Birdwatching, birding, whatever you call it, it’s clear why we’re all here: birds. These beautiful, wildly unique creatures offer enjoyment in myriad ways, from viewing their gorgeous colors and plumage to observing their interesting behavior and marveling at their gift of flight as they soar through the skies above us. And at over 10,000 different species spanning across the globe, it’s no wonder that millions of people around the world embark on the exhilarating journey to becoming a full-fledged birder.
If you’re reading this, your interest in wild birds has at least sparked your curiosity about joining the community—but where do you begin? There is so much information out there, getting started seems like a daunting task. But don’t let the breadth of information intimidate you! Getting started is as easy as 1, 2, 3…
1. Get Out There
Ultimately, bird watching requires nothing more than your eyes, ears, and patience. Sure, a nice pair of binoculars and a solid field guide help to view and identify what you encounter—but at its essence, bird watching is about getting outdoors and connecting with nature and its inherent beauty. If you’ve already got binoculars, great! But if you’re still unsure about spending money on a new hobby, start with simply looking and listening.
Eyes and Ears
Take a walk in your neighborhood or drive to your local park and look and listen for birds in the area—really tune into the sights and sounds of your surroundings. Notice the different colors and patterns of feathers and how they blend in or stick out. Hear how the birds’ calls differ from other sounds around you. Sometimes, the simple act of paying attention can awaken a deeper appreciation you never knew lay dormant behind the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Pick a Bird and Find It
Start simple: pick a bird that is common in your region—maybe one you haven’t noticed before—and go find it. Choose a good spot to look, somewhere birds are likely to hang out. Any green space or body of water will do. A good tip is to look for somewhere where two habitats meet—the edge of a forest and a clearing, a shoreline near trees—any place with both food and water.
That’s the quickest and easiest way to get that soar of adrenaline that comes from locating a species on your list. It’s sure to get you hooked on finding more.
Find a Trail, Park, or Refuge Near You
Inevitably, you’ll want to venture farther, see new birds, and maybe locate your first rare species. Odds are, there are several parks and nature trails in your area to seek out. Maybe you’re even lucky enough to live near a designated birding trail. Check the American Birding Association’s list of birding trails to see if there’s a trail near you!
In addition to birding trails, explore your area for government parks and national wildlife refuges. Both are fantastic options for a successful birding adventure as well as wonderful resources for viewing and conserving nature!
Take Advantage of eBird
Created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society, eBird is the “world’s largest biodiversity-related citizen science project,” collaborating with hundreds of thousands of users to find, record, track, and study birds and their location, distribution, and migratory patterns. While you don’t have to sign up to explore their maps, it’s free to create an account—and it is worth it!
Able to explore by species or region, eBird provides users with up-to-date bird sightings around the world to help you track and locate species on your list. And speaking of lists, eBird also allows you to easily keep track of and record all the birds you’ve witnessed to start your life list. Compare your sightings and numbers with other users in your area and across the globe and join the ever-growing birding community!
2. Join the Club
The birding community is an inclusive, friendly group of people with common interests and goals, working together to not only view birds in their natural habitat but also engage with and learn to respect nature, create lifelong memories and friendships, and preserve a part of the natural ecosystem that’s vital to our everyday lives.
So join the club! Find a group of birders in your area and join their community. It’s a great way to meet new people and also get tips and advice on birding. There are tons of local meetups, group trips and community activities all across the U.S.
3. Get Your Gear
Now that you’re a bona fide birder, you’re ready to invest in your new hobby and start exploring the types of gear available to enhance your experience and help you on your journey. Thankfully, all you really need is a pair of decent binoculars, a field guide, and a notebook. Of course, as your love for birding grows, you may feel inclined to upgrade your gear. But for now, there’s no need to break the bank and load up on the best money has to offer.
We’ll start here. Although you technically only need your eyes to see birds in the wild, evolution definitely favored our feathered friends in the vision department. A good set of binoculars—or bins (don’t worry, you’ll pick up on the lingo quick)—will not only enhance your vision but also enhance your birding experience. Nothing is more frustrating than finding a wild bird but being unable to take in its unique beauty because it’s just too far away.
There are plenty of great pairs of inexpensive binoculars out there that are perfect for beginners.
Featuring waterproof and fog-proof construction; bright, multicoated optics; and long eye relief for eyeglass wearers, these binoculars provide bright, sharp color and optimal sight combined with a rugged durability and comfortable weight to deliver a quality pair of bins at an affordable price.
For a more comprehensive list of binoculars for every budget, check out Audubon’s Guide to Binoculars
For those who aren’t ready to spend money on their own bins, the birding community is a friendly group! Find a group or a friend that is an enthusiastic birder and borrow a set. Most birders will have an old pair or an extra set and would be more than happy to help out. Plus, that’s a good way to connect with your local birding community, meet new people, and get tips to get you out there!
Now that you’ve got your bins, you’re ready to start looking for birds. But where do you find them? And when you do, how do you know which bird you’ve witnessed?
A proper field guide contains all your answers. Traditionally, you’d carry around a physical field guide—a book containing all the different species, complete with pictures/illustrations, descriptions, range maps, migration patterns and more—to consult on your adventure. There are plenty of fantastic field guide options that have been staples of birding for years.
A debate rages on about whether photos or illustrations are better—illustrations allow flexibility in orienting the birds how you want and showing plumage and colors more vibrantly. Photos show a more faithful version of how the birds will likely look in the wild. Here are our picks for both:
Best Photo Guide: The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America
Reflecting years of research and observation of North American birds, the Stokes Field Guide includes more species, photos, and useful identification information for birdwatchers than any other guide.
The guide features 853 North American bird species and more than 3,400 stunning color photographs. And yet it’s portable enough to fit in your pocket!
The photographs cover all significant plumages, including male, female, summer, winter, immature, morphs, important subspecies, and birds in flight. Also included:
- The newest scientific and common names and phylogenetic order.
- Special help for identifying birds in flight through important clues of behavior, plumage, and shape.
- Detailed descriptions of songs and calls.
- Important behavioral information.
- Key habitat preferences of each species.
- The newest range maps, detailing species’ winter, summer, year-round ranges, and migration routes.
- A special downloadable CD with more than 600 bird sounds (from Lang Elliott and Kevin Colver) and 150 photographs of common North American species.
Best Guide for the Field: National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Seventh Edition
This fully revised edition of the bestselling North American bird field guide is the most up-to-date guide on the market. Perfect for beginning to advanced birders, it is the only book organized to match the latest American Ornithological Society taxonomy.
With more than 2.75 million copies in print, this perennial bestseller is the most frequently updated of all North American bird field guides. Filled with hand-painted illustrations from top nature artists (including the ever-popular hummingbird), this latest edition is poised to become an instant must-have for every serious birder in the United States and Canada.
The 7th edition includes 37 new species for a total of 1,023 species; 16 new pages allow for 250 fresh illustrations; 80 new maps; and 350 map revisions. With taxonomy revised to reflect the radical new American Ornithological Society taxonomy established in 2016, the addition of standardized banding codes, and text completely vetted by birding experts, this new edition will top of the list of birding field guides for years to come.
If you’re a little more tech-savvy and don’t want to lug around a book while out on your birding adventures, mobile technology is changing the game. Birding apps have essentially created an opportunity for field guides for your pocket.
Most of the traditional guides have mobile app versions, but all of them are more than suitable for you to get started. Some include extra information and are a little more user-friendly.
Our pick: iBird app
- Identify 946 species with in-depth descriptions, including details on appearance, habitat, behavior, conservation, size, weight, color, pattern, shape, sexual differences and much more.
- Birds Around Me and Percevia™ smart search now available as in-app purchases with free 7-day trials.
- Splits-History lets you see what birds have had name changes, been split into more than one species or lumped into one species.
- Extensive identification paragraphs and hard-to-find details, such as diet, nest information, egg color, sex of incubator, vocalization definitions, and more.
- The only birding app that includes both Illustrations and Photos.
- Sort birds by first, last and family name and view birds by text, icon, thumbnail or gallery.
- Search by common name, Latin name, and even band code.
- Comprehensive range maps that include migratory routes as well as subspecies maps for 40 species.
- Only app with a field mark layer that displays key ID marks for male, female and juvenile birds.
- Post, keep lists, and share sightings with friends and followers with a user-friendly Notes and Favorites interface.
- iBird’s database is completely self-contained; no internet connection is required like many other birding apps.
In addition to downloading a field guide, make sure to download eBird Mobile, which makes it easy to keep track and log what you see on your eBird account (more on that below) while also making your data openly available for scientific research, education, and conservation.
Whether you’re more of a traditionalist or a tech-whiz, make sure to study your field guide. You’ll want to familiarize yourself with birds in your area and where and when to find them to ensure a successful first few trips. Plus, if you’ve made it this far, you’ll definitely love learning more about our feathered friends—and it will only get you more excited to hit the outdoors.
A notebook isn’t exactly necessary, but it helps make the experience more memorable—especially if you have opted against downloading the mobile apps. While on your adventures, you’ll definitely want to record your findings and observations. As you become more experienced, you’ll begin to notice more about the nature around you. The sounds and sights will envelope your senses—and detailed notes can help you hone your skills and understand what you’re looking and listening for. It can also be a great way to keep a journal of your adventures to share with your community!
Bonus: Now that you have your gear, here are a few suggestions to help you get excited about your upcoming adventures!
- Check out our multiple live birding cams
- Watch the incredible The Life of the Birds series, featuring legendary narrator David Attenborough
- Read the classics: The Big Year by Dan Obmascik; To See Every Bird on Earth by Dan Koeppel
- Follow ABA’s Code of Birding Ethics