14 Actionable Bird Watching Tips for Beginners (and a few for everyone!)
So you’ve been bitten by the bird watching bug?
Congratulations! You are one of the millions from around the world that consider themselves a bird watcher or birder.
But beginning any new activity, sport, or hobby (the debate about what to call bird watching rages) there is an ostrich egg’s size of information to learn and only so much time in a day. I know you are excited, so let’s use that energy as efficiently as possible.
Today, I’m going to save you countless hours of time and frustration.
This post has 14 actionable bird watching tips that will help get you started.
Who knows? Maybe this information will propel you into the likes of birding legends like John James Audubon or Roger Tory Peterson. (Bonus Tip: If you have never heard of these two gentlemen, learn about them NOW!)
Tip #1: Purchase, Borrow or Steal Some Decent Binoculars.
Ok, maybe don’t steal them. Unless when you buy them, you’re getting a steal of a deal! (Warning: Not the first crummy joke you will read in this post!)
You have just discovered the wonderful world of bird watching. You are super excited and have been studying different bird species, songs and even learning some bird lingo.
Now please imagine…
You set off into the woods to find our feathered friends. Suddenly there’s a flash of blue over there! Then a flock of small brown birds zips over your head. What’s that in the distance? Just a huge raptor sitting patiently in a tree.
But you can’t see any of the action!
All because you didn’t bring binoculars or you were cheap and bought the $20 pair at Walmart.
Nothing can ruin the excitement of a birding trip than seeing birds BUT not being able to observe their interesting behavior, see their beautiful plumage or identify the species.
Unfortunately, many bird watchers cheap out on their binoculars or say they will purchase them once they know they enjoy birding.
The problem is that you won’t enjoy birding unless you buy decent binoculars. A perfect chicken and the egg scenario (no bird pun intended!)
Here’s the good news:
There are some fantastic birding binoculars available with a price tag under $300 (i.e., Nikon Monarch 5) and even as low as $125 (Celestron Nature DX)
And more good news! Bird watchers tend to be a very friendly group. Many of us have extra binoculars from years past that are just lying around (guilty!). I’m sure if you ask you may be able to borrow some until you make a decision.
- Read my post:
The 8 Best Bird Watching Binoculars
- This article includes optics across all price ranges, from $125 to $2,600. You will be able to find a model that fits your specific need.
Related Link: The 11 BEST Spotting Scopes for Bird Watching
Tip #2: Read and Follow Your Favorite Birding Blogs.
“The Internet has changed the world.” – The Understatement of the Century.
There is some fantastic bird watching magazines and publications available. Personally, I subscribe to a few including Bird Watcher’s Digest and Audubon.
But if you are only reading these mainstream publications, you are unfortunately missing out on some incredible content! Some of the best posts and articles that I read come directly from personal bird watching blogs.
For better or worse:), the internet has let anyone with a computer and internet connection have a voice!
The birding blogs I follow are very different, and each one provides something unique. Some are funny; others are great at educating about different species or give reviews of newly available technology, while some post very articulate and well-written articles about bird conservation or environmental issues. Some blogs do all of these well!
Bonus Tip: Organizing and Reading Your Blogs, News, and Websites
One problem with blogs is that they are so many of them! I will find a great one that I enjoy but then never end up going back to it. It’s hard to keep them organized systematically.
Have you heard of Feedly?
If not, I recommend creating an account. It’s free! It’s the way that I organize my favorite websites, publications, and blogs.
Instead of trying to visit each site every day to see if there are new posts, I just have to log into Feedly. From there, I have added my favorite websites and blogs and put them into different categories. Each time a new post or article is published from any of these sites, I can see and read it right in the Feedly interface.
Seriously, it saves so much time and makes sure I don’t miss any great articles or posts. It has changed my life, check it out!
Tip # 3: Get Inspired by Reading Books.
Think of your new found love of bird watching like a small fire that just got started. It can quickly be put out, and your attention drawn to the next thing.
Reading some great bird watching books can serve as the perfect kindling to propel your new interest into a full-blown obsession.
And who doesn’t love a good book recommendation?
Here are 3 of my favorites:
The Big Year by Mark Obmascik:
This book was also turned into a movie a few years ago. A great way to get introduced to the crazy annual competition of who can see the most birds in a year. Trust me; it will get you thinking how you can accomplish your own big year.
To See Every Bird On Earth by Dan Koeppel:
This book holds a special place in my birding heart. It helped propel me into the bird watching fray. Initially, I checked it out from the library as an audiobook and subsequently listened to it three times. It does an excellent job of introducing some of the oddities of the birding subculture and also illustrates how bird watching can turn into an obsession at the expense of your family.
John James Audubon: The Making of an American by Richard Rhodes:
The man, the myth, the legend. Any new bird watcher should ground themselves and show some respect to one of the founding fathers of birding! It’s a long read but worth the effort.
Read the following article for a complete list of my favorite bird watching books:
Tip #4: Download a Field Guide onto your Smart Phone.
Gone are the days when you need to carry around a big paper field guide!
Not only were they cumbersome and added a few pounds to my backpack, by the time I flipped through the guidebook the bird I was trying to identify had flown away!
My favorite field guides are now just an app on my phone. I find it much easier to search quickly for my target bird; they are kept updated, I have it with me ALL THE TIME, they have more pictures, including audio recordings and weigh nothing!
The best part?
Most of the apps are less expensive than a paper copy (and some are even free)!
- Read the following article for a complete list of my favorite birding apps:
- Download one of the below field guide apps today!
Tip #5: Start Your Life List Today and Sign Up for eBird!
Personally, any activity that can be turned into a game or competition is instantly more exciting, including bird watching.
For example, most birders enjoy keeping lists. The most common type of list that is maintained is called a “life list,” which is simply a list of every species of bird they have seen in their lifetime. An entire movie was even made about “listing” called “The Big Year.” It chronicles the crazy year-long competition that occurs annually in North America to see who can see the most different species of bird.
Keeping lists is fun! As a competitive person, it provides a way to compare my results against other birders, both locally and around the world. I love finding a new bird that I have never seen before, whether it’s on vacation or spotting a rare bird that is close to home. There is a bit of a high putting a “check mark” next to a new bird. It gives me a bit of a purpose while out there with the birds.
You need to start your Life List today!
The easiest way to do this is by signing up for an account with eBird and start submitting your observations regularly.
What is eBird?
Put simply, eBird is an online checklist program that keeps track of how many birds you have seen and where it happened. You can always see the number of birds on your “life list” when first logged in and even compare your totals against other eBird users in the online community.
TRUST ME! Don’t keep your new list in an excel spreadsheet or a notebook on your desk. I have tried, and it’s a nightmare. Submitting checklists on eBird is so easy, whether it’s on their website or using their app.
Just get your bird observations into eBird, and from there you can manage and view the data just about anyway you want. From how many birds you have seen this year to how many states or countries you have seen birds. It’s almost like a passport book!
It’s a lot of fun to compare your results with other eBird users both locally and around the world. For example, check out my life list on eBird.
I didn’t even mention the best part?
- Sign up for eBird, explore their website and submit your first checklist.
- Download the eBird app (free!) onto your smartphone or tablet. It’s incredibly easy to submit checklists wherever you are and whenever you want.
- Have more questions? eBird has an incredible “Help Center” on their site.
Tip #6: Find and Connect with Other Local Birders.
As the overused quotes say:
- “Two heads are better than one.”
- “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
- “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
And we could go on forever.
Meeting other local birders can seriously accelerate your knowledge of local birds and bird watching. This sense of community can also help foster your new love of birds.
I think my dear friend Genie (RIP Robin Williams) from Aladdin says it best: “You ain’t never had a friend like me!”
Whether it’s officially joining a local bird club or casually meeting up with other people on the weekend at different birding hot spots, connecting with passionate and experienced birders can be helpful for many reasons.
My favorite reason is the chance to master local bird identification while having FUN at the same time. Having trouble with sparrows? Just ask the sparrow expert. Can’t tell the difference between a Red-tailed Hawk and Red-shouldered Hawk? There’s a birder for that!
And the best part is it’s usually FREE!
Don’t be intimidated to attend your first meet up because every group wants more participants. Trust me; fellow birders are all too willing to share their knowledge and expertise regarding everything from identifying local species, binoculars, gear and just offering general encouragement.
Most local bird clubs even have a monthly meeting where a speaker is brought in to discuss a relevant topic. From there, birding trips and excursions are scheduled among members throughout the month.
These trips with local birding experts can put you on the fast track. Forget memorizing flash cards and listening to audio recordings repeatedly; you basically can get your own personal birding tutor while gaining hands-on experience!
Seriously, why haven’t you joined a group yet?
Find a local bird club or group to join!!!
Here are some places to start your search:
- Audubon: There are over 450 chapters to join in the United States. They usually have a monthly meeting, and most chapters also coordinate a few bird trips every month.
- Bird Club Finder from Bird Watchers Digest: (International!!!)
- This may be the best resource on this list. It includes all the Audubon chapters and bird clubs from above plus more.
- Check the “Calendar of Events” for your local, state or national parks district.
- I have found they put on a lot of great local bird walks and education activities.
- Believe it or not, there is a lot of activity and conversation taking place on Facebook and other social media platforms.
- For example, I live in the great state of Ohio and am a member of the group Birding Ohio. People are continually asking ID tips, hot spots questions, posting pictures, etc. It’s a great local resource.
- While you are on Facebook, you might as well “like” Bird Watching HQ! (Sorry for the shameless plug)
Tip #7: Don’t Be A Jerk! Learn the Rules!
The title above is pretty self-explanatory, but please let me explain.
When starting any new endeavor, it’s essential to learn the rules and etiquette that have been established. The last thing you want is to start bird watching and immediately offend someone else in the woods. Or even worse, put a bird in danger because of your negligence.
My recommendation is to spend a bit of time to familiarize yourself before heading out into the wild. Just remember to not be a jerk and most of the time you will be forgiven for any taboos!
Read the following articles:
Tip # 8: Use the “80/20 Rule” to Master Local Birds.
Did you know?
- In most businesses 80% of the profits come from 20% of customers?
- Or that 20% of drinkers consume 80% of beer?
- Or that 80% of healthcare costs come from 20% of the patients?
Some of you may have heard of this phenomenon. For those that haven’t, welcome to the wonderful world of the 80/20 Rule. Put simply, the 80/20 Rule (also commonly called the Pareto Principle) states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.
Start looking around and you will see the 80/20 relationship everywhere:
Think about the clothes you wear. My guess is that 20% of them account for 80% of what you wear. Think about your job. I bet 80% of the problems come from 20% of the customers. The examples go on and on, it’s fascinating!
Let’s use this new knowledge to improve our birding skills quickly.
Check out this example:
I live in the great state of Ohio and according to the Ohio Ornithological Society; the official Ohio checklist has 431 birds. The list starts with Black-bellied Whistling-Duck and ends with a Eurasian Tree Sparrow.
How overwhelming as a new bird watcher! The problem is that most of these birds are unlikely to be observed, especially on a normal local birding trip. What are the odds you are going to observe a Ruddy Turnstone at your local park? But guess what? It’s on the Ohio checklist.
There’s a better way!
Instead, most bird watchers should utilize the 80/20 Rule while learning bird identification. Let’s focus on the 20% of birds that are going to be seen 80% of the time. In Ohio, most of my checklists ALWAYS include American Crow, Northern Cardinal, Mourning Dove, Blue Jay, Red Tailed Hawk, Turkey Vulture, House Finch, House Sparrow, etc.
I recommend getting unbelievably great at the 20% of birds that are most common in your area. Know everything about these birds from field marks to mating sounds/songs. Trust me, you will feel like a bird watching rock star very quickly.
So in Ohio, I would only need to learn 86 birds (431 x 20%) to achieve fantastic results. In fact, I would argue that just 43 birds (10%) would need to be learned and that would result in 90% of the birds that are commonly seen. (Did I just propose a 90/10 Rule? Yes. Yes, I did.)
Only having to learn 20% (or 10%) of your local birds sets the barrier to entry much lower and doesn’t feel so overwhelming. Very quickly, a new bird watcher could recognize and identify almost all the birds that would be encountered on a typical excursion. Having some quick wins and positive results also provide the necessary excitement and confidence to continue learning and improving.
Identify the 20% of birds that are most common in your area and focus your efforts entirely on mastering their identification by sight and sound.
Here are some potential resources to help get started:
- Local, State and National Park websites: I have found that most park websites have a section of the most common birds that can be observed. You may have to do some digging.
- For example, my local county park has this resource about a few common birds. Not great, but a start!
- Ask other birders or talk to local birding clubs: See Tip #3 above for more information.
- Buy a field guide that just focuses on common birds:
- Stan Tekiela’s State Specific Field Guides: I am a bit partial to these because it was my first field guide and helped spark my bird watching hobby.
- National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Birds of North America: Includes 150 of the most commons birds across the continent.
- Download Larkwire on your phone, tablet or computer: Not only do you need to learn to identify birds by sight, but also by sound!! I have found that Larkwire is a fun way to accomplish this goal. They have a feature that lets you create your own playlist, which is perfect to master the sounds and songs of the most common 20%!
- Read my complete review of Larkwire.
- Download in App Store (Sorry, not available on Google Play but can be played on your computer!)
Tip # 9: Dress and Prepare Like a Penguin, not a Parrot.
Penguins live in some of the harshest and most VARIED environments on planet Earth.
We all know that Emperor and Adélie Penguins brave and even nest on the Antarctic mainland, their thick coats of blubber and specialized feathers keeping them warm both on land and swimming in the frozen sea.
There are also a few warm weather penguins that deal with the extreme heat! The Galapagos Penguin lives directly on the equator, and the African Penguin digs burrows to nest on the sunny beaches of Africa.
Did you know that the Yellow-eye Penguin and Fiordland Crested Penguin comes ashore specifically to nest in forests? Yes, it’s true. I can’t imagine walking in the woods only to find a penguin.
Penguins are amazing. They survive whether it’s hot, cold, windy, wet or humid. But let me ask you a question:
Have you ever seen a sad penguin?
I certainly have not! Wherever they live, their bodies are perfectly adapted to Mother Nature.
Now let’s compare a penguin to a parrot. Just imagine if a Scarlet Macaw, used to warm and humid rain forests, was placed on Antarctica. It’s either freezing to death or taking the first flight back to Brazil.
Why is this relevant to bird watching?
Mother Nature is normally not very cooperative to bird watchers. I have been out birding countless times that started as beautiful sunny days. In the blink of an eye a big thunderstorm rolls in and my days ends with rain and cold.
Living in cold Midwest of the United States (Ohio), if I waited for perfect sunny days to go birding, I might only get out a few times a year! Most of my local trips have to take place during our snowy and windy winters, wet and muddy springs or humid summers.
On top of that, chasing birds into a dew-soaked underbrush or walking through a stream can be quite common (and wet!).
So make sure to dress and prepare like a penguin!! (Not like a parrot)
Seriously, before going on a bird watching trip it pays HUGE dividends to prepare your wardrobe and think of different weather scenarios. From the hat on your head to the socks on your feet, it is all important in the right situation. Not having the right jacket or pair of gloves can turn a pleasant day into a miserable one quickly!
As a general rule, I prefer to spend a little more on clothing items that are not bulky and easy to move around in. For example, I personally hate wearing jeans while birding! It feels like I am super constrained.
I also try to find waterproof or water-resistant clothing, which is a MUST for my boots or shoes.
Get yourself equipped with the right clothing and accessories. Below is a list of some ideas:
- Waterproof Hiking Boots and Shoes:
- For winter, I recently purchased Timberland Gore-Tex boots and love them.
- For summer, I have much lighter waterproof hiking shoes from Merrell. I have never been disappointed in a purchase from them!
- Hiking Socks:
- Make sure the material is not cotton!
- I have lighter, thinner pairs for summer. Thicker, warmer pairs for winter.
- Hiking Pants:
- I prefer the type the convertible pants that can turn into shorts. My wife might make fun of me for not being stylish, but nothing is more convenient!
- Cold Weather: Please buy compression pants and shirts.
- As I mentioned, I hate wearing jeans. I love the hiking pants from above, but in the winter they are not enough to keep my legs warm. Beneath my hiking pants, I wear cold weather compression pants.
- I also recommend a cold weather compression shirt.
- Breathable hiking shirts:
- As Under Armour famously put in our heads – “Cotton is the enemy.” I couldn’t agree more, whether it’s hot or cold weather.
- Winter jacket: Make sure it’s one that lets you move!
- Light jacket on brisk mornings.
- Gloves: prefer ones that I can use with my smartphone and camera.
- Hats: Both for winter and summer
- Yaktrax to walk on snow. These slip right over your shoes! Amazing product.
Tip # 10: Master the 4 Keys to Bird Identification.
Identifying birds is a skill that will continue to be developed and improved upon your entire life.
From wing bars to eye lines to tail feathers, identifying similar looking birds is frustrating even for experienced bird watchers. It can be enough to make many beginner birders cry mercy and give up!
Don’t put too much pressure on yourself! You don’t need to stress about memorizing the fine details of bird anatomy quite yet.
Start by Mastering The 4 Keys to Bird Identification
Upon seeing a new bird, most experts recommend that new bird watchers try to observe the four following attributes. From here, it should be much easier to narrow the bird to a few species to identify.
#1: Size and Shape:
For size, use this helpful tip!
Use a few common birds as references to quickly compare the size. For example, I use the House Sparrow, American Robin and American Crow. Upon seeing a new bird, the first thing I do is compare the size to one of these 3 birds. Is it smaller than a House Sparrow? Or in between an American Robin and American Crow? Or bigger than an American Crow?
Next, I try to remember the overall shape and any visible identifying features. Does it have a crest on its head? What is the bill shape? Is the bird short and plump or long and sleek? Is it a hawk or a gull?
Answering a few of these questions alone can typically narrow down the bird to a few possible species. At the very least, it should get you to the correct section of your field guide!
#2: Color Pattern:
It’s crucial to pay attention to the colors and pattern of the mystery bird. Many times the color pattern alone can narrow the bird down to a few species.
Most birds have a dominant color, whether it’s brown, blue, red, black or yellow.
If possible, try to look for a mark on their wings or eye that may give their identity away. Are there streaks across the breast? A flash of white on the sides as the bird flies away?
My recommendation is to find the dominant color and quickly find 2-3 of the other most obvious field marks to help identification.
Pay attention to the surrounding habitat. Some birds are very picky about where they live, and this information can help eliminate or confirm certain species.
For example, Scarlet Tanagers like to live in mature, unbroken forests. Eastern Meadowlarks prefer open, grassy meadows. Wood Ducks are shy and like quiet, shallow ponds and marshes.
Observing a birds behavior is one of the things that I enjoy most about bird watching. From Red-Shouldered Hawks looking for their next meal to Northern Cardinals perched atop a tree singing for its mate, there is always something new to see.
But watching a birds behavior can also help confirm a particular species and comes in handy many times among birds that closely resemble each other.
How does the bird move? Does it flick its tail? Does it bob up and down? This information can be very useful!
For example, Killdeer pretend to have a broken wing to lure predators away from their nest. Ospreys are the only raptor that plunges feet first into the water to catch their prey. Red-breasted and White-breasted nuthatches are some of the only birds that explore a tree going down head first.
I have to credit the very helpful website “All About Birds” for some of the inspiration and help for this section. Please check out the below two articles from their site to explore in more detail.
Have you practiced and mastered these four basics?
The next step is to keep practicing and expand your skills. My recommendation is to purchase the following book:
Sibley’s Birding Basics: How to Identify Birds, Using the Clues in Feathers, Habitats, Behaviors, and Sounds by David Allen Sibley
This book builds upon the basic skills of bird identification. It has helped me immensely, both in the field and using my other field guides.
Tip #11: Listen to Birding Podcasts.
What do you listen to while driving your car?
Please don’t tell me that you listen to music!
The average person spends 17,600 minutes in their car EVERY year. That breaks down to about 5 and a half hours per week. Think how much you could accomplish and learn during your daily commute and weekly errands.
I love music as much as anyone, but I also like using my brain and learning new things.
My recommendation is to use this time (or make a compromise and use half your driving time) to listen to podcasts, specifically podcasts that are bird-related. It will help your new bird watching passion the following ways:
- Stay current with news and trends.
- Learn more about birds, lingo, identification, etc.
- It’s entertaining!
Not sure what a podcast is? Click here for more information.
Here are three bird related podcasts to check out and get started:
American Birding Podcast:
Put together by the American Birding Association. They discuss birds, birding, travel, and conservation in North America and beyond.
Out There With the Birds:
Hosted by Bill Thompson and Ben Lizdas from the magazine Bird Watchers Digest. Each week they discuss the latest trends and news in birding.
They produce a new 2-minute podcast every day. Topics vary but usually focus on one species of bird and information regarding its natural history, habitat, etc.
Tip # 12: Save These Websites as Favorites and Check Often.
You might as well get familiar with some of the best bird websites, resources and organizations around. They will help take you from beginning birder to an experienced eagle.
Save the following sites as favorites, get email updates or follow them on Facebook. However you prefer, these sites provide enormous value and content almost daily!
With local chapters all across the United States, Audubon is leading the charge to conserve and restore natural ecosystems by focusing on birds and wildlife. They provide almost daily articles ranging across all topics. From politics to the fine details of bird identification.
The ABA provides leadership to birders by increasing their knowledge, skills, and enjoyment of birding. They are the only organization in North America that specifically caters to recreational birders and contribute to bird and bird habitat conservation through their varied programs. Become a member today!
There is so much information on this site it’s a bit overwhelming! I would start with their Bird Academy and check out their courses.
One of the most popular birding sites in the world. It’s a general forum for anything birding related. A great way to ask questions and get quick answers.
Tip #13: Subscribe to this blog!
I am going to be a bit selfish now.
If you made it this far, this post couldn’t have been the worst you have ever read?
Or maybe it was!
Either way, please do me a favor?
Please join my newsletter and get notified when new content is made available (see the bar at the top). I think you will enjoy Bird Watching HQ!
Tip #14: Share Your Best Bird Watching Tips!
Now it’s your turn.
After writing over 5,000 words, I’m a bit tired and need your help!
What are your favorite’s bird watching tips and tricks for beginners? What can you share that would help someone else out?
I know I missed some great websites, apps and other various products. I’m sorry in advance.
Please let me know your recommendations in the comments section and keep this list going!
Thanks for stopping by and happy birding!
What about ebird and Merlin together. Click on the bird, click on the merlin sign in the top corner and you can check photos, maps and the calls. Very helpful when tryng to identify a bird. Merlin can be downloaded for the area you live in or are visiting, I have South east Queensland in Australia- it will show rarities as well. Love it.
Now days a camera is SO useful, as I can check the ID on the computer when I get home.
I also like to go to a new spot with another birder who knows the area as they often know where say the kingfishers or owlet nightjars frequent.
Enjoyed your list, Thanks, Claire.
I really loved the tip you gave to observe the behavior of the birds. I am an avid bird watcher and I always want to improve my bird watching skills. I will make sure to not only observe the birds, but also their behavior so that I can understand their next moves.
What about Merlin Bird ID? Would be a nice accompaniment to Tip #6.
I have not had a chance to check out Merlin Bird ID yet but have heard lots of great things. That’s a good idea for that section actually. Thank you for the feedback. There are a few other tips I wanted to add in later on and this will be included in the first revision. 🙂 Does Merlin Bird ID work pretty well?