To start birding, you need binoculars, a field guide, patience, and curiosity. Learning about birds can be a wondrous lifelong adventure, but it takes a little stick-to-it-ness when you are first starting out.
Practice with your binocs. Focus on the tops of trees, on distant signs, and then on any bird you can see. You need to learn to quickly point the binocs to the site where you see a bird with your naked eyes. It takes some practice.
Get cozy with a field guide. Spend time at home with your field guide. You don’t have to memorize all the birds, but you do need to invest some time in becoming very familiar with the book. Field guides are organized is by bird families. You need to get a good sense of those families so when you see a bird in the field, you’ll know where to look in the guide. Here’s a brief take on just some of the bird “families” or categories:
- Birds shaped like robins fall into the thrush category
- Small yellow songbirds are likely to be in the warbler or goldfinch family
- Grayish birds with large, broadly flattened heads, flitting after bugs are likely flycatchers
- Ducks that float high and have a round sort of look are dabbling ducks
Here’s a helpful link that shows several bird families by their general shapes and silhouettes.
Go out and start looking. To learn birds, you have to learn to watch actively. Start with a common bird like a robin or a gull, or watch at a feeder where lots of birds hang around.
Try to notice these 5 things right away, in this order:
- Shape and size What is the overall shape and size of the bird? Many people find it useful to think about size in relation to a common bird like the robin.
- Head and beak Are there any eye stripes or rings, is the beak narrow for eating bugs or stout for crunching seeds, what is the size of the beak in relation to the bird’s head? Does the head have any distinctive shape or patterns?
- Breast and wings Are there wing bars? Is the breast colored or streaked?
- Tail Does it have patterns? Is it forked or squared off? Is it long or short?
- Legs and feet What color and shape? (this may be particularly important with some species, such as gulls)
Taking a quick mental inventory of these 5 items is crucial because birds often fly away. Practice this skill of active watching. Sometimes, you may only get to notice the first 3 things on the list, but that will be enough to get a good start on identification.
After you’ve had a good look, consult your field guide. First locate the general type of bird it is. Then look more carefully at the field marks and the write up. Most guidebooks give great tips on what to notice--not only with markings but also behavior, habitat, or song. If the bird is still in view, take another look to refine your identification. Your field guide will also have a range map for each bird. This will help you to figure out if you are seeing a bird that is commonly known in a particular place. It is unlikely--though not impossible--that you’d see a warbler common in the southeast U.S. up here in the Pacific Northwest. You can also consult the "Curry County Checklist," which has very helpful information about what birds have been seen here in Curry and at what time of year. (See Local Birding Resources for info about the checklist.)
Use online resources and books to help. There are now some terrific online resources to help birders. For more basic instruction about how
to start birding, check out the Cornell Birding 123 website. There's also an excellent new Cornell video series you can watch for free on the webcalled Inside Birding. It is extremely helpful and fun. Finally, Cornell’s Online Birdguide is one of the best online field guides. You can type in the name of a bird and get a thorough entry, complete with photos, habitat info, and even an audio recording. This is a good way to start learning bird songs, which can be very helpful in identifying birds. Here is another helpful birdwatching guide.
Practice, practice, practice. Go out and watch birds in the same habitats. Get to know which birds hang out at the lake, what you might see at the port, what is common in the park. Or get a feeder, and watch from your kitchen window.
Go with a birder friend or an Audubon field trip. It can be frustrating to try spotting your binoculars on a bird high in a leafy tree and never get to see it. Going out with someone who knows the ropes can help you to get the feel for the pace and techniques of birdwatching. On field trips, some birders bring spotting scopes that give you a closer view than binoculars--which can be helpful for beginners. Check out the Let's Go Birding schedule to learn about the next KAS outing.
Have fun! The best part of watching birds is being outside, getting to explore new places, and getting to know the wonders of the natural world.