For New Birders: 6 Tips for Getting Started

Birding at Plum Island, Massachusetts © Liz Goodfellow

Here I was in 2012, struggling to spot a Marsh Wren — Plum Island, MA © Liz Goodfellow

I may not be a good birder, but I am leagues better than when I started. Based on my first three years, here are six tips for absolute beginners:

1. Put up a bird feeder.

Even if your outdoor space is tiny, you can still bribe some urban birds to hang out with you. As a real live birding pro recently told me, learning to recognize the appearances and behaviors of common birds will help you know when you’re seeing something special.

2. Learn bird backstories.

As you learn to identify the birds at your feeder, look up their stories. The House Sparrow doesn’t get much love, but even they have a dramatic history. (Really, though: Google it.)

3. Appreciate everyday birds.

Don’t become immune to the beauty of a Blue Jay or the cuteness of a Black-capped Chickadee. You might not see the Snowy Owl you set out to find, but you will run into these old buddies, and they will keep you going (and let you practice using your binoculars).

4. Share the news.

You don’t have to commit to beige vests with 200 pockets or go birding in frigid weather if you don’t want to. But once people hear you know a woodcock from a woodpecker, they’ll ask you to identify birds they’ve seen and you’ll realize how much you’ve learned. The answer to these questions is almost always American Goldfinch, but you’ll look like a genius. (Bonus tip: Try to get them to reenact the mystery bird’s noises and movements — rarely helpful, always entertaining.)

5. Look like an idiot.

Admit it or not, everybody’s hopeful eyeballs have turned a crow into a raven or that goldfinch I just mentioned into a Nashville Warbler. Don’t let anybody make you feel bad about it. The only difference between new and more seasoned birders is that the old pros don’t say these things out loud, or at least not as often. Brush off your ego and take these mistakes as signs of enthusiasm.

6. Find the best resources.

There are websites, apps, field trips, binocular lessons, mentorship, and camaraderie out there. None of these resources requires you to be an expert. There are even clubs you can join (hint, hint).

As this blog continues, Sarah Compter, a fellow new-ish birder, and I will share what we’ve learned, as well as tales of our birding triumphs and failures. If there are specific topics you’d like to read about, please let us know. You can reach me at e.goodfellow [at] gmail.com.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Carolyn Ragan

    Everyone is a beginner at one time or another. Good article. I recognize those moments in my excitement, yelling out the name of the bird, which turns out wrong. Helpful to learn the names of trees as well so you can describe the location or know which tree to look at when someone directs you to “3 o’clock in the sumac.”

  • I just joined and need a recommendation for good inexpensive binoculars

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