How to Get Into Birdwatching on Your Next Outdoor Adventure
Get ready to encounter a whole new feathered world.
You never forget your first.
For Jenna Curtis, who works on the eBird app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it was a small gray and white Dark-eyed Junco, spotted in her backyard while home sick in eighth grade. “It was the first time I’d ever noticed birds in our yard, and they were the most beautiful birds I’d ever seen,” she remembers. “I convinced my dad to buy a bird feeder. And then another one. And then another one.”
It was the Eastern Bluebird for poet and photographer Nadia Alexis, spotted in 2018 while writing a poem featuring her bird-loving mother. “There were a couple of lines that address this woman who loved to watch birds fly,” Alexis says. “So I was trying to figure out what was it about it that interested people.” She went to a nearby park in Mississippi and was enraptured by their bright plumage. “There was something about that year I was searching for peace and calm. And birding did that for me. It allowed me to slow down and be outdoors.”
People find their way to birding for all different reasons. But this past year, interest in the hobby exploded, rivaling maybe only sourdough bread baking in the pandemic-stricken hearts of Americans. Chances are you know someone who, pre-2020, had never given birds a second thought; now they rattle off the differences between towhees and finches, get starry-eyed about Red-tailed hawks, and spend weekends stalking the elusive Kirtland's Warbler.
A means of escape from pandemic routine, birding offered a reprieve from heavy thoughts and anxieties, with time spent outdoors simply observing, say, an epic tug-of war between a robin and a worm (RIP worm). And for many, it became a sport, metered by personal bests.
“It’s the hunt,” explained a longtime birder friend. “Birding is like a real-life version of Pokémon Go. 'Gotta catch 'em all!'"
To keep track of their conquests, birders favor lists, like the basic “life list” of birds they’ve personally identified or seen. “Each bird listed is associated with a place and a time and a memory,” says Curtis. “Some of the birds are like 'oh yeah, that was that trip!'"
There are yard lists, year lists, five mile lists, state lists, even green lists (birds spotted without having to utilize fossil fuels). With almost 10,000 species in the world to encounter, there’s always more to be spotted. Run out of birds to identify in your neighborhood? Drive a couple hundred miles and it’s a whole new demographic, a new lens through which to filter your surroundings. Go across the world and it could very well be the crux of your travels.
“I remember the first sword-billed hummingbird I saw was in Ecuador,” recalls Curtis. “It was an amazing hummingbird. And it actually sat on one of our field notebooks that we were using to count birds. And it was this moment of ‘Oh my gosh! Here was this bird that we traveled to see, and it’s sitting on our notebook!’”
Not only can birdwatching take you out of your head (and your house) it can add depth to a trip or weekend getaway. But it can be intimidating to know where to start. We’ve gathered some useful tips to help you on your journey to becoming a birder. But be warned: after that first one, you might need to catch them all.
To get started, just look out the window
Unless what you seek is, like, an Atlantic Puffin, you don't need to go somewhere exotic to see interesting birds. “Some of my life birds have just been at home, [when I’m] not expecting to see them close to home,” says Curtis.
Want the birds to come to you? Get a bird feeder. “It’s a great way to get to know the birds around you,” says Curtis. You can also try putting out some native plants, which some believe are even better than bird feeders for attracting feathered buddies. The plants host native insects like caterpillars, which nesting birds use to feed their chicks.
When you’re ready to venture past your backyard, seek out parks and green spaces. Alexis, a Mississippi resident but Harlem native who spends summers in New York, loves to birdwatch in Central Park and Governors Island. And pro-tip for the adventurous: cemeteries, dumps, and smelly water are especially fertile locations.
“If you asked a bunch of birders, some of their favorite places to bird are water treatment plants and sewage ponds,” says Curtis. “They’re very rich in life and organisms. The ducks and the other waders will come down because they’re often a really reliable source of water. Big, open, ponds of water.”
Choose some binoculars
You don’t need any gear to get into birding—just your eyes and ears. But as your interest grows and you start jonesing for a clearer view, you may want to invest in a pair of binoculars.
Curtis suggests finding a place to try out several models, as each person’s hands are different. “It’s all personal preference,” says Curtis. “I have small hands, so I always try to find binoculars that are ergonomic and feel comfortable.” When you test them, feel for the focal knob and make sure it’s easy to reach.
Many birders prefer something in the 7-power or 8-power range for their wide field of view. Curtis suggests choosing a pair with adjustable cups and diopters (which compensates for the space differences between the eyes), especially if you wear glasses. But don’t worry about spending too much. “There are definitely usable binoculars that will make your birding experience great in every price range,” she says.
Pick an app, or physical field guide. Or both.
Say the name Sibley to any bird enthusiast and not only will they know who you’re talking about, they’ll probably have one of his books on their coffee table. David Sibley’s illustrated field guides are the go-to references to help you identify species within the continental US and Canada. (The birders are also very excited about his latest, What It’s Like to Be a Bird.)
Some people prefer field guides over apps for obvious reasons, but an app like Merlin Bird ID (free) can give you customized information based on your specific location. ID a bird from a photo or a short description, and it provides you with photo guides, maps and sounds—another advantage over a physical field guide. (Side-note: also make sure you have a good audio recorder app to record sounds for identification later, unless you’re particularly good at mimicking songs and calls.)
And here’s where all those birding lists come in. For the layman user, the free eBird app lets you create and store your own lists—a powerful conservation tool, as it provides scientists at the Cornell Ornithology Lab with useful location data. You can also utilize their map database to check out what other users are spotting and where.
Practice, practice, practice
If your goal is to identify birds, there’s only one way to get good at it: practice. Go out on bird walks, compare what you see to similar birds in your guide, and take note of the five ID categories: size, shape, color, sound, and behavior. “There’s the GSS: the general size and shape,” says Curtis. “Where you’re like, oh, it’s finchy. Or oh, it was robin-sized. Or it was like a crow. Using a familiar bird to help you navigate through all the different possibilities is a really good way to identify something new.”
It’s work, but nailing an identification can come with its rewards. “There’s something about being able to identify a bird that’s very empowering,” says Alexis. “And your relationship with the outdoors changes. You’re not just saying ‘oh, there goes that bird over there.’ Instead you go ‘that was an American Robin’ or ‘that was an Eastern Bluebird.’ It’s like ‘I’m a part of this community now.’”
Connect with other birders
While bird watching can be a solo meditative endeavor, the fastest—and most fun—way to learn is to bird with other people in a birding group or club. You can ask questions of more experienced birders, and learn about species you may not have noticed before. Plus, you can fully nerd out. “It’s nice to be around people that are passionate about the same things you’re passionate about,” says Alexis.
Look for meet-ups online, or check your favorite park’s website. You can also find birding buddies through your local Audubon chapter, or the American Birding Association’s Birding Clubs page. Sign up for the American Birding Association’s Birding News Digest for other opportunities and check with your state’s ornithological association.
For BIPOC and other marginalized birders, some established groups may not feel like the most welcoming environment. Though birding is slowly becoming more inclusive, registered statistics still skew older, male, white, and somewhat well-off. Look for a group more suited to your needs. Last summer, Alexis participated in the inaugural “Black Birders Week,” which was created to connect Black birders in response to a racist birdwatching incident in Central Park. Through it she found new people to connect with online, like ornithologist Corina Newsome. Her next goal is to find an IRL Black birding group in Mississippi.
Or just sit back and observe
If you don’t feel like pulling out the field guide or hanging out with other humans, it’s okay to just sit back and watch, too.
Birds are funny. Some more than others resemble their dinosaur ancestors (think: ostrich, or turkey). Some will snatch your sandwich (note: hide your sandwich). Some have spectacular colors that don’t look like they should occur in nature, and some just want to blend into the trees and be left alone (we can relate). Some build nests in precarious locations that seem, frankly, irrational. They’re just fun to observe. “They are cute, they are round, they are colorful,” says Curtis. “They do fascinating things. Every time you watch them you’re like ‘what are you doing?’”