New to birding?

Here’s what you need to know to get started

|  Story by Meghan McMahon |

In a time when virtually every part of our lives is affected by the global coronavirus pandemic, many people have begun to take comfort in the great outdoors, a safe place to go when most of our normal haunts are off limits. As lockdowns began across the country in 2020, many people who were used to fast-paced lives found themselves with more time on their hands and not a lot of options for how to fill it. Many turned to birding, either intentionally or accidentally as they spent more time outside and began to wonder about the birds they were seeing and hearing.

The proof of the increased interest in bird-watching was seen in many places as early as spring. Birding supply stores have seen a boom in business, and citizen science bird-watching events like Global Big Day were more popular than ever in 2020, the New York Times reports.

And it turns out the choice by many people to take up birding was a good one in terms of its effect on their mental health, because more and more research has proven that spending time outdoors, specifically with exposure to birds, improves their well-being, the National Audubon Society reports.

If you don't know much about the birds that populate our skies, forests, grasslands and shorelines, it's not a reason to be discouraged. Birding requires little more than an interest in observing the birds around you and learning about them and how to identify them.

Getting Started
 

All you need to get started with birding is a field guide or a trusted app to help you identify the birds you see. A good pair of binoculars or a spotting scope will be helpful too, the National Park Service advises. Good guides for beginning birders organize birds by color, making it easier to narrow down the bird you saw. Several apps and websites also allow users to search for birds by color as well as size, location and where the bird was seen, such as in a tree, on the ground or at the water's edge.

It's a good idea to page through your guide before heading out on your first birding adventure, said Bob Bryerton, a program coordinator at the Forest Preserve District's Plum Creek Nature Center.

"It helps if you can look through it a few times before you go out, so you can familiarize yourself with birds a bit," he said. "Most people know robins, cardinals, blue jays and sparrows already, but there are hundreds of birds out there that can show up in front of you."  

Having a solid foundation of 10 birds is also helpful. 

"If you can learn 10 species for sure, then at least you will know when something outside of those 10 shows up," he said, adding that each birding trip will help you build a larger foundation.

 

While binoculars aren't essential for birding, especially if you're starting by observing the birds in your own yard, they are helpful to have.

"Having binoculars will help you see birds from farther away and allow you to see the colors, patterns and marks on the bird that will help you identify it while standing far enough away that the bird does not feel threatened," Bryerton said. 

He said you don't have to have a fancy, expensive pair of binoculars to get started. You can use what you have available. If they are an old pair that you have lying around the house, they will work. Use what you have to start. If you get into birding more and later want to find a pair that better suits your needs, check out The Audubon Guide to Binoculars for advice, Bryerton suggested.

If you put a bird feeder or two in your backyard, all you need to start spotting visitors is a window to view them. Be patient if you don't have any visitors right away; it can take a few days for birds to find a new feeder, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

When starting out IDing birds, the National Audubon Society recommends considering four different factors in determining what birds you are seeing:

  • First, consider the bird's size and shape.
  • Next, look at the color.
  • Then, observe and take note of its behavior.
  • Finally, consider the type of habitat it is in.
  • Once you've noted all these factors, you can refer to your field guide or app to narrow down the possibilities.

If you're birding beyond your own backyard, location is key. The National Park Service suggests focusing on areas where birds have access to both water and food, whether it be feeders or natural sources. If you can find a place where two habitat areas meet — such as a forest edge along a meadow or where a stream flows into a river — that may increase your likelihood of seeing many species in one trip.

Ethical Standards

Bird-watching and bird photography are guided by a set of ethical guidelines, and one key tenet of bird-watching is to always consider the birds' well-being first, said Chris Gutmann, facility supervisor at the Forest Preserve District's Four Rivers Environmental Education Center. Birders need to know how their behavior may affect the birds they are watching.

The National Audubon Society has published a Guide to Ethical Bird Photography and Videography outlining how people should behave while birding or photographing birds. Essentially, always ensure that you are not causing unnecessary disturbance to the birds.

One of the key principles of bird-watching ethics is that if your presence or approach causes a bird to fly away, referred to as flushing, or change its behavior, you are too close. You should also never approach birds with the intention of making them fly away, because this disturbs their natural processes and forces them to expend energy unnecessarily, according to the Audubon Society.

Interfering with birds is not just unethical, it may also be illegal. In the United States, migratory birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which is one of the oldest wildlife protection laws in our nation's history. The purpose of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is to protect birds, nests and eggs from actions by people.

The act applies only to migratory birds, so not all species are protected. However, it does cover more than 1,000 bird species, from towering great blue herons to tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds. The law has been credited with saving several bird species from extinction, including sandhill cranes and wood ducks, the Audubon Society reports.

Get Out There
 

Once you've begun to familiarize yourself with the birds in your area, you have to get outside and put your new knowledge to the test, Bryerton said.

"The main thing with birding is just to get out and do it," he said. "You need to see and hear them to get to know them."

He said you may see just the common birds when you first start, but you'll begin to see more birds in the background that you didn't notice before.

Beginners may want to consider signing up for a local birding hike, either through the Forest Preserve District or a local birding group.

"Getting out on your own is great and will help you learn, but if you want to quicken the learning curve, bird with someone who knows birds already," he said. "They know where and what to look for already, and can point out where the birds are, identify their calls and help with tips and tricks that they use to help them figure out quickly what the bird is. Going out with guides can really help you learn more quickly too."

Attitude Is Everything
 

Just like the fish aren't always biting, the birds aren't always where you are when you head out for a birding trip.

Patience is key, and so is a positive attitude, the National Park Service advises. 

New birders would do well to start by focusing on learning common birds, Gutmann said.

"This provides a solid foundation and reference for you to grow your knowledge," he said. "Feeders at home or viewing feeders at local nature centers can help with this. As you grow as a birder, the better you will know the common species, and the easier it will be to notice other species that look different. That will create additional learning opportunities." 

If you're heading out to a preserve or park for your first birding outing, it may be useful to pick a species you want to find, the National Audubon Society advises. Use your field guide or app to find a bird that lives in the habitat you will be visiting at that time of year. The satisfaction of finding the bird you were seeking will motivate you to keep going with your new hobby.

But don't be discouraged if you don't find what you're looking for. Bird watching requires patience and, sometimes, more than a little luck. Even experienced birders strike out from time to time.

"There are many skilled birders out there, each with their own preferred methods of finding certain birds, but ultimately, it’s up to the birds to land at the right time and place for you to see them," Gutmann said. "The more you’re out looking, the better position you’ll be in to be lucky."

A Social Network
 

One of the beauties of birding is that it can be a social or solitary activity. If you're looking for a quiet way to spend time alone in nature, birding is a perfect choice. But it can also be a way to spend time with others who share your interests.

For newcomers to birding, the social aspect can create opportunities to learn about birds in your area, the Audubon Society advises. You can connect with other birders while out and about, but also through local Audubon Society chapters or online resources like eBird. And we've seen and heard about friendships forged over a common interest in birds and other wildlife through our Will County Wildlife Facebook group, where people are encouraged to share recent photos of the animals they have seen across Will County. 

Nobody's Perfect
 

When you're out on a birding adventure, it helps to remember that making mistakes identifying birds is part of birding.

"Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes can be your greatest learning opportunities," said Gutmann, adding well-known birding author Peter Dunne once said the only difference between new and experienced birders is that experienced birders have misidentified more birds. 

As you gain more experience, identifying birds will become easier, but some will still throw you for a loop. That's OK — it's part of the fun and challenge of birding as a hobby. 

Another lesson to remember as you become more experienced: Don't forget the beauty of common birds, Gutmann said.

"With so many exciting species that can be seen in our area over the course of the year, it’s easy to caught up with finding less common species," he said. "We are fortunate to have some gorgeous species reside in our county year-round. Remember to enjoy them, and you’ll be hard pressed to have a bad day birding."

If you're looking for a good place to get started with birding beyond your own yard, check out the Forest Preserve District's four bird-feeding stations Four Rivers Environmental Education Center in Channahon, Isle a la Cache Museum in Romeoville, Monee Reservoir in Monee Township and Plum Creek Nature Center in Crete Township. The feeding stations are part of the District's new bird feeding and watching initiative, which also features interpretive signs, QR codes and roving naturalists who educate visitors about all things related to birds. 
 

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Photos via Shutterstock

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