How to start birdwatching

If you think you might be interested in learning more about birds, here’s an easy three step plan to become a birder.

Level 1

This is where I began back in July 2018. I knew there were sparrows, seagulls, crows, flamingos and a few others, but mostly I’d never payed particular attention to birds at all. If this is where you are:

  • Look at the birds that show up in your yard (or balcony or whatever space you have around where you live) and see if you can identify them by sight. I’d recommend downloading Merlin, the free app from Cornell University. It’s very helpful for figuring out what you’re looking at.
  • Start writing down the birds you’ve seen. This will be the beginning of your life list (and your yard list). Write down the date you saw the bird, along with any other interesting observations.
My brother’s life list, the one that first got me into birdwatching.

Level 2

Once you can identify most of the birds that show up in your yard, it’s time to go further afield.

  • At this point, a pair of binoculars becomes important. I’ve found that around $200 USD is about where binoculars become “worth it.” Vortex is a good brand. You can, of course, use less expensive binoculars if they’re out of your budget. I’d suggest getting 8×42 magnification.
  • Find a local park or nature preserve and head over to see what birds are there. The best times to go are generally just after sunrise or just before sunset when birds are most active. You’ll probably start to notice birds you don’t recognize, often getting just brief glimpses. Don’t worry about identifying everything, just observe. You may see other birders around. Usually they’re pretty friendly and willing to help out a newbie.
An American Avocet taking off at sunrise

Level 3

  • Create a free ebird account and download the app. This is the de facto (especially in the US) app for tracking what birds you see where. It’s also extremely useful for finding other birding hotspots and seeing what rare or unusual birds are around. Create your first checklist! The easiest place to do this is probably around your own home.
  • Start paying more attention to bird sounds. Often sound is just as good, if not better, for determining what birds are around. Very good birders almost always are good at birding by ear.
An adult and two juvenile Bald Eagles after the same fish

At this point, you’re a birder! There are all kinds of directions you can take things in from here, but you’ve got the basics covered and you’ll naturally gravitate in the direction you’re most interested in. You’ll also meet lots of people who can help you take next steps.

The only word of warning I’d give is that birding is surprisingly addictive! I never in a million years expected to get interested in birds but one day something clicked in my brain and I haven’t looked back since. Good luck and see you out there!

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