Birding Tips for Beginners

RBA logo1.  The first thing you need to think about is some basic birding equipment. Most important— as good a pair of binoculars as your budget will stand. Don’t skimp here. Cheap binoculars will just frustrate you—the image of the bird is not likely to be sharp and clear and you may not be able to see the colors and markings of the birds well enough to identify them, especially in poor light. You should look for binoculars that are “7 x 35” or “8 x 40” (the magnification— 7 or 8 power x the diameter of the front lens of the binocular in millimeters—35 or 40 mm), so you’ll be able to see birds well in poor as well as good light. And you should try to get as wide a “field of vision” as you can (between 300 and 450 feet at 1,000 yards distance), so you’ll be able to spot birds more quickly. Other things you might consider are weight, water-resistance, special lens coatings—the list goes on and on.

You could spend almost $2,000 here, but you don’t need to. Excellent, serviceable binoculars can be had for about $200 to $350, less if you buy used or shop hard. If you have access to the Internet, good information on binoculars can be found at www.betterviewdesired.com. And a spotting scope can wait until you’ve got some birding experience under your belt—birders love to share, so someone will usually offer to give you a look through their scope.

2.  Next, a good field guide can satisfy your curiosity about what you’re looking at. Digital field guides can be had for iPhones, iPods, iPads and Androids and they even include bird songs, but a hard copy guide never runs out of batteries!  Many birders use both. Good ones for beginners are: The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Sibley; Focus Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufmann; National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. All of these cost less than $25 and fit in your pocket. They all have lots of features to help you identify the birds you see.

But one additional tip on how to use a guide – don’t use it until you’ve examined the bird you’re looking at in detail, noting its overall shape and size, location in its environment, and it’s key “field marks” (color of the various parts of the bird, markings, bill shape, leg color, etc.). Start at the bill and quickly move around the bird—head, neck, back, wings and tail, underside, legs, breast—noting as much detail as you can. Many serious students of birding make a quick sketch to lock in key features. Then, remembering as much of that as you can, check out the field guide.

3.  Be comfortable and dress appropriately for the weather and terrain when you go birding—you won’t enjoy yourself if you’re cold or wet or your feet hurt or you’re being eaten alive by bugs. If it’s cold—and it can be cold and windy even in spring—dress in layers with something reasonably windproof as the outermost layer. Some of the best birding happens when it rains, so pack a rain jacket or poncho if needed (or carry a small, collapsible umbrella, just in case). If it’s buggy when it’s warm you might consider long sleeves and long pants to keep them off—and use insect repellent containing DEET. Wear comfortable, sturdy shoes or boots if you have them, sneakers are only OK for easy terrain in reasonably good weather. Just one last suggestion: never wear white or bright colors when birding, that’s a good way to drive off the birds; earth tones are the thing you should use in birding clothes.

4.  Check out the websites of birding organizations such as the American Birding Association (www.aba.com) or Cornell Lab of Ornithology (http://birds.cornell.edu). They’re good sources of information about birds and birding, they have various activities that you might like to take part in, and their websites have links to a lot of other resources that will make your birding more enjoyable.

5.  When you start out birding you may need to spend time becoming acquainted with even our most commonplace species, or to become familiar with some of the best birding places in the area, or to understand what birds you might expect to see at different times of the year. In your first trips into the field, you should not try to see every bird you encounter, but to concentrate on seeing most birds you see WELL, to learn how to identify birds, by size, shape, habitat or behavior as well as by color and markings. Take your time, examine the birds you see in as much detail as you can, listen for their calls or songs as you watch, pay attention to where you see them (tree, bush, grass, deep or shallow water, etc.) and to what they’re doing while you’re watching.

6.  Basically, you’ll do best in birding if you think like a bird—where will I get the food I like and in the environment I am used to? So, understand the importance of habitat in identifying the birds you find. Each bird has its preferred habitat for feeding and breeding—woods, fields, wetlands, lakes, ponds; treetop, shrubbery, ground; etc.—and is seldom found far from it. Learn what birds you are likely to see in the habitat you’re visiting and what habitats the birds you are looking for prefer. If you see something that ordinarily shouldn’t be there, question it and see if it isn’t something more likely—you won’t find a Swamp Sparrow in a typical backyard or a woodpecker where there are no trees nearby. And don’t ignore what time of year it is. Different birds are present in the same habitats at different times of the year. For example, it would be rare to find warblers in the woods in winter, but woodpeckers and other birds are there year ‘round. Diving and sea ducks frequent the nearshore lakes in winter, but are not as likely to be found in summer.

7.  To help you get started, consider the following: In the late fall through early spring, the lakeshore gets most of the attention—Irondequoit Bay, the mouth of the Genesee, RG&E’s Russell Station in Greece, Braddock Bay, Hamlin Beach. Those are places where you’ll find waterfowl in the winter, particularly when there’s open water there and ice elsewhere. And a little farther afield, the Niagara River is the best spot in North America to see gulls in the winter—up to 14 different species have been tallied there, but sorting them out can be very difficult for beginners.

Through the spring, and particularly when there is a southwest wind, the Braddock Bay HawkWatch—or any place along the lakeshore—is a good place to see migrating hawks, eagles and vultures. Since they ride thermals that result from warm air coming off the land, they don’t want to go directly across the lake, so they hug the lakeshore. But for beginners, hawk watching can be frustrating. What you are looking at is mainly dots in the sky. It can be tough to locate them, and then try to match shapes to species. The folks at the HawkWatch are very helpful—they’ll explain what you’re seeing and often offer you looks through their scopes.

The joy of spring is the return of the songbirds. Three good places for seeing them—not in any particular order—are:

The woods around the reservoir in Cobbs Hill Park called Washington Grove. As the birds are coming north through the city, their eyes alight on this patch of green, and they come down to rest. This is a wonderful spot on a sunny spring morning. The meadow there overlooks the woods below, which has some lovely walking paths. You can see the treetop birds from the meadow—the Scarlet Tanagers and warblers, then as you go down below, you can find the thrushes and birds of the forest floor.

Island Cottage Woods in Greece is a classic migrant trap. It’s up by the lake, near the intersection of Edgemere Drive and Island Cottage Drive. Arriving at the lake tired and hungry, warblers, vireos, sparrows, thrushes, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, gnatcatchers and others stop to refuel. This is especially productive after a southwest wind. Island Cottage can be mucky, so boots are useful. You are likely to see other birders there, and they are always helpful reporting what they have seen and where it was.

Durand Eastman Park. Again, it’s the lake that stops the birds, and the varied habitat and food sources that hold them there. It is a great place for warblers and other spring migrants, especially the footpath on the west side of Durand Lake and the northern end of Log Cabin Road. Note that Durand is also great in the winter for wintering finches.

8.  And consider joining an organization, like the Rochester Birding Association (www.rochesterbirding.com), that sponsors a lot of field trips to all of the different birding areas in the region, year ‘round—especially trips designed specifically for beginners. We try to address the above needs on beginning trips. We visit the premier birding spots in the area at their peak seasons. There is no preset agenda to cover, no quota of species or rarities to meet. Our experienced leaders discuss the basics of birding and they assume that most of the birds encountered will be new to you, or at least worth examining in some detail. We take our time and try to make sure everyone gets to see the birds as well as possible. Questions are encouraged and leaders try to avoid technical jargon (or to explain what they mean if that’s unavoidable). We also have resources that describe in detail all the important “hotspots” in the area and seasonal birding in most of the important habitats.

9.  Identifying birds and learning more about them is satisfying, but the main reason birders bird is that it’s fun! The most important beginning birding tip we can give you is first and foremost…Enjoy yourself!