The Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching

Technical jargon can make birdwatching seem a little intimidating at first. But it really is as simple as watching birds. Here’s everything you need to know to get started

Birding has become a popular activity during the pandemic because it is easy to socially distance from birds. As a beginning birder, you may be intimidated by more experienced birdwatchers, who like to confuse you with technical terms, like “perched” and “on the wing.” Don’t worry, you can soon be doing this too, and it’s easier than you think. For starters, just look in the first pages of any good bird guide at the chart that labels the parts of a bird and start slinging those words around like you know what they mean. “Look at the supercilium on that little fella!” you can say, whether you actually see the eyebrows or not. “And the scapulars (the shoulders, sort of). Magnificent!” 

See, you’re already well on your way to being a serious birder. And once you’ve learned to sound like a birdwatcher, you can move on to actual birdwatching, which boils down to just buying a few basic necessities, getting out there, and watching birds. Easy. 

Learn to Spot Field Marks 

There are about 700 birds in North America and about 450 in the average field guide. That is super intimidating! But real birding is mostly about eliminating all the things that the bird isn’t. The good news is that you are probably already doing this. If you can identify a duck, crow, owl, or hawk, you’re already ahead of the curve. (If you hunt ducks and know the different species, you’re already an experienced birder. Good going!) To extend this identification system to other birds, ask what the first thing you notice about a given bird is.

What is the most obvious thing? Does it have a bright orange face? Black head? Does it have such big talons that it’s holding a small dog? Such things are called field marks, and they’re how birders identify birds. Then notice the next most obvious thing. Get two or three field marks and you’re not far from identifying all the birds yours isn’t. Most birds in North America can be identified by the field marks seen on the top half of their bodies. In other words, don’t sweat the legs and feet. Or, as we birders would say, the tibial feathers or tarsus. 

Basic Gear for the Beginner Birdwatcher

Once you become a serious birder, you’ll want to get all sorts of things you don’t need. But to get started at birdwatching, the list of basic requirements is short. As in, two things: a field guide and a decent binocular. 

Best Field Guides for Birdwatching

All modern field guides are the great grandchildren of John James Audubon, who painted and identified American birds. They’re filled with pictures of birds in their various plummages, along with descriptions and information about the birds’ ranges over the different seasons, Here are three good ones, all of them about the size of your hand for easy field use.

1. Sibley Field Guide to Birds of North America

Sibley Birds East Field Guide
Sibley guides come in East or West editions for about $16. Amazon

This has been a standard since first printed in 2000. It’s comprehensive, simple, and easy to follow. The Sibley guides shows more plumages and subspecies than any other guide but manages not to overwhelm. 

2. National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America
The latest edition of the National Geographic guide sells for just under $20. Amazon

Superior artwork, comprehensive coverage, compact, and lightweight. This one is a favorite of many serious birders for all those reasons. Easy to throw in your pack on a hike.

3. Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America
The Peterson guide comes in Eastern and Western editions for about $15, and a North American edition for about $22. Amazon

Although many say newer guides have supplanted the Peterson guide, it’s still a classic. Every field guide has its fans, and I like this one’s large drawings, detailed range maps, and arrows pointing to key field marks.

Best Binoculars for Birdwatching

Always a tough one. David E. Petzal’s watchword since FDR was president has been “buy the best glass you can afford.” This is good advice. If I’m spending your money, that would be the $2,000-plus Swarovski EL 8.5×42, which excels at clarity, brightness, and balance in hand. If it’s my money, I’m going for something mid-range like Nikon Monarch 7 ATB 8×42, for a little under $500. That’s still a bunch of money, but this is a can’t-go-wrong bino—very sharp optics with good light-gathering capabilities. A little further down the price scale comes the Celestron TrailSeeker ED 8×42 at $300. They might blur a tiny bit at the edge but otherwise they’re sharp, light-gathering, and the colors are true. Look, I know it’s a big hit. But good binos will last for generations if you take care of them. 

Nikon Monarch 7 8x42 binocular
Nikon’s Monarch 7 8x42s go for under $500. Amazon

To Best Places to Go Birdwatching

Where do you go look for birds? The experts agree that birdy places are the best. You can create an extremely birdy place in minutes by putting up a feeder in your backyard. Barring that, you need to know the places birds like to be. Here are three. 

1. Edges

If you hunt, you already know that nature loves an edge.

Anywhere one type of habitat changes to another is good. Where a field meets woodland, for example. Birds are just like any other critter.

2. Sheltered Areas

Birds like small areas, pockets, that are out of the wind. These tend to be warmer in the winter. Ever notice how birds like to perch on wires over busy highways in the winter? Heat rises. It’s a tad bit warmer there, even in the wind. Water: Water is a magnet for birds, same as all other animals, whether it’s in a city, the desert, plains, or mountains. 

3. Refuges

The U.S. is blessed with loads of wildlife refuges, which are great places to look for birds. Click here for an interactive map that shows the ones near you. 

National Wildlife Refuge System Map
Find a wildlife refuge near you with this interactive map from the USFWS. USFWS

How To Score Your First Birdwatching Positive ID

In birdwatching, a positive ID is when you correctly identify a bird, for sure. Or pretty sure. Or kind of. It’s up to you, really, as there are no badges or oversight and other birdwatchers pretty much have to take your word for it. 

Here’s an example of how birding’s process of elimination works. Let’s say you’re in Vermont on a summer morning when you spy a bird. With a guide listing 450 species, you do the sensible thing and panic. When you regroup, consider this: You can eliminate 275 of those species based on simple geography and the fact that it’s summer. What you notice at first glance is that it’s a medium-sized, black-and-white bird clinging with its feet to the side of a tree. Then you notice the pointed bill and that it’s sort of propping itself up with stiff, pointed tail feathers as it digs into the bark. 

You’re thinking “woodpecker,” and it turns out you’re right. The only other birds that cling to the sides of trees are nuthatches and creepers. The nuthatches’ tails are much shorter, and these bird’s don’t use them as a prop for balancing. And the only creeper found in North America has a downward-curving bill. (Or “decurved” in birderspeak.) So, by process of elimination, it’s a woodpecker. You’re already in the game! Reward yourself with a food pellet. 

Male and female three-toed woodpeckers.
You know these are woodpeckers but what kind exactly? National Park Service

But there are eight woodpeckers in your damn field guide! Panic time again! Okay, now calm the heck down. “Medium-size and black-and-white,” means you can eliminate three species. Flickers are brown and red-bellied woodpeckers are mostly a light buff color with a red belly and crown. The pileated woodpecker, meanwhile, is way too big. 

In the field guide, you see that the remaining species are most easily distinguished by the colors of the back and wings. Taking a second look at the bird through your binocular, you notice that the back is black and white, barred in fact, without any kind of stripe on its wing. So it can’t be a yellow-bellied sapsucker or a red-headed woodpecker. Both of those have big, white wing patches. That’s two more woodpeckers eliminated. Further, it can’t be a downy woodpecker or hairy woodpecker because both of those have a uniformly white back. And it can’t be a black-backed, because that bird has—you guessed it—a solid black back. 

That leaves us with a single possibility. Your bird is a three-toed woodpecker. And you identified it by looking at it just twice. Give yourself another food pellet. 

Then write down your positive ID, along with the place and date, in your bird book or in a birding journal and show it to anyone polite enough to humor you. There. Now, you’re a birdwatcher.