Bird Watching For Beginners
Don’t over think it, just enjoy it.
I wouldn’t say I am a Twitcher or a Birder, but I have always liked birds. I was brought up on a small mixed farm in Cornwall, during the 1970s and 80s. Every day I would see a mix of garden, field and woodland birds, and occasionally something rarer. The most unusual bird that I remember seeing was a Hoopoe (I had to look it up). I never kept lists or did any studies, but I did enjoy seeing the odd rarity and the challenge of trying to identify each bird I saw. I am now over 50, but still enjoy seeing birds, and I usually take my monocular with me on walks.
Why do it?
Why not I would say. It gets you out in the fresh air, you get some exercise and you get to enjoy nature. Some people find it is a good way to switch off and can help reduce stress. A lot of bird watchers just watch birds, and maybe try and identify them. Others take it more seriously and like to carry out studies on the different migrations, songs, beaks, feet, plumages, nests, territories, etc., while Twitchers keep lists of the birds they have seen and will travel great distances to see rarities.
What equipment will I need?
At first, nothing special, just a coat and comfortable footwear for walking. As you get more serious, a pair of binoculars or a monocular will enable you to see a bit further. I would suggest 8x or 10x magnification, as anything higher will start to get heavy. Also a good identification book or an app for your smartphone will help you identify the less common varieties. If you wish to keep a list of birds that you have seen, then a notebook and pencil will obviously help, but some people just use their phone. If you don’t mind carrying extra weight and wish to see a lot further, then you might consider a spotting scope. This is a type of telescope which can be used to spot birds, wildlife or anything in the distance, and is normally used on a tripod. The magnification is usually a lot higher than that found on regular binoculars, and is often adjustable. However, this equipment can cost quite a lot and be fairly heavy, so it is only for the serious birder.
Where can I go to see birds?
You can start by watching your garden from a window. If you live in a town or city, then try your local park or look around any rivers or canals. If you can get to the countryside or coast, then you should see even more types. As you begin to identify more varieties, you will notice that particular species like certain habitats, so the more places you can visit, the more likely you are to spot new breeds. You may find that you live close to a reserve, or in an area where a lot of migrants stop off to rest. Also, if you travel for work or pleasure, don’t forget that some species can only be found in particular areas of the country. You may find that some species will only be seen at certain times of the year, often dictated by changing food resources and the need to breed.
When is the best time to see birds?
You can see birds throughout the day and through the whole year, but some times are better than others. If you don’t mind an early start, dawn is often a good time to see and definitely the best time to hear birds. The dawn chorus is when they all try and out do each other by singing loudly and is worth getting out of bed for. The mid part of the day has better light but less activity, and then in the evening it is the opposite, with fading light but more going on. Winter means a lot less leaves on the trees and less foliage in hedges, so birds will be easier to see.Also winter migrants are an added attraction. The springtime means nest building, breeding and young birds trying to fly, plus the start of summer migrants arriving. The autumn brings fruits and nuts, so the birds will be busy collecting, feeding and even hiding food. There aren’t many birds which are active at night, but species to watch out for are the owl family and nightjars.
How can I identify birds?
If you see a bird that you can’t identify, and don’t have a camera with you, then you will need to remember or note down as many points as possible. The size is important, but can be hard to guess at a distance. Overall shape, particularly the head and tail, but also wing shape if the bird is flying help differentiate similar species. Colour is probably the most useful if you can see the whole bird, and specific features like wing and head markings or bill and leg colours may be diagnostic. If the bird is walking or flying, then try to look for particular characteristics in their movements. The more points you can gather, the more likely you will be able to work out what you have seen. If you can’t see the bird clearly, then the only other option is to listen to the song or any calls that it makes. There are birdsong apps which can help. As stated above, not all types can be seen in all areas of the country at all times of the year. If you can’t identify the bird at all, there is a chance it is a rare migrant or an accidental visitor which has been blown off course.
Are there any bird organisations?
The most well known group is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, or RSPB for short, but others include the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO). There may also be a local group that you can join, with many found on social media. Some organisations carry out monitoring, and often need volunteers to help, so that may be of interest to some people.
How can I photograph birds?
If you enjoy photography and bird watching, you may wish to combine your interests. With the advent of digital technology, there are a number of options. Most people carry a phone with them, and many of the newer models have very good cameras, so that is a good way to start. However, to take photos of small birds at a distance you will need a camera with a long lens. If you have a spotting scope you can get an adapter and use it with your camera, saving on the cost of an expensive lens. Bird photography is not easy, and will involve a lot of waiting and plenty of missed shots. Birds in flight are particularly hard to capture and will take time and effort to get good results. To help get closer, you can use camouflage clothing, and if you’re really serious, a hide is always an option.
Are birds protected?
In the UK all * wild birds, their nests and eggs are protected by law, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. This means it is an offence to kill, injure or take any wild bird; take, damage or destroy the nest of any wild bird; take or destroy the eggs of any wild bird, and disturb any Schedule 1 bird while it is nest building or on a nest with eggs or young. * There are some exceptions at certain times for game birds which may be hunted. Use your common sense when watching, tracking or photographing birds, and leave them alone if you think they may have young.
Can anyone enjoy bird watching?
In a word, yes. Obviously it helps if you can get out and about, and if you can travel to other locations it will increase your chances of seeing more species. You don’t need expensive equipment, but a pair of binoculars will help. Even if you have poor eyesight or are registered blind, you can still appreciate all the different birdsongs. Get out and enjoy!