Eight Basic Things Beginning Birdwatchers Need To Know

Bird photograph by Scott Bourne

If you are new to birding, there are a few things you’ll want to know about in order to get the most out of the hobby.

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1. You need a good set of binoculars. Spend as much as you can afford here and try out lots of pairs before you decide. This is not the place to try to cheap out. Your parents old opera glasses won’t cut it. Plan on spending at least $150 and more than double that if you want a truly good piece of glass. My recommendation is the new 10×42 pair from Olympus, which I have reviewed here.

New Birder's Guide

2. You need a field guide. The Sibley Guide, was my introduction to the world of birds. There are many others, and my personal favorite, especially for beginners is The New Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America (Peterson Field Guides) by the late, great Bill Thompson III. It’s beautifully laid out and fun to read. It also comes with great illustrations and will certainly whet your appetite for birding.

3. Start in your backyard with a couple of bird feeders. Bird feeders come in all types: I suggest starting with a basic, black-oil sunflower feeder. Find a comfortable chair, grab your binoculars and field guide, stay still and keep that feeder full. Soon you’ll have lots of feathered friends visiting your yard and you can start building your life list.

Bird List Software

4. Build a list. We birders love to keep records of all the birds we’ve seen (and/or heard.) Birders who are obsessed with this are sometimes called “listers.” They make lists of every bird they see. Some of us call these life lists. You can do this by hand, writing down in a ledger each species you see; keeping a journal or a diary, or you can use a computer, which makes it easier. If you have a Mac, I highly recommend Bird Journal. It’s what I use to manage my list and it’s free. You can also check out the eBird project – https://ebird.org/home – it’s also free and from Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

5. You will want a camera with you. Even a fleeting shot of a bird can help you remember the experience and may help later with bird ID. Even a cell phone camera can be used to capture what I call “birds capes” which are landscape shots made with birds in the foreground or background. If you are an accomplished photographer with a long, telephoto lens, you have the chance to make more serious photos which again – can be used for ID or for entry into your lifelist.

6. Improve your bird ID skills. This tried and true approach to identifying a bird is something you should memorize and bring with you on every birdwatching trip….

  • Judge the bird’s size and shape
  • Look for its main color pattern
  • Note behavior
  • Note the type of habitat
  • Note the location

With this information in hand, you are ahead of the game when it comes to figuring out what you are looking at. If you have access to seasoned birders and want their help identifying a bird, they will typically ask you questions related to some or all five of these skills. Be ready.


7. Download some cell phone apps for birders. There are a dozen or so bird identification or related apps that will help make your birdwatching experience more enjoyable. Some of my favorites are the Sibley App V. 2, Birds of North America by Peterson, iBird Plus, Bird Finder, Merlin Bird ID and eBird.

8. Join a birder meetup. Birding is a surprisingly social endeavor and that’s good because you’ll learn more about birding in less time if you associate with like-minded people who also pursue your passion. Birdingonthe.net is a good way to start that process in the digital domain.


Bird watchers spend nearly $41 billion annually on trips and equipment. Local community economies benefit from the $14.9 billion that bird watchers spend on food, lodging and transportation. In 2011, 666,000 jobs were created as a result of bird watching expenditures. In short, if you are interested in birding, you are not alone. It’s one of the most popular pastimes in North America. Embrace it. Enjoy it. And share it.

Learn Birding

Scott Bourne View All →

Scott Bourne is an Olympus Visionary, a professional bird/wildlife photographer, author and lecturer who specializes in birds. He is a pioneer in digital photography and was named one of the “30 most influential photographers on the Web” by Huffington Post. His photographic experience spans four decades and his bird/wildlife images have been published in more than 200 magazines and periodicals. He is also a Signed Master at Studio of Masters in China.

Scott has been a founder, co-founder, advisor or early stage investor in several technology companies such as NetRadio, Photofocus, and ViewBug.

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