By Terry Grabill
Photo by Andrea Grabill
I’ve been asked by many folks, “how does someone get started in birding?” The simple answer is to have an interest in birds and notice which ones are around. But, like most interests, there are some things that can make beginning more enjoyable and comfortable. When I started birding, oh, so many years ago, there was no internet to search for information about my interests. There was me, a little book with some bird pictures, and, of course, the birds. Fortunately, we live in a time where contacts are easier to make.
As I mentioned earlier, the first and most important requirement is an interest in birds. That interest will soon have you noticing things you’ve seen for years but never paid any attention to. Those birds that fly away when you open the front door will begin to look different from one another. Rather than seeing only a bunch of birds on a wire, you’ll notice they are shaped differently. I’m a middle school science teacher. On fine spring days, I’ll often take my kids outside and ask them to make some observations of the birds we see. Most of the kids are in awe when they get a good view of even the most common birds because they’ve never taken the time to notice anything besides an animal that flies away when they approach.
Now that you’re noticing that birds are not all alike, you’ll be curious as to what it is you’re seeing. Birds differ in shape, size, color and habitat. You’ll begin to notice patterns in these differences, and you’ll want a tool to help put a name to that creature. This is where a field guide becomes important. Today, there are many options to choose from. Organized birding trips are usually led by an experienced birder that can help identify birds quickly by sight and by ear. I would think that most looking to get started in birding won’t be hiring a personal guide. Instead, consider a pocket-sized personal guide. Many publishers offer print field guides, and which one is best is really a matter of personal preference. I use the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Some friends prefer others. Nat Geo is the one I learned with. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. I would recommend NOT getting one that is of a local area as most of these are limited to just the most common birds and many you’ll see won’t be represented in the book! Another pocket-sized guide is an app for your smartphone. There are lots of offerings here that you can install that will give handy, up-to-date information available anywhere…as long as you have signal! Merlin is a free download that does a nice job helping with bird identification.
Another tool that can make observation easier is a pair of good binoculars. Now, I’m not an optics snob but looking though discount store binoculars often makes birding more frustrating than looking without binoculars. Find the best binoculars you can fit into your budget. If you’re not convinced, look through some quality optics as a store and you’ll see the difference! Look for ones that have seven to eight power magnification. (the binoculars will have numbers printed on them, like 7x40 or 8x35. The first number is the magnification) Higher magnification limits the field of view, will get VERY heavy and will be hard to hold steady.
The best way to learn birds is to spend time looking for birds and noticing what you find! There are local nature clubs (such as Audubon) that hold bird walks. These are a great place for a beginner to learn from more experienced birders. The internet is full of information as well, but remember, this information is posted by anyone…and not everyone is posting correct info. Look for Facebook groups for birders. One of my favorites is Birding Michigan where you’ll find photos and tips by people that really know birding. Bird feeders are also excellent windows to local birds and their behavior.
So, there you have my starter pack for birding; interest, a field guide, quality binoculars, and time spent looking for and at birds.
For Birdgoober.com, I’m Terry Grabill.