5 tips to start with bird watching

I never thought I would become a bird nerd one day but guess what – here I am. Bird watching or birding for me is a passion and almost like meditation. I love observing birds, reading about their behavior, and of course portraying them with my camera. I have put together 5 tips to start with bird watching that help you to become a birder.

 table of content

tip 1: Finding birds

Birds can be found everywhere. The art lies in seeing them.

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green woodpecker

green woodpecker

Love and respect birds

Bird watching is an amazing way to spend time outdoors. You not only will be seeing birds but also will discover nature to its best. You will be spending a lot of time walking through forests, along river banks, through meadows, and one or the other day through knee-deep snow in harsh winter times. Please do always remember when trying to find birds you are wandering around in their habitat. You are a guest so please behave as such. Treat birds and wildlife in general with the greatest respect and never put them in danger by any means.

Please be especially cautious in times of the mating season and when birds raise their chicks. Please don’t leave trash behind as this not only will be a threat to birds but also to other wildlife. Thank you very much.

Be quiet

Birds are easily spooked hence being quiet is essential in not distracting them from doing bird business. However, being quiet not only helps birds but also will help you. You will hear more birds if you make less noise. When I am out looking for birds I find my inner peace and all I hear is the voices of mother nature and her little creatures. I encourage you to try it out yourself. Walk silently through forests and listen to the sounds of the trees, the birds, and the other wildlife. It’s magical. 

Be patient

Tolstoy wrote in his book War and Peace „The strongest of all warriors are these two: time and patience“. This quote is very much true when it comes down to bird watching. Through bird watching, I have learned to become patient. Birds have their schedule. You can’t go someplace pressing a button making birds appear. Sometimes I do feel like birds make fun of me and know exactly that I am waiting for them. They will let me wait for hours and just when I decide to pack things up stick their head out. Usually, it’s the time when I put my camera into the backpack. They would come out and do all sorts of crazy things right in front of me not allowing me to take a picture. I, therefore, have learned to only put my into the bag when arriving back home.

Where to find birds

Van Gogh said: „If you truly love nature you will find beauty everywhere“. I am a believer of this and it very much holds when it comes down to birding. You will learn over time that if you are patient enough it’s the birds that make themselves visible to you. Good places to start looking for birds very much depends on your target species. Lakes and rivers will be good for waterfowl whereas parks or woodlands will be good for songbirds or birds of prey. You will however also encounter a variety of birds in cities and villages. A good piece of advice is to start birding in wildlife or birdlife parks. Those parks usually are designed in a way that they attract a lot of birds. In addition to that, they are in most cases equipped with hides.

Bird hides

Bird hides are installations that allow you to observe birds without distracting them. While sitting and waiting in hides you will meet other people sharing the same interest and you can make great connections. It’s a great tip to start with bird watching as you will be able to observe birds from a close distance and for a good amount of time.

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blue tit

Blue tit

Feeders

Mainly during harsh winter times will birds be very thankful if you put out food. Most birds go crazy for seeds and nuts. We have feeders all around the house which gives me great possibilities to not only support my friends with treats but also study them. We spend quite a lot of money on high-quality bird seeds. Songbirds love peanuts or sunflower seeds. Eurasian jays love corn whereas woodpeckers and magpies will go nuts on lard. We also put some fresh fruits like apples out. Once the snow covers the land here we buy frozen chicken and put it out for the ravens and the buzzards.

Birdhouses

We have lots of trees on our property and on many of those is a little birdhouse installed. Those little cabins are then regularly rented out to our feathery friends. The birds that aren’t cave breeders usually check in into our spruce trees where they build nests well hidden by the spruce needles. They then kind of live like in a multiple-family dwelling. Birdhouses give you another great opportunity to study the behavior of birds and witness how fledglings learn how to fly. 

tip 2: Identifying birds

Identifying birds can be quite a challenge even for experienced birders. This of course depends on the species. I have added below a couple of tips to start with bird watching and bird identification. 

Field guides

When I started birding I was quite surprised by the variety of birds species I began to see. The main difficulty back then (and sometimes still now) was to identify the individual birds. This is where the bird guides come into play. Bird guides are books that contain all relevant information to successfully identify birds at any time of the year. They don’t use photographs but drawings of birds and this is essential in my opinion. The problem with bird books using photographs is that they are portraying an individual animal at a specific time during the year. That doesn’t sound too bad however you need to understand that

  • birds depending on the season may change their plumage
  • birds depending on their sex may look different from each other
  • juvenile birds may look completely different than adult animals  
  • many more reasons

For Europe, I would recommend the Collins bird guide whereas for the US the Peterson field guide. I own both and them and they are in my eyes brilliant.

Team up with others while bird watching

Local bird-watching groups, conservation organizations, birdlife visitor centers, or social media groups are great places to connect with other bird enthusiasts. A good piece of advice is to accompany experienced bird watchers that will help you to see and identify birds. They not only can tell all sorts of interesting things about birds but also will be very knowledgeable on great places to look for.

Study bird shapes and bird behavior

Studying bird shapes and bird behavior may sound like a weird beginner tip. It will however be a big game-changer for you. Shapes, as well as the behavior of birds, help you to narrow down a sighting. I am for example able instantly to distinguish (from a far distance) between a common kestrel, a common buzzard, or a kite just by looking at its shape. I wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a red- or a black kite without getting a closer look. However, based on the month of the year I may know as e.g. black kites are migratory birds that can’t be seen all year round (e.g. in Switzerland). Red kites are both migratory and resident birds. Hence if it is wintertime and I would be seeing a kite I would immediately know that it can’t be a black kite.

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isolated bird on white background

red kite

isolated bird on white background

black kite

Listen to bird calls

Bird calls are an excellent way of identifying birds. It is however also a very difficult one. Birds often not only have one but many different calls and it takes quite a while to determine a bird by its chirping. Let’s however use a relatively simple example. Telling the difference between a raven and a carrion crow sounds relatively simple but in fact, it’s not. The tail feathers sometimes can be misleading and I have sometimes difficulties unless I hear them. Ravens „kruuk kruuk“ whereas carrion crows „caw caw“. There are very good websites that help you to learn bird calls. I like XC (Xeno canto) quite a bit as you either can choose by species or by region. At the time of writing this article, XC has mind-blowing 666’457 recordings of 10’290 species collected by 8’326 recordists. 

tip 3: what equipment to use

The 3rd of my 5 tips to start with bird watching is about equipment. The good news is that you don’t need anything to start with birding. Once you start paying attention to my beloved feathered friends you will be able to see and hear a lot of birds without any equipment necessary. Some birds will have either very distinctive colors or color patterns and will allow you to identify them even from a far distance. E.g. you can’t confuse a common kingfisher with any other species. Don’t worry, I hardly dress up like below but only rarely if the situation requires it. 

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common kingfisher

common kingfisher

Optics

However, a lot of birds have quite a large escape distance. This means that they won’t let you get close as they are very shy. It is very important to understand that even though you admire birds and only like to watch them without meaning any harm for them you are a threat. Identifying birds from a distance can be quite tricky though. Hence you may consider investing in a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope. When I am out photographing I always carry a pair of binoculars that allow me to spot birds before photographing them. You need to find out for yourself if you prefer a spotting scope or binoculars and how much you would like to invest. Maybe this article helps you a bit with your decision.  

Notebook

I am using a notebook to keep track of my sightings of bird species, places, and dates. Sometimes I also take additional notes such as the number of individual animals I have seen. In case I am not able to identify the bird I will take a reference picture of it allowing me later to study the bird. However, in case I don’t have my camera with me I will use the notebook to sketch the shape of the bird and add any other detail that catches my eye. This drawing and notes will later refresh my memory and help me to identify the bird. I therefore highly recommend you start with your notebook as soon as possible.

Clothing, food and water

When I go out birding I never know what is waiting for me. There are these days where birds decide not to make them visible to me. There are however those days where birds pop out everywhere and I walk from one observation to the other. Chances are high that in both cases I need to wait long times, standing around, walking through wet meadows, being exposed to wind, etc. Water- and windproof clothing will help you not to get wet or cold and good shoes will keep your feet warm and cozy. With time passing by hunger and thirst will knock at your door. Trust me, I have been waiting for birds for hours completely forgetting everything around me. Water and some snacks are essential in such situations to keep me going. 

Camouflage yourself

I understand that this isn’t one of everyone’s favorite tips on how to start with bird watching. However, wearing camo clothing will help you to be less visible to birds. If you don’t like to be wandering around in camouflage stuff you can also choose colors matching the area you go. For forests, you could be wearing green or brown jackets and pants. Don’t worry I hardly dress up like below but only if circumstances require it.

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5 tips to start with bird watching

tip 4: Timing

Timing in birding has two different aspects. The time of the day and the time of the year. 

Time of the day

Depending on the time of the day birds will be more or less active. The timing varies species by species. Hence there is no „exact“ hour I could recommend for birding. Most birds are diurnal, active during the day. However, there are also many nocturnal species, active during the night. Finding a good time of the day for birding is however a bit more complex than just day and night. Usually sunrise and sunset are good times to go for bird watching as most species will be having a blast during those times. If you however are interested in seeing a specific bird I would recommend reading about the species and making yourself familiar with timing and habitat. I found this article that has quite a lot of good information about this topic. 

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5 tips to start with bird watching

grey heron

Time of the year

Birds are classified as either long-distant migrants, medium distant migrants, short distant migrants, or permanent residents. This means in a nutshell that depending on where you live you may see some bird species all year round whereas other species only will be surrounding you during specific times of the year. Different species will migrate during different times of the year. Migration seasons are for many birders exciting times as one can spot birds that may only stop for a day or two in a specific region. Hence there will be very rare occasions of seeing them. Also, you have high changes seeing large flocks of birds. Most birders including myself are crazy about bird species counting and therefore go nuts when birds migrate.

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starlings

common starling

tip 5: Don’t be afraid to become a bird nerd

My last of the 5 tips to start with bird watching is not to be afraid of becoming a bird nerd. I of course telling you this with a laughing eye. The more you deal with bird-related topics the more you will become a nerd. Everywhere you go you will be looking for birds and every time you meet someone you will be talking about bird things. At some point in time, you will end up studying bird taxonomy and learning the scientific names of birds in the Latin language.

Why is bird taxonomy important

Bird taxonomy is the arrangement and classification of animals based on both their similarities and their differences. This means that you will be able to conclude certain things when you observe different species of the same genus. If you are located in the US you can browse here through hundreds of bird species by taxonomy. If you are Europe-based you can find a similar list here.

Why are the scientific names of birds important

In my opinion, there are two main reasons why scientific names in Latin are important. The first reason is linked to the above taxonomy section. There are seven levels of bird classification. The below table shows you how e.g. a common raven, as well as a carrion crow, is classified. You can kind of ignore the first three levels as when you look at birds they all belong to the class „Aves“.

    Common raven   Carrion crow   Comment
Kingdom   Animalia    Animalia   Animals
Phylum   Chordata   Chordata   Animals with a backbone
Class   Aves   Aves   Birds
Order   Passeriformes   Passeriformes   Perching birds
Family   Corvidae   Corvidae   Songbird family including crows, jays, and magpies
Genus   Corvus   Corvus   Raven and crows
Species   corax   corone   Common raven / Carrion crow

You can understand from the above table that both common raven and carrion crow share the same genus and with this will share many similarities. More importantly, you also notice that e.g. Eurasian jays are part of the Corvidae family as well.  

A few last words

Birding is a wonderful hobby and for many a real passion. I have noticed an increasing demand for bird information during the pandemic and do believe that many have been soaked into the beautiful worlds of birds. Maybe this has to do with people more often going to parks and forests getting a chance of fresh air. I hope you have been enjoying this article and that I was able to give you some awesome tips to start with bird watching. I would love to hear from you.

Let me know your thoughts

I hope this article was helpful for you. If there is anything you are looking for, please let me know and I try to find examples to discuss.

Love an protect wildlife

Animals are awesome and need our protection. Please don’t hurt, kill or eat animals.

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