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Tips for New Birders


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Welcome to Whatbird!  

We've collected some hints and tips for new birders.  These are based on the experiences of Whatbird members, or answer frequently asked questions.  This is intended to be a 'living' document; new tips and hints are welcomed!

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Bird Identification Tips!

(The names in parentheses are the members who offered the idea!)

🐦 Don’t go too hard on yourself. If you make a mistake, that’s all right!  Most birders are casual with their hobby and won’t judge you.  If anything, they’ll want to help!  (Aveschapines).  No one was born knowing bird identification.  (Charlie Spencer)

🐦 Don’t force an ID.  (Aveschapines, Kevin)  Sometimes a bird can't be identified.   All of us here have had sightings and photos that left us scratching our heads.  That's just part of birding.  (Charlie Spencer)

🐦 Get a field guide - Sibley, National Geographic (aka NatGeo), Peterson, or Audubon.  (Charlie Spencer, Tony Leukering).  Read the text in the field guide, especially the introductory material, but also the species descriptions.  Those may not be interesting at the start, but they'll kick start the learning process.  (Paul K)  Don't just look at the pictures. Read the Intro material, and then read it again. Go birding.  Read it again.  (Tony Leukering)

🐦 Learn the parts of birds as pointed out in the Intro material. Go birding -- with the guide in hand -- and try to find the various bird parts indicated in the Intro material on some bird that does not move around a lot (American Robin often works very well).  (Tony Leukering)  This will make it easier for you to describe what you saw when you ask for an ID, and easier to understand when others describe differences between the bird you saw and similar birds in your area.  (Charlie Spencer)

🐦 The most under-used bird-ID features are

  • Leg color
  • Bill color and pattern
  • Eye color
  • Notice a pattern?  None of those involve feathers. Our eyes are naturally drawn to plumage. Learn to look at other parts.  (Tony Leukering)

🐦 Look at the maps. Find the species that are mapped as occurring in your area regularly. Concentrate your study of the field guide on those species as, for the most part, you will NOT see species that are out of range (even if they're really pretty and you really want to see them).  (Tony Leukering)  I start with my eBird checklist for the day.  That shows me what birds are expected in the area at that time of year.  I check those in Sibley and NatGeo to narrow the list, then use AllAboutBirds if I couldn't reach a conclusion.  I also check AAB's history for a species to see how common it is in the area.  If I'm still stuck, I come here.  (Charlie Spencer)

🐦 Use more than one characteristic to make an identification.  Believe the field guide. One is unlikely to run across an odd-plumaged bird on any given day. If the bird doesn't match the illustration, look farther into the field guide for an illustration that does match.  I have seen multiple observers identify Lesser Scaup as Blue-winged Teal... because Blue-winged Teal was the first species in the guide that has a significant patch of white between the bill and the eye.  (Tony Leukering)

🐦 Accept that you'll make some bad ID's, and misjudging size will be the cause of some of them.  (lonestranger)  Remember the birder's mantra - "Size is very difficult to judge in the field!"  Experienced birders can tell you their stories of when they were dramatically mistaken about the size of a bird observed in the field. (Mine involves a Blue-and-White Mockingbird that was not actually the size of a big jay.)  Judging can be even harder when using binoculars. (Aveschapines)

🐦 Learn the familiar birds of the area. Even though you might see House Finches everywhere, look through them and you'll be better prepared to find a Purple Finch. (Connor Cochrane)  When friends here ask me for recommendations, I suggest watching videos on YouTube of Song Sparrows, House Finches, and American Robins singing.  Knowing what a sparrow vs finch vs robin sounds like is a great first step in understanding the sound in the background, how to pick out individual songs, and how to realize when there's something uncommon around.  Knowing what the common birds look like and how they move is a good first step in being able to say "looked like a sparrow but wasn't a Song Sparrow".  (Paul K)

🐦 If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of birds in a field guide, or even after you’ve whittled it down to the birds of your area, maybe find a group of birds that interests you, then start branching out from there! That’s how I started. I got into birding because of a small hawk on my walk home from school, and just looking through the field guide we happened to have and watching the bird, I found it so cool that I could know what species it is! I then tried to learn all the raptors in my area, then the US! Then I learned about warblers, and down the rabbit hole of birding I went! (Avery)

🐦 When someone else ID's a bird for you, verify it yourself (lonestranger)  Try to identify birds yourself before always asking for help from experienced birders. The exercise of studying the bird and its different features (size and shape, bill, color patterns, tail shape and length, behavior, etc.) will sharpen your ID skills much more than having someone else tell you what a bird is. If someone else does help you with the ID, take your photos/notes of the bird, go to your guide and see for yourself what confirms the ID.  (Aveschapines)

🐦 Don't look at the rarities first when trying to ID a new bird, I did this a lot when I first started and I incorrectly identified a lot of the common birds as rarities.  (Aidan B)  

🐦 Learn calls.  (Kevin)  The best way to learn calls and songs is to watch the bird sing or call.  (The Bird Nuts)  If you hear a call that isn't familiar, try to find the bird. It might be something interesting.  (Connor Cochrane)  When I started getting into recording bird calls, it helped me learn them faster.  It provides your own personal library, as sometimes the sounds provided on Internet platforms don’t quite match up 100%.  (Aaron)

🐦 The eBird Photo Quizzes are a good way to get familiar with the birds in your area. They are also more fun (at least to me), than flipping through Field Guides.  (Aidan B)

Edited by Aveschapines
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Posted (edited)

Birding Resources!

(The names in parentheses are the members who offered the idea!)

🦆 Birding is a hobby we participate in because we like it. Look for birding buddies that support you. Some friendly competition can be fun but if your companions make you feel worthless or stupid because of your lack of experience, you need new birding buddies.  (Aveschapines)  It’s easy to get help from people at the hot spots.  90% of the people are wonderful.  (Roadguy205)

 🦆 My advice is start up eBird as soon as you can.  ( https://ebird.org/home )  You never know if you want to get in to lists, or chasing, or Top 100.  If you eventually do, it’s hard to go back and catch up.  Even if you don't get into listing, the data is a great way to contribute to science. (chipperatl, floraphile)  When you join eBird, take the free 'How To' online class at https://academy.allaboutbirds.org/product/ebird-essentials  (Charlie Spencer)  If you don’t know for sure what the bird is, use the “sp.” options on eBird.  (Aveschapines)  Often the eBird hotspots with the most species in the area aren't the best places to bird, either they are bad in a certain time of year, or mostly cater to waterfowl.  (Connor Cochrane)  Female birds count.  Birds you hear but don’t see count.  Birds you see but haven’t photographed count.  (Aveschpines, Seanbirds)

 🦆 Banding codes are often used as abbreviations for common bird names.  There’s an excellent explanation of them at https://www.carolinabirdclub.org/bandcodes.html .  They’re very handy when entering data into eBird, instead of having to spell out the entire name.  If you’re going to use them in a post, spell out the full name first so others will know what species you’re referring to.  (Charlie Spencer)

 🦆 Spend time in the field with someone who is a much better birder than you are. This applies to all birders at all levels, since there is a literal lifetime's worth of knowledge to be gained regarding the broad category of "birding," but for new or beginning birders, this is often the best way to know and understand what you are looking at.  Field guides only go so far.  (DLacy)  Hook up with a local birding group.  Check with local parks for scheduled walks.  (Charlie Spencer)  Most Audubon society go on field trips a few times a month led by a experienced birder. Join one.  (Connor Cochrane)  Join your local Audubon Society or birding group.  Meetings & birding sessions might be virtual or socially-distanced for now, but eventually we will "go live" again.  Many of these organizations offer free introductory birding courses.  I've also noticed local birders on eBird whose profiles includes an open invitation to email them and arrange to meet.  (floraphile)

 🦆 Explore AllAboutBirds.com ( https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/ ).  You can search for birds by name, family, or shape.  Each bird’s page includes ID information, range maps, life history, cross references to similar birds, etc.  Explore the Macaulay Library ( https://www.macaulaylibrary.org/ ) This is where the image and sound files attached to eBird checklists are stored.  You can search images by species, sex, age, or other criteria.  (Charlie Spencer)

 🦆 See if there is a listserv for your local area. You can get rare bird information, or ask questions you have about birding.  Sign up for need alerts on eBird for your county. It will help you point to new birds that you haven't seen before.  (Conner Cochrane)  You can sign up to receive e-mails for any county, which is handy when you're traveling and want to know what's been seen recently.  (Charlie Spencer)

 🦆 Go to your local birdfest.  Some of the events are free and open to the public.  (floraphile)  The American Birding Association has a list of upcoming festivals at https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/

 🦆 Reading through this site will help you learn lots of tips for differentiating similar species. For example, before I joined this site I didn’t know the difference between House Finch and Purple Finch, or Sharp-Shinned and Cooper’s Hawks. After reading other people’s posts about these birds and how other people identified them, I now know what to look for when identifying birds.  (Colton V)      As a “new” birder (about a year) many things here are helpful.  Classes, guides, binoculars (then better binoculars) and guided trips with local experts have all been invaluable.  (Roadguy205)

 🦆 There’s a discussion Avery started regarding birding podcasts at https://forums.whatbird.com/index.php?/topic/17566-podcasts/&tab=comments#comment-112404

Edited by Aveschapines
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Posted (edited)

Fieldcraft!

(The names in parentheses are the members who offered the idea!)

 🦅 Please read the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics (https://www.aba.org/aba-code-of-birding-ethics/).  (Aaron)  Don’t crowd a bird for a better look/photo.  (Kevin)

 🦅 Be patient.  Learning to sit and watch a bird for a while until you see what you need to make an ID is very useful.  By the time you’re satisfied with the bird you’re watching, a new one is likely to appear! (Aveschapines)  Don't rush from one bird to the next just to get a higher volume of birds on your list. Enjoy the quality of birding as much as the quantity of birds.  Take your time while birding so that you can enjoy the other wildlife around you, too.  Nature is a wonderful thing and its beauty goes way beyond the birds we watch.  (lonestranger)

 🦅 My number one piece of advice would be to spend time looking at and noticing birds, preferably in the field. Feeder studies are great and serve a purpose, but being out in the field looking at birds, noticing behavior, plumage characteristics, vocalizations, and what impression a bird gives you will help you identify and understand birds.  (DLecy)

 🦅 Bring lots of water.  There have been times where I didn't, and it's no fun.  (Aiden B)  If you are planning on birding early in the morning, remember to eat something, especially if you’re planning on doing some recording.  When I bird, I like to leave before sunrise and I just wake up and go. As a result, I have had many recordings ruined because my stomach wanted to join in the action. High pass filters don’t always help!  (Aaron)

 🦅 One thing you need to get started birding is a pair of quality binoculars.  (IKLland)  You can get good entry-level pair of 8x42 binos for less than $150 on sale or used.  This is an ideal magnification and objective size for a first pair.  Look for a manufacturer that has a lifetime, no questions asked warranty - Nikon, Zeiss, Vortex, Bushnell, among others.   B&H, Adorama, and other online retailers offer excellent reconditioned optic and cameras at bargain prices.  (Charlie Spencer)

 🦅 Wear clothing that matches the habitat you are in, I can get a lot closer to birds when I am wearing black or brown instead of white or yellow.  (Aiden B)  Have sunscreen and insect repellent in the car; you never know when you’ll need them.  Hats with soft cloth brims flex out of the way when you push your binos or camera up under them; hats with hard, cardboard-reinforced brims may not allow you to position those tools comfortably.  (Charlie Spencer)

 🦅 Make notes! Our memories are very faulty and it's very easy to convince yourself that bird's legs were really red when it makes it match an exciting species. (Aveschapines)

 🦅 Don't forget to look behind you. We tend to focus on what is in front of us, but it's worth stopping and turning to look behind yourself now and then.  (lonestranger)  And look up at he sky above you, above mountain ridges, etc to see what’s flying over.  I think some people get caught up in looking for the little birds in the bushes and trees.  (The Bird Nuts)  And also look down for those infernal sparrows & wrens.  (floraphile)  Sit and wait in one spot, you never know what might come to you.  (Michael Long)

 🦅 Keep in mind where the sun is, and where it will be. If possible, plan your route so the sun is behind you rather than in front.  You want to see the bird, not the silhouette. This is especially important if trying to take pictures.  (Paul K)  Keeping track of where the sun is while watching birds overhead is vitally important if you don’t want to blind yourself.  (Avery)  If you see a shadow, the bird is between its shadow on the ground and the sun in the sky.  If the shadow is very close to you, the bird is on line between you and the sun, so don't bother looking for it in the glare.  Track the shadow for a couple of seconds until the bird is off line, then look for it.  (Charlie Spencer)

 🦅 Cameras can be important to capture images for later study.  (Roadguy205)  Don't feel any sense of shame for taking photos of a common bird to get an ID.  (chipperatl)  If you use a camera, get comfortable with taking crappy photos for ID purposes rather than aiming for perfection.  I'm still more likely to grab my camera if I really don't know what something is, as it can operate as a form of long-term binoculars that I can use to sit down with resources later to get a good ID.  (Paul K)  However, don't sacrifice field observation for a photo. Try to watch the bird as much as possible and make getting photos a secondary goal. Write down or record a description as well; not all photos provide all of the information needed for an ID.  Sometimes distortions can occur that make field marks look different in photos.  (Aveschapines)

 🦅 If a 2-year-old is included in your birding party, you will have low numbers.  (floraphile)  Ditto terriers.  (Charlie Spencer)

Edited by Aveschapines
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Miscellaneous Other Stuff!

(The names in parentheses are the members who offered the idea!)

🦃 Have fun!  (Aveschapines, IKLland)

 

 🦃 Embrace the power of "and".  Be a: 

  • "Birder" and a
  • "Photographer" and a
  • "Note-taker" and an
  • "Observer" and a
  • "Bird watcher" and a
  • "Lister" and a
  • "Twitcher" and a  
  • "Naturalist",
  • or any combination thereof if you want.  Don't lock yourself into anyone category if you don't want to.  (chipperatl)

 🦃 Put up a feeder! This way you can watch birds in a relaxing setting, and they come to you! This way you can start to notice the little things about birds, like their behavior, or other subtle characteristics. Also, if you’re able to sit outside and watch the feeders, listen to the birds as well. Trying to learn calls can be overwhelming, as each species makes a variety, so start small!  Once you’re familiar with your regular yard birds, when something new pops up, you’ll know!  (Avery)

 🦃 Information on cleaning bird feeders, you would be shocked how many people don't know you should clean your feeders.  (Aiden B)

 🦃 If you only buy one bird food, it should be black oil sunflower seed (a.k.a 'BOSS').  Generic 'Wild Bird Seed' is mostly milo and millet, which most backyard feeder birds usually toss out or ignore.  While a few ground birds will eat these, they'll also eat BOSS.  (Charlie Spencer)

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  • Aveschapines pinned and featured this topic
  • 5 weeks later...

You should use your ears constantly when birding. In some types of birding, a vast majority of bird detections will come from sound. It also allows you to cover a lot more ground more quickly.

Edited by AlexHenry
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4 hours ago, AlexHenry said:

You should use your ears constantly when birding. In some types of birding, a vast majority of bird detections will come from sound. It also allows you to cover a lot more ground more quickly.

The cicadas sure don’t make it easy though 😂. Good time for training. 

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  • 5 weeks later...

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