With anywhere between 50 and 430 billion birds on Earth, the chances of you encountering a bird as you go about your day are very high. But have you ever wondered exactly what kind of bird has been chirping in your backyard all morning? It’s probably a common grackle, right? Or maybe a northern flicker? How about a dark-eyed junco? Could it be a yellow-rumped warbler? If questions like these are keeping you up at night, then congratulations – you are a birdwatcher!
As one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities, birdwatching has become extremely popular among people of all ages, but it can be hard to figure out exactly how to start birdwatching. Where should you go? What supplies do you need? And how, exactly, are you supposed to tell the difference between a white-throated sparrow and a rose-breasted grosbeak?
You’ve come to the right place. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about birdwatching for beginners – how to get started, the best birdwatching gear, and even some surprising birdwatching destinations for native birds. It will have you crowing about your finds in no time.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Birdwatching?
At its core, birdwatching is the act of watching birds in their natural habitats. Birdwatchers, or “birders” as the true enthusiasts call themselves, consider only birds seen in non-captive situations, true birding. This means the different birds found in a zoo, aviary, or in a home as a domesticated pet, aren’t part of a proper birdwatching experience.
How Do I Get Started in Birdwatching?
Step one: get outside! But don’t worry about going too far, because the easiest thing to do is start local with a leisurely walk around your neighborhood. Any greenspace or open waterway will do, even if that greenspace is more patch of grass than lush jungle.
A common strategy among birding enthusiasts is “stop – look – listen – repeat.” Safely stop whatever you’re doing, look for places a bird might perch like treetops and ledges, listen for noises that could be bird calls or songs, and then repeat as necessary. It really can be that simple!
Once you’ve spotted a bird, you’ll want to pay attention to a few key characteristics: notice the bird’s size, shape, and main color pattern. What bird behaviors are the birds engaging in, and what kind of habitat is it surrounded by? These details will help you when you’re ready to start identifying the bird and confirm that you’ve actually found the elusive northern spotted owl and not the much more common barred owl.
The National Audubon Society is one of the premier bird conservation and education organizations in the world. It is also a fantastic resource for beginner birdwatchers. It has hundreds of local chapters across the United States, and numerous partnerships in many other countries. The National Audubon Society offers guided bird walks, field trips, lectures series, sanctuary cleanup events, and research and volunteer opportunities throughout the year. Find your local Audubon chapter and see what’s on offer in the coming months. Spending your morning with an Audubon naturalist is a safe and affordable way to learn how to start birding!
An important note: some Audubon chapters, like Washington D.C.’s Audubon Naturalist Society, are changing their names to dissociate themselves from National Audubon Society founder John James Audubon, who was also a slave owner. The National Audubon Society is also addressing this concern itself. The issue runs much deeper than the scope of this article, but this essay is a great place to start if you’re interested in learning more about this important conversation.
What Time of Day is Best for Birdwatching?
You know that saying about the early bird getting the worm? Well, that goes for birdwatchers as well. Generally, the common birds are most active between dawn and 11am with a second, shorter burst of action shortly before sunset. Slept through the alarm? You’re more likely to spot birds of prey like hawks and eagles at midday, and don’t forget that the term “night owl” exists for a reason – there’s a whole world of nocturnal birds, they’re just harder to spot in the dark.
What Time of Year is Best for Birdwatching?
There’s no wrong time of year to go birding, it just depends on what you’re hoping to see and where you’re located. In much of the northern hemisphere, spring and fall bring mass migrations. The summer is for breeding, and winter can surprise you with cold weather birds like robins and cardinals. The breeding season is also one of the best time for birdwatching.
How Can I be a Sustainable Birdwatcher?
Great question! Birdwatching is already a really sustainable activity, since the sheer act of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats tends to highlight the environmental impact humans have on our ecosystems, which in turn creates an increase in green living and conservation efforts. But there are some simple steps you can take to be a conscientious birder:
- Never feed or physically interact with wildlife.
- Take out what you brought in, even food waste like apple cores and peanut shells.
- Stay on the path and public walkways – don’t break any laws and don’t trespass on private property to get to a bird.
- Keep your pets on a leash when you take them on your birding adventures so they don’t accidentally scare or chase after a bird.
- When possible, travel to your destination by hiking, biking, public transportation, or carpooling with other experienced birders to reduce your carbon footprint.
What are Some Other Tips for Birdwatching?
Just as that old adage goes, birding is all about location, location, location. Like all living things, birds need food, water, and shelter, so start to notice the various food sources and covered perches where you live. Thick backyard hedges, a local reservoir, and even the grocery store parking lot can be great places to find a bird or three.
Choosing the Best Birdwatching Gear
Here is a guide on the best gear to observe bird behavior. Read on!
What Does a Beginner Birdwatcher Need?
Technically, you don’t need anything to be a birder except patience and a willingness to look or listen for whatever birds are nearby. But that can get frustrating pretty quickly. At the very least, you’ll want a pair of binoculars so you can really see those beautiful feathers and a reference guide that helps you identify which birds you’ve spotted. Read on for tips on picking the best binoculars, field guides, and other birdwatching gear that will help you level up on your birding quest!
Best Binoculars for Birdwatching
There are hundreds of different birding binoculars out there, at all sorts of price points, and it can be really hard to choose which pair are the best birdwatching binoculars for you. Also good to know: true birders refer to their binoculars as “bins.”
The first thing to know is that binoculars are listed by brand name, followed by two numbers, like 10×42 (pronounced “ten by forty-two”). The first number is the magnification, or how many times the object you’re looking at is being enlarged. Try to find a pair with 7x to 10x magnification. Anything more and you’ll need a tripod to stabilize the image. The second number is the diameter of the objective lens (the big lenses on the side you don’t look out of). This refers to how much light the binoculars let in, which correlates to how sharp the image is. The higher the second number, the sharper the image, but anything larger than 42 will probably be too heavy to carry around all day long while anything less than 30 won’t show enough detail in low light.
Remember, you’ll be walking with your birding binoculars for quite some time, along with any other gear you choose to carry on your person, so heavier is not necessarily better!
And while I’d like to tell you that the weather will be perfect every time you go birding, you and I both know you’re likely to encounter any combination of rain, snow, humidity, and extreme temperatures each time you birdwatch. Waterproof, fogproof, and durable binoculars will be your friend.
Still too many options to sort through? Go to your nearest electronics store and try out a few! They should feel comfortable in your hands and fit snugly against your face. Alternatively, you could try to find a pair in a secondhand store or through your local Buy Nothing group, which will help to reduce overall electronic waste and the environmental impact of your new hobby.
A spotting scope will also come in handy for any bird enthusiast. Most spotting scopes have excellent magnification and are lightweight for carrying around. It’s ideal for bird watchers who want to observe nesting birds far away, as well as wading birds.
Field Guides for Birdwatching
So you’ve spotted a bird. That’s great! Now you’ll want to know what kind of bird it is. With over 11,000 species of birds in the world, you need a way to make sure you’re looking at a northern shoveler and not a blue-winged teal. That’s where the field guide comes in.
There are two things to consider when it comes to a birdwatching book. You’ll need to choose if you want a guide with pictures or illustrations, and you’ll also want to make sure the guide doesn’t give you more information than you need. “Birds of North America” will give you a great overview, but “Birds of Illinois” might actually be more helpful if that’s where you’re primarily going to be birding.
Overwhelmed by all the choices? Here are some field guides used by everyone from beginner birders to seasoned ornithologists:
- The Sibley Guide to Birds – a modern-day industry standard for birding
- Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America – the tried-and-true field guide
- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America – lightweight and compact, great for hikes and day trips
- National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America – a great birdwatching for kids book, perfect for the little chickadee in your life
Best Birding Apps for Identification and Recording
While an analogue field guide is indispensable as an introduction to birdwatching, you no longer have to lug around a stack of bird books every time you head out the door. Thanks to mobile apps, the entire guide is in your pocket, along with the ability to listen to actual bird calls, record your findings, and identify unfamiliar sounds. Download a few of these bird identification apps to get started:
- Audubon Bird Guide – free with no add-ons! Great for those who are just getting started
- iBird Pro – best for identifying birds, each species is depicted with drawings and pictures
- iNaturalist – uses geolocation and crowdsourcing to help you identify bird species and contribute to a data-driven global biodiversity project
- eBird – allows you to keep track of all the birds you’ve seen and organize your lists however you want
- ChirpOMatic – records and automatically identifies bird songs and calls
- Chirp! – a fun way to learn and test your knowledge of bird calls
What Else Do You Need to be a Birdwatcher?
Camera – pics or it didn’t happen? Snapping a photo of your find isn’t a requirement for birding, but photography and birdwatching often go hand in hand. I always say that the best camera is the one in your hand, but you’ll probably want a better zoom lens than your phone to get those magazine-worthy shots. Fujifilm, an electronics company with a clear sustainability policy, has tons of birding cameras and lenses to suit your needs.
Clothing – even if you’re just doing some quick neighborhood birding, you’ll want to dress for success. Grab your hat, sunglasses, and breathable clothing, and treat your feet to a comfortable pair of sustainable walking shoes or hiking boots.
Water bottle – don’t forget to hydrate! You should carry some drinking water no matter how long you’re planning to be outside. And if you’re going to an area where potable water might not be readily available, this LARQ bottle can purify your water on-the-go
Notebook – whether you take detailed notes of your findings, doodle a sketch of the most colorful bird you’ve ever seen, or write a nature-inspired poem to share with your friends, a notebook can be a nice addition to your birding kit. Bonus points if it’s waterproof. More bonus points if it’s printed with green energy like these Life List Notebooks.
Need a way to carry all this gear around? Check out our guide to the best sustainable backpacks.
Best Birdwatching Destinations
I have good news and bad news for every bird watcher. The good news is that you can enjoy birdwatching in nearly every corner of the world, from city parks to desolate mountaintops. The bad news is that this makes it really hard to figure out where to go for a bird watching vacation.
Luckily, there are certain hotspots around the world where you’re more likely to see a whole bunch of birds on your list, many of which are also highly desired destinations. The Amazon Rainforest is home to some of the most colorful and exotic birds on the planet, New Zealand has hundreds of native species like the kiwi and three different types of penguins, and Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands, with more species of birds than Europe and North America combined, are brimming with feathered finds. Mexico’s Quintana Roo, a state on the Yucatán Peninsula, is a great place for a bird and nature tour and Kingbird Natour is a great provider in the area. Then there’s Costa Rica. This tiny country has twelve distinct ecological zones and some of the highest biodiversity in the world, which translates into nearly 900 different species of birds living amongst the cloud forests and mangroves. To really get the full sustainable travel experience, consider staying in a unique ecolodge – check out this article for some of our favorites!
If you need to stick closer to home, check out the peninsulas, barrier islands, and shorelines that are prime locations for birds who either want one last snack before embarking on their migration or who need a safe landing spot after having flown thousands of miles over open water. Our planet is full of waterfronts, but some of the more popular watering holes in North America are in Point Pelee, Ontario, the Florida Keys, Point Reyes, California, the Rio Grande Valley in Texas and Mexico, the Platte River Valley in Nebraska, and Cape May, New Jersey. You can also consult the American Birding Association’s list of birding trails to find the best birdwatching locations within each state.
City, state, and national parks are also bird havens, as they can offer many different habitats in a relatively small area. It might not surprise you to learn that Yellowstone and the Smoky Mountains provide excellent birding opportunities, but despite being in the middle of a dense urban environment, both New York City’s Central Park and the National Mall in Washington, D.C. are each home to more than 230 bird species.
You can find the burrowing owl in areas such as New Mexico and areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan in Canada.
To minimize the effort and maximize the birding, how about taking a tour? Experienced guides can help lead you to essential birding spots you might not find on your own, take care of annoying details like navigation and entrance fees, and provide expert information on bird behaviors, habitats, and tricky identification inquiries. There are tons and tons of birding tours to choose from, but one way to narrow your search is to pick one type of bird and organize your travels around their habitats. Pursue puffins in Iceland, find firefinches in Zambia, watch woodcreepers in Paraguay, and track down toucans in Costa Rica, all with the help of a seasoned naturalist.
Did You Know Any of These Birdwatching Facts?
The following fun facts won’t necessarily help you become a better birder, but they may help you win new birding friends with your cool bird trivia!
The longest known migration in the animal kingdom is the arctic tern, who flies nearly 50,000 miles from pole to pole and back again each year.
Flamingos get their famously pink coloring from the carotenoid pigments found in the algae and crustaceans that make up most of their diet.
There are about 60 different types of flightless birds in the world, including the ostrich, rhea, kiwi, emu, and penguin.
The peregrine falcon has been known to reach speeds of 242 miles per hour when diving to catch prey, making it the fastest animal in the world.
At nearly 12 feet long, the wandering albatross has the largest known wingspan of any living bird.
Male bee hummingbirds weigh 0.0069 ounces, making them the smallest bird in the world.
The bar-headed goose has one of the world’s highest migrations, flying over the Himalayas at altitudes of up to 7,000 meters with no help from tailwinds.
Different types of birds have different collective nouns – some of my personal favorites are a bellowing of bullfinches, a flamboyance of flamingos, an exaltation of larks, a raffle of turkeys, and a time-step of sandpipers!
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