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The beginner’s guide to bird-watching

No, you don’t need a fancy pair of binoculars to get into bird-watching, according to avid birders.

Allie Volpe is a senior reporter at Vox covering mental health, relationships, wellness, money, home life, and work through the lens of meaningful self-improvement.

Sharon Stiteler once spent two decades tracking down a stout bird known as the spruce grouse. For Stiteler, the fowl, with its black and white feathers and a striking red eyebrow, is what’s referred to in the birding world as a nemesis bird: an elusive creature that always seems to evade your view. Every time she received a tip about a spruce grouse sighting, she’d arrive a little too late. “People would say, ‘It was just here 10 minutes ago,’” says Stiteler, a birder and writer known as Birdchick. “And then it would never show up again.”

Stiteler had all but admitted defeat looking for the spruce grouse. It was only when she started a job at Denali National Park in Alaska in 2021 that she accidentally spotted not one, but three spruce grouses while on a bike ride her first day in the park. “I got off my bike, I took pictures,” she says. “I wept.”

You don’t need to be a longtime birder to appreciate the thrill of spotting a new-to-you creature.

Since its inception in the late 1800s, bird-watching has become the hobby of choice for millions nationwide — a population that has grown since the pandemic. What was once considered a recreation for middle-aged white men is slowly transitioning into a demographic of younger, more diverse birders. (Despite the fact that even the preeminent bird conservationist nonprofit Audubon Society recently announced that it will maintain its name, which has ties to John James Audubon, a 19th-century naturalist who enslaved people.)

Christian Cooper, the Black birder who was falsely accused of threatening a white woman while he was birding in Central Park in 2020, is among the many leading the charge to diversify bird-watching. “The groups that started during the pandemic were 100 percent geared toward beginning birders and pulling in people who had not necessarily had access to birding in the past,” says Katrina Clark, a board member of the Philadelphia-based In Color Birding Club. “These newer birding clubs are really pulling in people of color, women, people who may not even be able to walk through a particular path.”

Birding or bird-watching (the two terms, for all intents and purposes, can be used interchangeably) is a hobby that engages the senses, encourages mindfulness, and gets participants out into the fresh air. Not only does immersion in nature come with a host of mental health benefits, but even listening to birdsong can also improve well-being. Whether you’re looking to slow down a little bit or want to find your own nemesis bird, getting into bird-watching is as simple as appreciating a single bird.

Birding equipment you’ll need

As far as hobbies go, birding is fairly low-maintenance. In theory, fledgling bird-watchers don’t need anything but their eyes and ears to take in the sights and sounds of birds. “I honestly think that if somebody wants to start birding, there are birds everywhere,” says Meghadeepa Maity, the director of accessibility and intersectional community engagement at the Feminist Bird Club, “and you just need to go outside or look out your window.”

For a little more guidance, a field guide and binoculars are the only items necessary. A field guide is a book documenting the kinds of birds typically found in the area and their descriptions. You’ll want to find one that is specific to your geographic region — it’ll have photos and descriptions of the birds you’re likely to encounter. Free apps like the Audubon Bird Guide App and Merlin Bird ID can also help you identify birds. Virginia Rose, the founder of Birdability, an inclusive birding group, recommends the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America.

Binoculars will give you a closer look at the birds without disturbing them. Binoculars can get expensive, but beginners can use loaner pairs from local birding groups during guided walks. “If you can use some people’s optics before you take the plunge and buy them yourself,” says Geoff LeBaron, the director of Christmas Bird Count for the National Audubon Society, “that will help you initially use them on your own.”

Should you want your own pair, entry-level binoculars can run anywhere from $50 to $150. Look for binoculars labeled as 8.5 x 40, LeBaron says (or as close to those specs as you can find). The first number is magnification: Eight is powerful enough to magnify the birds, but not so strong that you can’t find what you’re looking for. The second number refers to the amount of light let in through the lens: 40 or above provides a brighter image in darker or cloudier conditions.

Safety gear includes sunscreen and tick and bug spray, especially if you’re headed to a wooded area. Clark always wears long pants tucked into her socks while birding to protect herself from ticks. You’ll want to wear sturdy, supportive shoes that are comfortable to walk in.

Where and when to go bird-watching

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to venture to some faraway nature preserve to admire birds. When Maity began birding as a kid, they started by paying attention to animals in their surroundings: at school, in the neighborhood, at home. Stiteler suggests hanging around anywhere there is water — a fountain, a creek, a pond. If you have the space, consider a bird bath in your yard, front step, or balcony for at-home bird-watching. (“Cemeteries are actually fantastic places” for birding, Stiteler says, “but you do want to be respectful.”)

When you’re ready to explore further, start by making a list of the parks in your city or county, Rose says, and visit them, either by yourself or with a few friends. If a local birding club is planning trips to any of these parks, even better.

A local bird club or Audubon chapter can offer recommendations for prime bird-watching locales in your area. These groups also host guided bird walks geared toward beginners, so that can be a great way to get acquainted with the landscape and how to identify birds. The American Birding Association has a list of birding clubs, and the Feminist Bird Club has chapters throughout the country. Of course, a Google or Facebook search will yield a number of local bird organizations.

Birds are particularly active in the early morning — singing, feeding — so experts advise heading out at dawn for prime bird-watching, regardless of the time of year. If you aren’t a morning person, birds are pretty active around dusk, too. Migration season is also prime time for bird-watching, especially non-native species that may be on their way north or south. In the spring, birds migrate between March and June; fall migration is from August through November.

What to keep in mind during your first bird-watching outings

More experienced birders often have lists of birds they’ve seen and hope to see, but there’s value in simply existing in nature, listening to birdsong. Remove expectations and start by taking in your surroundings. What do you see? What do you hear? What shapes are the birds? What about their beaks and tails? What are their sizes? What are their behaviors? What do they sound like? All of the physical and auditory descriptions of the birds will help you identify them in your guide. Even if you can’t classify them, take pleasure in watching the creatures behave in nature.

If you want to keep track of all the birds you’ve seen, experts recommend the app eBird where you can keep a record of your sightings. The app also provides a list of birds others have reported seeing where you are, based on your GPS location.

As for actually spotting a bird — and communicating its location to others — Rose recommends looking at a tree as if it were the face of a clock. “Let’s say I see a bird that’s on the 3 o’clock branch,” she says. “I’m going to say the bird is six feet in on the 3 o’clock branch.”

What to do if you’re feeling frustrated or overwhelmed

You might spend an hour in a park and struggle to spot a single bird or fail to catch any in action at your backyard bird feeder and feel frustrated. There is strength in numbers: Seek out the guidance of a bird club where more experienced birders can point out fowl and help identify them. When describing a yellow bird, another bird-watcher might be able to guide you with questions like, “Where did you see the yellow: all over or on certain parts of its body?” “After somebody has a few successes,” Clark says, “then you’re like, okay, I can do this. I got this. I might not know every bird but I’ve had some success.”

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the variety of birds, perhaps during migration, narrow your focus to one type, LeBaron says: only the ducks in the park, just the gulls at the beach. Maity also recommends bringing a notebook and jotting down observations. “Later on, you’ll notice patterns,” they say. “Birds become really predictable.”

Remember to be respectful of nature and other birders

As a general rule of thumb, give birds some space and avoid making loud noises. “Being quiet enough so that a bird will continue eating around you is a good sign,” Clark says.

If you find a nest, don’t get close to it and do not touch it. “Your scent will linger,” Stiteler says. “Predators like raccoons and cats, they smell that and they follow the human scent.” This puts the nest in danger.

For more guidelines, Maity recommends the American Birding Association’s Code of Birding Ethics, which encourages birders to be mindful of their environmental impact and to respect the rights and skill levels of other bird-watchers.

Speaking of respecting other birders, when interacting with others, be aware of your surroundings, but never question anyone else’s right to be in a public space. While experts agree birders are largely supportive and helpful, racist incidents like the one Cooper experienced in Central Park underscore a need for inclusivity. “You’re going to see a person out there that doesn’t fit your idea of the world,” Maity says. “If you are making an assumption — which you most likely will — take a minute to consider if there is an alternate, positive assumption you can make.”

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