Birding Basics

I always remind people that there are many ways to engage with nature. I have found bird watching to be a very satisfactory pursuit in that it compels me to engage with nature in an observant and deliberate way. Here is an article by Outdoor Afro contributor Max Wood, who shares the basics of how to get into bird observation and ways to create a bird sanctuary of your own.

Bird watching (formally known as birding) is an exciting hobby for anyone with a general interest in the outdoors and wildlife.  Whether you’re an avid birder traveling around the world in search of new and rare birds or a simply a casual outdoor enthusiast on a weekend hike, you’ll find that birding offers a unique combination of excitement and tranquility.  After learning the basics of birding and identifying just a handful of local birds, I promise you’ll be hooked!

First, it’s important to find a good area in your region for bird watching.  Ideally, the area will consist of a diversity of natural habitats untouched by human activities (although many interesting birds can be found in urban areas).  The greater the diversity of habitats, the greater the diversity of bird species you’re likely to observe.  For example, a walking path that starts in an open meadow, winds through a forest, and ends along a stream (called a riparian zone) would be ideal for birding because each of these three habitat types is home to a unique group of birds.  Many local parks, nature preserves, outdoor education centers, and bird sanctuaries are likely to have such an area.  If you’re region has a local Audubon organization, this is another great resource for finding a good birding spot.
In addition to location, birding watching is also heavily influenced by the time of year.  This is because different groups of birds are present in a particular area during different seasons.  In North America, birds can be divided into three main groups in this respect.  Neotropical migrants are birds that come from Central and South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean during the spring and spend the summer breeding in North America, eventually returning south in the fall.  Examples of such birds include most of the songbirds (e.g. warblers, tanagers, vireos).  Other species of birds migrate from the north in the fall, spend the winter in Central of Southern North America, and then return north in the spring when it’s time to breed (e.g. Song Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow).  Birds with this migratory pattern are known as winter residents.  The third group consists of those that do no migration at all and instead remain in a single area all year round.  Common examples of such birds, which are referred to as residents, are the Northern Cardinal and the Red-winged Blackbird.
This knowledge of where and when to look for birds is essential for successful bird watching.  There are also a handful of techniques and tools that you’ll need to become acquainted with before hitting the trails.  Most importantly, you should learn how to use binoculars and a field guide.  Binoculars allow one to see the details of a bird’s shape and coloration that are often needed to correctly identify the bird.  Binoculars come in a range of styles and are generally described in terms of two important parameters: magnification and size.  The magnification describes how much larger objects appear in the binoculars compared to with a naked eye, thus a magnification of 8 means that an object will look 8 times larger when viewed through the binoculars.  The size of the binoculars (which specifically refers to the diameter of the objective, or larger, lens of a pair of binoculars) determines two important factors: how much light is let in (the more the better) and how big the field of view is (with a larger field of view you’ll be looking at a larger area through the binoculars, and thus birds can be easier to locate).  Binocular specifications are listed as a pair of numbers, such as 8X42.  The first number, 8, describes the magnification power while the second number, 42, indicates the size of the binoculars.  Generally, birders use either 7X35, 8X42, or 10X42 binoculars.
In addition to having a good pair of binoculars, it’s also important to have a good field guide for the area you will be birding in.  Field guides provide important information that is crucial for identifying a bird in the field.  Field guides not only indicate telltale features, such as the black cap of a male Wilson’s Warbler, but also provide important information regarding the calls and songs, habitats, regional distribution, and behaviors associated with each specific bird species.

It takes some practice, but with time you’ll be able to see a bird in the field, observe details through the binoculars, and then look up the bird and identify it using your field guide.  Be warned, once you start birding you’ll be quickly hooked, so be ready for lots of fantastic weekend mornings spent walking, hiking, and of course, bird watching!
About the Author:
I am a biologist pursuing a PhD examining avian neurobiology and behavior.  I have conducted a wide variety of research projects ranging from cognitive and neurobiological laboratory studies to behavioral field experiments.  As a writer for YourBirdOasis, a retailer of backyard birding supplies and an essential resource for burgeoning and expert birders alike, I have the exciting opportunity to share my knowledge of and passion for birds with many online communities.  Visit YourBirdOasis for a huge selection of bird feeders, birdhouses, and everything else you’ll need to set up your own backyard bird sanctuary!