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Migratory Birds

How to Become a Birder in 4 Easy Steps

Here are four easy steps you can take to get started in birding.

How to Become a Birder - 4 Easy Steps

By Timothy Boucher, senior conservation geographer at The Nature Conservancy and his wife, Ellen Paul

Are you curious about birding but don’t know how to get involved? Do you have a child who’s interested in birds and wants to learn more?

Here are four easy steps you can take to get started in birding:

1) Get some binoculars. First borrow, and then buy, a pair. If you are intent on buying your own ‘nocs, you should investigate and test them out first. Go to your local Audubon chapter, nature center or local wild birding store – they should have pairs to look through and feel (yes, how they feel in the hand is important) and be able to give other advice.

Look for binoculars that are waterproof, focus easily, and have at least 8x magnification and a 30 to 42mm front lens (which dictates the light gathering capability). So when you see “8×32” or “10×42,” those will work well.

2) Get a bird guide. And look through it before you go out for the first time. Don’t try to memorize all the birds — learn about bird families (swallows, raptors, warblers, flycatchers, herons, etc) to narrow your search down when you are out and about and birds are flying by. Birds are fast and often don’t stand still, so concentrate on these things:

  • What is its shape and size? (big, long, round, etc),
  • What is it doing? (hawking insects, soaring, etc),
  • What are its defining markings and colors? (yellow eyebrow, red feathers, bill length, etc),
  • What sounds is it making, if any?

Combine these characteristics and you will quickly narrow the bird down to a few species.

Any good field guides will give you the information you need. Some of the more popular bird guides are Sibley, National Geographic and Peterson. Bonus tip: Start with smaller, regional versions of these guides that deal with where you are. You can also get one of the many iPhone apps — iBird is a good start. Their many fun features will give you a chance to learn your birds.

3) Take a walk. Once you’re at your local Audubon chapter, nature center or bird store (or on their web sites), there will probably be local bird walks posted. Go on one, go on many. Go at different times of the year to different places.

Such walks are one of the many joys of birding – you get to see places you would never have thought of going to before, with people who will help you see birds you wouldn’t have seen and who are incredibly generous with their knowledge.

4) Use the Internet. When you’re ready to strike out on your own, first scour the internet for great places to see lots of birds — your local Audubon website should have a list, and there are local listservs that give up-to-date information of what’s where. Find a spot close by that is appropriate for the time of year and go!

When there, take your time – walk slowly, quietly, look and LISTEN for birds (that will usually be your first hint they are there).

Soon you will be out at dawn to greet them as they wake to refuel. You will be pulling on rumpled clothes and stumbling out into the darkness to catch the dawn's chorus of bird songs, and you will be delighted at the sight of some of the same birds as last year, the year before that, or 10 years ago, as if it was your first glimpse. Your heart will skip a beat when you:

  • Hear that first “zu zu zu ZEE” of a Black-throated Blue Warbler,
  • Take in the cacophony of hoots, grunts and whistles that spill out of a Yellow-breasted Chat, or
  • See the glowing orange throat of the Blackburnian Warbler, of which Scott Weidensaul, the poet-laureate of nature and birding, once said, “It’s a wonder it doesn’t set the tree afire.”

That’s it! Are you still at your computer? Why? Grab your ‘nocs and go!

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