bird watching? People begin watching birds for lots of reasons. Some folks have had a lifelong interest in nature, while others become interested later in life. Perhaps the pandemic allowed you to slow down a bit and begin noticing the birds around you.

Some people are looking for a hobby that improves their mental and physical health. Others love the challenge of identifying birds and learning their songs and behavior. Perhaps you have a friend or family member who’s an avid birder and they’ve inspired you to get started. Whatever your reasons, your interest in birds and birding is sure to bring unexpected joy, knowledge, and experiences to your life.  

Getting started in bird watching is quite inexpensive compared to most hobbies and can be enjoyed in any location, by anyone, and at any time! Don’t let TV and movie bird-watching stereotypes fool you, there are birders everywhere, from all socio-economic backgrounds, genders, ethnic groups, and walks of life.

Whether you’re someone who likes to stay close to home, or you’re a travel and adventure junkie, birding is for you. You can do it with friends, or you can go solo. You can sit for hours in one spot, or you can go on long walks and hikes, getting your “steps in” for the day. Birding is a wonderful way to learn more about the natural world around you, and through that experience, find much needed peace of mind during these challenging times.  

So, how do you get started in bird watching? It’s easy, and you can begin right now, right where you are! There are millions of birders in the world, and there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy it. However, to help you jump-start your experience, we’ve put together some easy suggestions to help you begin your birding adventures and get you off on the right foot. 

1. Borrow or purchase a good pair of binoculars.

This is the primary tool you’ll need to get started, and you can buy a good pair of binoculars for around $100, and a great pair for $500 and up. Like any hobby, having the right equipment makes all the difference, so begin with a good pair of 8×32 or 8×42 binoculars that are within your budget and are easy to use.

If new binoculars aren’t in your budget right now, ask your local nature center if they have a pair you can borrow when you visit. Most nature and wildlife centers have binoculars to share with their visitors. Be sure to focus the binocular before you use them. Unless you wear glasses, most people have different visual acuity in each eye, so it is necessary to adjust them for your eyes before using them. Find out how here

2. Start looking and listening.

Every time you step outside you will begin to notice birds if you start looking and listening. Whether you’re in a parking lot, sitting outside at a restaurant, or on a neighborhood walk, start paying attention to the natural world around you. Do you hear birds in your backyard? Follow their sounds and find the bird.

Do you see a new or different bird sitting on your backyard fence or in a nearby tree? Note its size, shape, and distinctive color patterns. Try and capture a phone picture of it, then look it up and try to identify it when you get home. You’ve got an entire world of birds and habitat right outside your door, so begin listening, looking, and learning. 

3. Find a good birding field guide

Find a good birding field guide at your local library or purchase a field guide (a book or an app) to help you identify and learn more about birds. A good binocular is your first tool, and this is the second-most important tool you need to begin birding.

Some of our favorite birding field guides are The Sibley Guide to Birds (east, west, or North America), The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America (or eastern or western regions), The Kaufmann Field Guide to the Birds of North America, The Crossley ID Guide (eastern or western birds), and Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

These can be purchased wherever books are sold. Our favorite digital apps that are also field guides are The Sibley eGuide to Birds and iBird Pro. These can be purchased at app stores. 

4. Learn your local birds first.

Nearly 1,000 bird species have been documented in the Lower 48 States, and learning about all 1,000 species at once would be a daunting task! However, there are a just handful of bird species in your area right now that you’d be wise to learn first. In fact, you probably already know more birds than you realize! How do you go about learning what are the most common birds in your area? You can use the field guides and apps mentioned above, but also read our article titled “What Birds Am I Likely to See?”   

5. Join a local bird club or group.

Even if you’re not a social butterfly, finding a birding club or group in your area is a great way to get started in bird watching. Most local parks, nature preserves, wildlife refuges, and wetlands offer regular bird walks hosted by a local birding guide. You can also check out your local library for information.

We also recommend visiting the National Audubon website to find a bird club in your area. Sometimes birding events require a fee, but most local bird walks are free and are a fun way to learn from local experts who can show you birds you might not see on your own. You’ll also learn a lot about from birders who are more experienced than you are.  

6. Subscribe to a birding magazine or digital newsletter.

Did you know there are publications, both print and digital, created just for bird watchers? The two leading bird magazines in the US for avid birders are Bird Watcher’s Digest and Birding Magazine (a publication of the American Birding Association), which cost very little for annual subscriptions. There are also free digital newsletters available, including Bird Watching Daily, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eNews, to name a few. They offer a wide variety of interesting articles to help you get started in birding. 

7. Subscribe to a good birding podcast.

This is a free and easy way to start learning about birds and birding. There are so many great birding podcasts out there, and here are a few of our favorites! Good podcasts are like good restaurants: You can try them all, and there’s something great to be found in each one.  

8. Find your local birding hotspots.

The most helpful website and app you’ll ever use as a birder, whether you are brand-new to birding or a seasoned veteran, is eBird. It’s not a field guide like the other apps mentioned, but it will help you find birds and birding hotspots, keep track of your bird lists, photos, and sounds, and explore the latest sightings around the world. It allows you to connect to the world’s largest e-birding community and invites you to contribute to citizen science and conservation.

When you click on eBird’s map, you can find birding hotspots near you and also learn what birds have been seen in those places during each month of the year. We love eBird and highly recommend it for everyone who is interested in birds and birding. And the best part: It’s FREE! 

9. Be prepared.  

This means bringing your binoculars with you every time you leave your house, even if it’s just a road trip. It means being prepared for bird watching every time you travel for work or pleasure, go to your daughter’s soccer game, or walk your dog. It means always having your field guide on hand, either on your phone or in your car.

It means planning birding outings with friends, connecting with other birders, and soaking in the wealth of information out there about birds. It’s not just a hobby—it’s a lifestyle, and a wonderful one at that! Be prepared to enjoy birds every day and start to develop a lifestyle of birding. 

10. Just do it!

We stole it from Nike, and we’ve saved the best advice for last: Just do it! Don’t wait until you feel like you know enough to get out there, just get out there and do it. If the only birds you see are American robins and house sparrows (common, easy-to-see birds in most areas of the country), you’ll enjoy getting closer and better looks at familiar birds.

If you can get powered-up with the other tools we’ve recommended, that’s fantastic! But don’t wait until you can afford those fancy new binoculars or that birding book to arrive in the mail. Get outside and start watching birds, listening to their sounds, and learning more about how they behave. Birding is a lifelong hobby, and even the best birders are always learning new things about birds and nature.  

Are you ready to get started? We hope these suggestions have been helpful. You’ve got countless exciting birding adventures awaiting you, and we hope you’ll get started as soon as you finish reading this article. Good luck, and happy birding! 

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