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25 Tips to Better Birding

Birding experts offer practical advice to find, identify and photograph wild birds.

Amy K. Hooper
Posted: April 15, 2013, 4:15 p.m. PDT

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We all can become more knowledgeable birders, whether we began looking closely at birds more than 25 years ago or started paying attention to them last month. These creatures vary so incredible in their appearances and behaviors that North American birding enthusiasts have ample opportunity to keep learning about them — and how to find and identify them.

We collected 25 tips from expert birders around the country. Their advice covers various topics, but the clues focus on techniques that you can apply as soon as you finish reading this article. Here’s to better birding!

1) Really do your homework, and study the local birds, suggested Shawneen Finnegan. The Oregon-based artist said if we read our field guides and learn the local species' ranges, then we can better know what to expect to see outdoors.

2) Brian Sullivan suggested ignoring plumage when looking at raptors from hawkwatch sites. "Focus on shape and flight style from a distance instead,” said the eBird project leader. "If you’re looking for a Red-tailed Hawk at a hawkwatch, you’re not going to see it. You are going to see a large soaring bird with wide rounded wings, a shortish rounded tail and a slight dihedral, and that limits your choice to a few buteos."

Red-tailed Hawk
From a distance, soaring Red-tailed Hawks have short, rounded tails and wide, rounded wings.

3) Photographer Kevin Karlson said to concentrate on a bird’s size, body shape, bill shape and length, leg length and wing shape. "These non-changeable features don’t vary like a bird’s plumage does throughout the year,” he said. After focusing on those traits, you can create a mental picture of each bird that doesn’t rely on its variable feathers.

4) Stay calm, though, if you can’t identify every bird, Karlson said. "I often remind my field-trip participants that birds don’t know the names that we give them, so don’t worry if you forget those names,” he said. "Just enjoy the spectacle!”

5) Jeff Bouton, an otics specialist, advised truly taking time to look at every aspect of the bird. "Fight the urge to turn to your field guide,” he said. "Too often, birders take quick glimpses and then open their books while the bird’s still there. There’s plenty of time to look at the book after the bird leaves.”

6) Use field notes instead, Bouton said. "Bring a field notebook. It forces you — when describing what you’re seeing — to really know that bird beyond a field mark,” he said. "It helps you to be a more effective birder.”

7) For more advice about gear, Bouton said to really know the functions and limitations of your equipment. "Practice using it,” he said. "When using binoculars, practice finding a bird, knowing how to locate it. The same is true of birders who use spotting scopes once in a while; they find that they can’t find their birds, and that’s frustrating. Birding is supposed to be fun.”

8) For more comfortable birding, Finnegan suggested using a lower-power binocular. "Try a 7-power or an 8-power,” she said. "A lot of people think more is better, but higher-power binoculars can be heavier and harder to hold steady.”

9) While birding at hawkwatches, resist using your spotting scope, Sullivan advised. "Look with your binoculars instead of the scope,” he said. "You can learn more if you watch the bird approach while using your binocular. You can see how birds’ flight styles differ.”

10) With binoculars in hand at a hawkwatch, Sullivan said to scan the skies lower than you think you should. "Raptors are really difficult to see in a blue sky,” he said. "You’ll notice that the hawkwatchers are scanning slowly from side to side, and they’re finding a lot more birds in a blue sky.”

11) If you’re scanning the skies just above your home, Finnegan suggested starting a yard list. "That way, children will have a focus,” she said. "It can be a little competitive, and it’s a tool for getting them interested.

bird on cactus
When we learn to expect Cactus Wrens in the Southwest, we can fine-tune our search for their preferred habitats.

12) If birding with children, deploy the ultimate tool: your spotting scope, according to Peter Stangel, who writes WildBird’s Conservation Corner department. "Most novices are intrigued with the magnification that spotting scopes provide,” he said. "The other day, I showed 5-year-old Anna — who I ran into at one of my favorite South Carolina birding spots — a Sora. Once Anna got the hang of the scope, she shouted with glee, ‘Mommy, I can see tiny insects crawling on his feathers!’ You don’t have to show them rare birds. The point is to share an eye-popping view that will leave newbies wanting more.”    

13) Don Freiday advised having children practice using a spotting scope by looking at cars or stop signs. WildBird’s Backyard Safari author said, "With the sign, you can ask what it says to find out if they really can look through the scope and see clearly.”

14) With older children, you can create an informal identification quiz, like Freiday does. "They’ll take turns looking through the scope and try to figure out what that bird was,” he said. "Depending on their skill levels, I’ll give them a page range in their field guides.”

15) Paul J. Baicich said to focus education efforts on baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, instead of today’s youth. "Boomers are the largest chunk of our population, and now they’re approaching retirement or an empty nest,” he said. "They’re looking for activity in the autumn of their years. I meet them all over the place at bird festivals; they’re rediscovering birds and nature. I think they’re much more responsive to the bird issue than the kids are. Plus, adults drive their own cars, they vote, and they have money to write checks.”

16) Whether birding with children or baby boomers, Freiday suggested keeping your eyes open and your mouth shut, giving yourself more time to watch a bird before trying to put a name on it. "That’s true of any bird, but with birds of prey in flight, they’ll fool you,” he said. "The longer you watch them, you’ll get a better feel for their shape and weight. With birds of prey at hawkwatches, I like to say, ‘Here comes a potentially interesting bird.’ If it ends up being a Sharp-shinned Hawk, it’s still an interesting bird.”

17) Photographer Brian E. Small makes another interesting point: "Learn how birds are related to their habitats. A lot of beginning birders don’t understand that a lot of birds are very specific to certain kinds of habitats. If you go to the Sonoran desert, you’re going to get a certain suite of birds: Phainopeplas, Verdins, Cactus Wrens, Gila Woodpeckers, Gilded Flickers. It’s pretty unlikely you’re going to find a Black-backed Woodpecker in that habitat.”

18) Small, based in Los Angeles, said to apply that habitat-specific knowledge to photography excursions, too. "If I go to a boreal forest in Maine in June, I can expect to find a certain mix of birds: Blackpoll Warblers, Mourning Warblers and a host of other species. Through experience and traveling around the country, I learned that birds are really habitat-specific.”

19) When you’re traveling by airplane, photographer Arthur Morris suggested putting your binocular in one or two woolen watch caps to protect it from shock and moisture, regardless of whether you carry it onto the plane or put it in your checked baggage (usually not the best idea). "If you’re going out in a cold place, then grab a watch cap for your head,” he said. "I do this while packing my photo bags; everything goes in wool hats. The cap-encased binocular also could go in a carry-on computer bag or the pocket of a big coat, and it’ll be well-protected.”

20) Freiday said to pack for travel with the "rule of three” for shirts and pants. "You wear a shirt, and you pack two more,” he said. "That’s all you need for any birding trip of any length. If one gets wet, you have a whole day for it to dry. On birding trips, no one cares if you wear the same clothes. They’re not looking at you.”

21) Hummingbird expert, Sheri Williamson suggested that eastern birders visiting the West for the first time plan their birding routes extra carefully to allow for larger distances. "We have such wide open spaces that you could eat up your birding day just driving from one birding site to another,” said the Arizona resident.

22) Consider all weather possibilities, and dress in layers before going out in the field, Williamson said. "If we’re uncomfortable, we’re not going to enjoy the birding. If I’m going out in a dry area, I need to bring water and eye drops,” she said. "If it’s cold and I don’t have gloves, I can’t work the focus knob on my binocular. It’s a matter of safety as well as comfort.”

Child with binoculars
Make sure children can see clearly through binoculars by asking them to read signs.

23) While you’re out, just sit for a while, Stangel suggested. "I love active birding — hiking, biking, canoeing, you name it,” he said. "More and more though, I enjoy just sitting and letting birds and nature come to me.

24) "Find a comfortable place to sit or stand, and wait a few minutes,” Stangel said. "You’ll become part of the landscape, your senses will be heightened, and you’ll start to see amazing things. The birds and wildlife will acclimate to your presence, and you’ll be treated to the chance to see birds doing everyday things that we sometimes don’t notice — the way they hunt for food, the things they eat, the competitors they watch for.”

25) Photographers spend a lot of time sitting and waiting for birds to reveal their everyday behaviors. Morris suggested learning to "use a 300mm or 400 mm lens with a prosumer [professional-consumer] camera body that offers a nice multiplier effect like 1.5x or 1.6x. With a bit of practice, you can make some great images while you’re out birding.”

Small said to study your camera manual, know every button on your camera, and practice using the camera in your yard. "A lot of times when you get out in the field, you have to make quick decisions based on changing lighting and changing backgrounds,” he said. "You need to know the camera’s light meter and know how it reacts to shadows, dark birds, light birds.

”At home, point the lens at a sunny spot in your yard, point it at a shady spot, point it at dappled light,” Small said. "Practice in your yard, and make your mistakes at home before getting out in the field. Expect to make mistakes. It’s part of the learning process. When you’re faced with the same situation, you’ll make different decisions.”

When we learn from them, mistakes make us into better photographers and birders. With these expert tips, we hope that you’ll learn from others’ experiences and become a more effective birder who enjoys birds even more.

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25 Tips to Better Birding

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Reader Comments
Nice informative article!
Donna, St. Louis, MO
Posted: 8/14/2013 8:45:31 PM
Interesting! I hope that everyone has a great and safe weekend!
Mike, Columbia, TN
Posted: 8/14/2013 7:29:53 PM
Enjoyed your article, learned many ways to improve my birding skills. One suggestion, though, as you are looking at a bird, keep a small sketch pad and draw the most obvious qualities of the bird you want to identify, rather than try to memorize or take notes
Janet, Cartersville, GA
Posted: 7/12/2013 4:13:16 PM
interesting article
n, n, TN
Posted: 4/19/2013 1:04:48 PM
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