Birding Basics

All, Parks at Home, Nature Notes
Blue-winged warbler
Blue-winged warblers (Vermivora cyanoptera) can be found in areas with thick shrub cover. Photo courtesy Melissa McMasters/Creative Commons, licensed under CC BY 2.

One of the coolest parts of living in our part of the world is getting to watch the yearly shift in the bird community, from species only found here in the winter, like dark-eyed juncos, ruby-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers, to those only here in the summer months, such as scarlet tanagers, red-eyed vireos and yellow-breasted chats. Even the species that are here year-round, like northern cardinals and Carolina chickadees, change their behavior and songs as the seasons change. But some of the really special species are only here for a few weeks each spring and fall as they migrate through. Warblers are some of the flashiest ones, with stunners like golden-winged, black-throated blue, Blackburnian and bay-breasted warblers found for just a short time while on their way to breeding grounds farther north. 

Spring migration is in full swing, and now is a great time to get out and do some birding. And if you’re interested in birds, but don’t really consider yourself a birder, now is a great time to start! There are more resources available than ever before to help you find, identify and keep track of the birds you’ve seen. 

Getting to see some of those species takes a little luck and skill, but it mostly just takes some time. Every morning you get out and look for birds is like buying a lottery ticket. Some mornings will be duds, but the more times you get out and look, the more chances you have to see something really special. (And unlike lottery tickets, every time you go out, you’ll get a little better at noticing bird songs, catching their movements and finding patches of good habitat to check out.)

Blue jay
Birds like blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) can be elusive to birders at first.

Identifying birds is probably what first comes to mind when people think of birding. But before you can identify birds, first you have to find them. One of the best ways to find more birds is to look for them when they are the most active. The best time is the morning, when birds are moving around, looking for food and singing to attract mates and defend their territory. Early morning is better, with the highest amount of activity right around sunrise. But don’t worry too much if you can’t be out there at the crack of dawn every time; you can still see plenty of birds later in the morning. For many species, activity picks up again in the evening – an after-dinner walk before sunset can also be a perfect time to look for birds.

My next piece of advice to find more birds is to look in a variety of habitats. Plan your route to hit several areas with different features and vegetation. Some species will be found near streams or marshy areas, and others will be found in open grasslands. Many species use brushy areas, especially during migration, so seek out areas with thick shrubs. Forest edges with tall trees and a dense shrub understory are often hot spots where many different species of hungry migrants can be found foraging for food in one place.

Great blue heron
Great blue herons (Ardea herodias) prefer open water or wetland habitats. So you probably won’t find them in your yard.

Although binoculars are probably one of the first things that come to mind when someone says “birding,” I find many more birds by ear than by eye. With time and practice you can learn to identify species by songs and calls. But for beginners, just being mindful of bird songs and other bird noises (like the various “chip” calls) will help you detect birds you might not be able to see at first, and help you put eyes on them.

If you are really getting into birding, eventually you will probably want some binoculars. If you’re not sure birding is something you want to stick with, you could ask around and see if friends have a set you can borrow. But be warned, not all binoculars are good for birding, and optics have advanced a lot in the past several decades, so old pairs might be more frustrating than helpful. Although the prices for some models may seem astronomical, to some extent you get what you pay for. Quality glass really does have better brightness, clarity and color transmission, and cheap pairs often skimp on things like waterproofing and warranty. For birding, 8×42 (meaning 8-times magnification with 42-mm objective lenses) is the most commonly recommended size, and balances good magnification with a wide field of view to make it easier to follow birds as they move. The National Audubon Society has some good lists for different budgets here, and I can personally vouch for two of the models on the “Good Value” list (older versions). Ideally, I would recommend trying out binoculars in person before buying, but that may be more difficult in the days of COVID-19. If buying online, check the return policy, and use them inside first to make sure you’re happy with the feel and image quality before you take them in the field.

Cardinalis cardinalis call

If you only ever learn one bird call, let it be the northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis). Once you hear it, you'll never forget it.

Posted by Great Parks of Hamilton County on Friday, May 4, 2018
The northern cardinal’s call is one of the more easily identifiable bird calls.

Identifying birds can be intimidating – there are more than 300 species that breed, winter or migrate through our area, and many of these species can look different depending on their age, sex and the time of year. But one of the reasons that birding as a hobby can stay exciting your entire life, is that there are rewarding challenges at every level of skill. Like binoculars, at some point a field guide is an essential tool to sort through all these species. I may be old fashioned, but I still think you can’t beat a physical book. Sibley and National Geographic both put out excellent field guides. But if you want something you can take in your pocket, the free Merlin app is a great addition. It also has song and call recordings for many species, as well as filters that can help you narrow down the possibilities and walk you through the identification process when faced with an unknown bird.

There are now tons of very active online communities dedicated to helping people identify birds, including multiple Facebook groups, as well as the Reddit group r/whatsthisbird. Pictures are most commonly posted, but song recordings, sketches and even written descriptions are all commonly identified through the collective knowledge of the internet (just remember to include the general location and time of year when you post!). Even if you don’t have something to post, these are great places to hang around and pick up ID tips.

Indigo bunting
You’ll be spotting stunners like indigo buntings (Passerina cyanea) with the help of fellow birders and technology.

Another incredibly useful piece of technology is the eBird website. The heart of the eBird website is a massive database of lists submitted by birders throughout the world. EBird now has an app that lets you record lists and submit them from your phone. Researchers have been able to use these data to track migration, estimate population trends and identify birding hot spots. As a birder, I use eBird frequently when travelling, both to record my lists, but also to see where other people go birding and get a feel for what species are possible at that time and place. There are so many ways to use eBird data that it could probably fill a separate post, so for now I’ll leave it at this: submitting your lists to eBird is a great way to keep track of the birds you’ve seen and also helps give back to the birding community and researchers working to understand and conserve bird populations.

I’m not totally sure this post has done a great job of making birding seem less intimidating to those who are new to birding or just looking to get started, so I want to make one last point. Although I’ve talked a lot about gear, books and technology, the core of birding is simply observing birds in their natural habitat. For that, you don’t really need binoculars or books to identify a single bird you see. You just need eyes and ears, and the patience to spend some time in nature and watch what happens. If you’re someone who enjoys watching birds hunt for caterpillars, gather nesting material, fight for territory, flee from predators or just eat seeds in your backyard – there’s a good chance you’re already a birder. You might just need some more practice.

So get out there and look at some birds!


Daniel Kovar
Conservation Biologist

Note: Great Parks does not endorse and is not receiving any compensation from these websites and apps for these suggestions.

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