For any new or potential birders out there I thought I would do a brief review of some things I wish I had known when I began this fascinating hobby.
1) Bird Alone. At first glance this may seem antisocial and incompatible with #’s 2 and 3 below, but let me explain. A new birder needs time and space to learn and practice some basic skills. Just seeing a bird and then finding it with binoculars is not easy at first. With practice you’ll keep your eye on the bird and slowly raise the binoculars and find it in the eyepiece, but not having this skill frustrates the new birder when everyone else is enjoying the bird. Birdwatching is all about watching. In addition to the obvious field marks, watch the bird’s behavior, and hear its sounds. Some birds are always on or near the ground (White-throated Sparrow). Some are constantly pumping their tail (Palm Warbler). You’ll see eventually that advanced birders are making their ID’s by the birds “JISS” (taken from G.I.S.S.–general impression, size, and shape), as much as from the field marks. Learn the common “back yard” birds first and then the “rarities” or birds not usually seen around your feeder or porch will become more obvious.
2) Bird With Others. Once you’re looking into the correct end of the binoculars you’ll find endless pleasure and see more birds when you bird with others. There always seems to be someone in the group with a special gift of seeing birds high in the canopy or deep in the shrub. Others will point out birds you are not acquainted with yet, or tell you about a new birding hotspot. You can see what binoculars and guidebooks others are using and pick up unexpected pearls. I learn something every time I bird with others and just plain have more fun.
3) Bird With Experts. Most counties have a birding club that sponsor frequent trips to the local hotspots, and these clubs usually have several world-class birders. Talbot County, Maryland, where I live, is especially fortunate to have a club with many. These are birders with years of experience; some seem to bird almost daily and their vast knowledge and eBird year lists are impressive. You quickly marvel at their expertise in birding by ear–hearing the bird long before or in-lieu of seeing it, or recognizing a bird with only a fleeting glance of its shape or behavior. They know when its time in spring to expect a given bird in the region, and when the bird will nest or migrate in the fall. Most enjoy sharing all this with an interested novice.
A trip to birding hot-spots in your region will introduce you to experts. For those in the North East I recommend a week-end in Cape May, New Jersey. I doubt that there is a place that has more birding experts per square foot and organized bird walks, especially during the spring and fall migrations. The hawk-watch platform at the Cape May State Park always seems to be staffed with experts. Check out the Cape May Bird Observatory website for schedules and maps.
4) Binoculars. My experience with binoculars is typical, but not ideal for new birders. I first started by using an old pair family binoculars acquired in the 1950’s. Later I started using a pair of 10X50’s I bought for astronomy. When I started serious birding I upgraded stepwise to several pairs in the “mid-price” range, never believing I wanted to spend the big bucks ($2000 or more) that the high end glass required. One day I was birding with a group in Cape May and the expert guide must have noticed my binoculars and generously lent me a pair of Zeiss binoculars for the walk. The difference was amazing! The image was so much brighter, sharper, and clearer and the field of few much larger. Birding was easier with these and much more fun. I was convinced that the price for great binoculars is money well spent and a good pair will give you a lifetime of pleasure. The old glass did not go to waste. There’s one in the truck, one in the car, one at the windowsill near the feeder, and one at the bathroom window. You never know when you’ll need them.
5) Guide Book. You need a good birding guide book–one that you will use frequently and become very familiar with in the field. There are many on the market and the choice can be difficult. Let me go out on a limb and recommend one. I have used many and believe the Ken Kaufman “Field Guide to Birds of North America” is the most user-friendly book available. It is relatively small and light, fitting easily into a big pocket. It is well-indexed, nicely arranged, and covers all the birds of North America. The other heavier guides I keep at home for those especially difficult ID’s.
6) Publications. I foolishly get more birding magazines and newsletters than I can possibly read. Be smarter than me and get one and study it well. Again let me go out on another limb and recommend the “Bird Watcher’s Digest”, a small bimonthly magazine edited by William H. Thompson III, is packed with birding pearls, sitings, equipment and book reviews, meeting announcements, etc.
7) Use http://www.eBird.org This Cornell website is amazing. Not only does it allow you to tabulate, manage, and track your observations, but shows you who else is seeing what, where, and when in your neighborhood, or anywhere in the world you care to visit. Its also loaded with helpful birding tips. And it is FREE! When I recently travelled to Japan and Italy I first went to eBird to learn what to expect at each location and created a target list of birds for the area. Similarly your observations will help other birders and the people at Cornell tracking bird populations globally. I find much pleasure in comparing what I saw this year, or month, to the prior. Check it out.
I hope this helps you get started. Good luck and happy birding.