If you already like to watch birds, then you’ll probably know it isn’t as simple as just keeping an eye out for some movement over there somewhere.
Birds are notoriously shy creatures and the most common sight you will see of them is the vaguest hint of a life-form suddenly darting off into the shadows off to the side. If you’re lucky, you may even get to see that it was possibly brown. Or maybe green.
If you’re new to birdwatching, don’t be downhearted and think this is all you’ll get. Birdwatching can be a fantastic experience and one that is good for you too, helping you to reduce stress and open up your eyes and mind to the natural world around you. It can be made more accessible by just making a few changes to the way you behave, what you wear, where you look, and perhaps investing in a bit of gear every now and again.
Birding is another name for birdwatching, and what we’ll use in this article. There’s nothing wrong with “birdwatching / birdwatcher”, of course, just that the terms “birding” and “birder” encompass not just watching but listening, and recognising birds by their behaviour, songs and calls as well as what they look like. According to Wikipedia, the term is said to encapsulate the “scope, dedication, and intensity” of the activity.
To get good at birding often requires a few things to be in place, and perhaps the most important one is to learn to stay still and be quiet. I struggle enormously with this, but I do know that my experiences would be enhanced if I just practised what I preach. Dear reader, please be better than me.
Birds have exceptional sight and on the whole, reliable hearing, and given the fact that they will often be observing you from a hidden vantage point long before you become aware of their existence, it often pays to try less hard at finding them, and rather let them come to you.
Once you’ve found a good bit of habitat that you think birds will surely inhabit like woodland, farmland, a waterway and so on, get yourself somewhere comfortable and wait it out. Their foremost thought is food for 90% of their time, so if they have seen you, you’ll fade from memory eventually and hunger will replace you once more.
Some birds seem to pay absolutely no attention to us as well, such as the tiny goldcrest in Europe, or many urbanised songbirds like finches, chickadees, robins, great and blue tits, and some larger birds like the European starling. But the best thing is just to stay as still as possible and keep movements small and slow.
What you wear can be key – thankfully the days of rustling shell suits are long behind us, if not for the terrible synthetic sound you made when moving about in them but also the garish colours.
Whilst you don’t necessarily have to “camo up” (but by all means do if that’s you thing), keep your clothes to a neutral range of colours, and wear cotton, linen, or polyester. Cargo pants are a firm favourite for many a birder due to their abundance of pockets, as well as their comfort, essential when sitting still in sometimes small spaces for lengths of time.
Comfy footwear is also essential: high heels, rollerblades, slingbacks, flipflops or Winklepickers, aside from being wholly inappropriate for walking very far or at all, will eventually cause your feet to smart and ache, and if your feet aren’t comfortable, you’re going to have a hard time enjoying yourself.
Walking or hiking shoes or boots are perfect, especially any with ankle supports, a good-sized heel brake and a roomy toe box for moving confidently over tree roots and uneven terrain. If you’re not jungle-bound then of course some tennis or deck shoes, sneakers, Converse or even some sturdy sandals will do. The main thing is to keep your feet warm, dry, and able to flex.
A good field guide, or an ID app on your device are pretty much essential if you’re determined to know exactly what it is you see or hear. Field guides can range from highly informative to barely enough detail, so take your time when choosing one, and make sure it can fit in whatever receptacle you take along with you.
Pocket field guides can be thin on detail but great for squeezing into your cargo pants. Do you really need to know if that bird will winter in the Caribbean and lose all of its feathers in August? Do you care about its breeding cycles and distribution range?
These things can be very helpful and will help you become an excellent birder, but perhaps if you’re just starting out, you just want something that will show you the main plumage features, relative size, and the kind of habitat the bird is usually found in.
Consider buying a guide that shows you the visual difference between males, females and juveniles, as well as brief descriptions of flight pattern and voice. These are elements that when put together give you a much better picture and help you get that positive ID.
Binoculars are on every keen birder’s list. If you don’t know how to use them, still consider buying a pair and practising, you’ll soon get the idea. Yes, they can be heavy and awkward to carry so do some research with weight, size and how comfortable they feel in your hands.
There’s no need to empty your bank account either, but the rule of thumb is not to go for the cheapest, as these will in all likelihood make very little difference to what you can see with your own eyes.
Trust us, binoculars are essential to enhancing that viewing and give you a more detailed encounter. Naturally, you won’t need to be as close to the bird when viewing through them, so less chance of scaring it away, and you can sometimes watch for several minutes, observing the bird in its day-to-day life and picking up on those behaviours that will help you swiftly identify it in the future.
Of course, aside from the binoculars and maybe the field guide, you don’t necessarily need to think about any of the other stuff if you can watch birds from the comfort of your own home or workplace. Putting up feeders a few feet away from any window will often reap the benefits for both the birds and you; they get fed and you can gaze at them for as long as they visit. You can read our tips on where to place feeders and what to stock them with here.
Birding is a marvellous pastime that you get to decide how much you put into it, but just by following these simple steps you can help bring the birds closer to you, which will then in turn help you understand their world; often, that then means your awareness grows of what we can do (or stop doing) to ensure they enjoy it forever, helping them survive and thrive throughout the world.