Is there a bright, new bird at your feeder? Have you suddenly noticed the large number of hawks circling overhead? Perhaps one of your new year’s resolutions is to get more exercise, and you need some motivation. There are plenty of reasons someone decides to start looking at birds. However, once you’ve made the decision, or realized an interest, how do you get started?
Recently, I was chatting with a new acquaintance when I happened to mention that I enjoyed going birding. Her face lit up. It turns out that she and her husband, now retired, were looking for something new that they could do together, and had decided to start watching birds. She had a new pair of binoculars and a field guide, but she was feeling a bit lost. Needless to say, we had a long conversation!
How does a new birder get started? Most people associate birding with binoculars, and they really are essential. A decent pair shouldn’t run more than $400, and some are substantially less. There are numerous sites devoted to the pros and cons of various styles and brands—here and here are a couple of links that I find helpful.
The other necessary item is a good field guide. There are many good options. Here’s a website that compares the front runners. I prefer paintings to photographs, and it definitely helps to have range maps on the same page as the illustrations. You want at least one that includes every bird you could possibly see. I keep a couple North American guides in the car, and carry Sibley’s western region book in my backpack (at least while birding here in Colorado). There are also several apps available for your smart phone or other electronic device.
Once you’re equipped with a way to see the birds, and a way to start identifying them, you might think you’re good to go. However, I have one more suggestion—something that has helped me more than expensive optics or a shelf full of field guides. Find a better birder and tag along.
A birding “mentor” will teach you far more than you could learn on your own. You’ll experience less frustration and more enjoyment, and your life list will grow much faster. Having additional eyes looking in the bushes means you’ll see more birds. Plus, it’s just more fun to bird with someone else!
If you don’t know any other birders, perhaps it’s time you met a few. They’re not that hard to spot. When I started birding, I ran into a docent at our local nature center who invited me to a meeting of our local Audubon chapter. I’m so glad I went! The program, on a bird-related topic, was free, and they announced a list of upcoming field trips (also free) that I could choose from. I signed up for all of them.
The next weekend I found myself in a group of about a dozen people, happily spotting bird after bird. When I had some trouble using my new binos, I received a patient lesson in how to keep my eye on the bird while bringing up the lenses. (I also learned how to adjust the binos to my not-so-great vision.) I discovered that most birders are kind, generous, intelligent, and very patient.
Audubon introduced me to an entire birding subculture. I discovered that they’re not the only ones leading field trips. Several local stores that cater to bird watchers also offer free outings. Our nature centers have inexpensive classes for all age levels, and seasonal bird counts. Here in Colorado, you can bird with both the Denver Field Ornithologists and the Colorado Field Ornithologists. And areas (such as Boulder) without an Audubon chapter often have unaffiliated birding clubs. Newcomers are always welcome.
Make sure you take advantage of the opportunities near you. Now that I’ve been at it for a while, I’m realizing how much fun it is to introduce a new person to the joys of birding. We don’t mind “dumb” questions—they make us feel smarter! Perhaps best of all, who doesn’t love to talk about their passion? After all, enthusiasm is contagious!