The Casual Bird-Watcher, Part 2: Tips for the Beginning Birder

As I have slowly developed my bird-watching skills over the years, some simple tips have really helped me learn new birds despite my casual approach.

I started out just by looking at birds and asking others what they were. Eventually I got some binoculars and a field guide, tools that definitely make it easier to see the details that distinguish the differences between similar species, like the notorious LBBs (Little Brown Birds). One other tool I’ve found helpful is a camera with a zoom lens. A good picture can show you details you didn’t see at first and help with identification.

But you don’t need any of these things to enjoy bird watching. You can just look out the window.

Here are the simple things I have done to improve my birding skills.

1) I do most of my birding in my own neighborhood. When I eat my breakfast, walk the dog, get the mail, run an errand, or just take a break, I will keep my eyes and ears open and watch the birds.  And I’m not alone.

This red-tailed hawk lives in my neighborhood.  Photo by Kurt Fristrup
This red-tailed hawk lives in my neighborhood. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

2) I didn’t realize just how many different kinds of birds lived in my own backyard until we put up feeders. I keep a pair of binoculars by the window and a field guide handy so I can ID new birds when they appear.

House finches are one of the most common birds at our  feeder.  Photo by Kurt Fristrup
House finches are one of the most common birds at our feeder. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

3) I started looking at birds in different ways. There’s more to identification than markings. There’s silhouette, behavior, and seasonal range (those little colored maps in the field guide). The maps in particular save me a lot of time, because if I’m not in the common black-hawk’s range, then I probably didn’t see one.

4) I spend time watching birds that I already know. It’s easy for me to dismiss an American robin, one of the more common birds in the area. But the more time I spend watching robins hopping in the grass, flying, or singing in a tree, the easier it is for me to identify the robins I see. Not only can I say with some certainty that the bird that flashed by was a robin, but I intuitively know when something is not a robin, which is how I saw my first Say’s phoebe just last week.

4) If I can’t find the bird in my field guide, I don’t despair. Birds vary in their plumage with age, sex, season, and region. The guides are forced to simplify things, only showing the most common appearances for a particular species. Also, the guide can be wrong, which is why we own so many field guides. I try my best to identify the birds I see, but if I can’t figure it out in a reasonable amount of time, I let it go. A juvenile or moulting bird can make you crazy if you let it.

5) I use my ears as well as my eyes. When I can, I pair the sound with the bird and as a result I can sometimes ID a bird even though I didn’t see it. (You can get bird song apps for your phone to help you out.)

One of the few ducks I can ID: a mallard.  Photo by Kurt Fristrup.
One of the few ducks I can ID: a mallard. Photo by Kurt Fristrup

7) I keep it simple. I work on one thing at a time. Right now I am trying to get better at the differences between our local doves both in appearance and sound. There are groups of birds that are still pretty mysterious to me, like sparrows, finches, and ducks. But they can wait for now. When I am ready, I will focus on a few at a time.

Are you a casual or amateur birder, or are you just getting started? Do you have any tips on how to enjoy birding more? Which birds live in your neighborhood?

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Kit Dunsmore

Kit Dunsmore has believed in the magic underlying the muggle world since she was a child searching for the Shetland pony pooka she was sure was hiding in her back yard. She learned early on that books were magic doors into other worlds, and that she could revisit a beloved character or place by opening the right book. As she grew, she decided she wanted to make magic with words, too. Today Kit writes about things she loves: poodles and dragons, witches and artists, quirky underdogs and loyal friends. Whether her setting is 6th-century England, the imaginary Twelve Kingdoms, or an art-obsessed version of modern America, magic always finds its way into her story. She enjoys turning fairy tales inside out and watching characters sacrifice everything to reach their goal, but she also believes in happy endings. When she isn't writing, Kit experiences magic by making things with her hands. Over the years, she's made quilts, fabric sculptures, collages, sweaters, and blank books. Her newest interest is learning how to spin her own yarn, a skill guaranteed to strengthen one of her many delusions: that she is a self-sufficient pioneer woman. She also thinks she is a hobbit, a witch, an artist, and a good cook. Living in the foothills of Colorado, Kit enjoys the giant skies and prairie landscapes which suit her need for wide open spaces. In addition to hiking through glorious scenery with her husband or imagining herself living in the Middle Ages, Kit works as a pillow for her miniature poodle and polishes the next small piece of her handmade life.

4 thoughts on “The Casual Bird-Watcher, Part 2: Tips for the Beginning Birder”

    1. You are brave. They are on the OMG list of birds I hope to get to someday. Here in Colorado, we have sea gulls fly over now and then and I want to ID them. Then I look in the book, and they all look the same. 😛 We also get pelicans, but those I can ID. 🙂 Good luck with it!

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