John White
by on May 21, 2020
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Congratulations on starting your journey to become one of the millions of birdwatchers across the globe! Apart from being a fun and exciting hobby for people of all ages, the physical and mental activity involved in birdwatching is good for your general wellbeing.

Birdwatching doesn’t have to be an expensive hobby so don’t let budget get in the way of making a start. All that you will probably need to buy is a pair of binoculars. You can pick up a pretty decent pair of new entry-level birding binoculars for around $60 to $80 on Amazon or a second hand pair on eBay for even less.

 

7 Steps to get Started with Birdwatching

  1. Choose a bird identification book (aka field guide) or app
  2. Understand some basic with bird identification
  3. Find birdwatching binoculars and/or a camera
  4. Start a birding life list
  5. Get outside and do some birding
  6. Read/watch a few inspiring birdwatching books and movies
  7. Join a birdwatching club and accelerate your learning

 

Step 1: What bird identification book or app should I use?

A bird identification book or app is an essential item for anyone starting birdwatching for the first time. Although you can get away with just an app or just a book, I find myself using both depending on the situation I am in. Apps are convenient for when you want to identify or research a bird species when you are out and about without the intention of birding. When you are specifically birding or want the additional detail that most bird books provide, then there is no substitute for a great birdwatching field guide.

As you get deeper into birdwatching, you will find yourself using multiple books. For example, I have my standard bird book that covers all birds in my region but then I also have a book that focuses specifically on raptors, another on waders and a third on LBJ’s (aka Little Brown Jobs).

To make it easier for you to find the right field guide, I have listed the most popular books for North America, Europe, Africa, Asia and Oceania. Although you will likely only need one if these initially for your home region, you will probably find yourself buying books for regions you end up visiting on holiday as you become more obsessed with the hobby. It’s also just interesting paging through a foreign region bird book and looking at all the different species that occur!
 

North America Bird Identification Books & Apps

North America Bird Identification Books & Apps

Author

Get a Copy

The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition

David Sibley

Book | iOS | Android

Birds of North America: A Guide to Field Identification

Robins et al

Book

Birds of North America

Kenn Kaufman

Book

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America

Dunn et al

Book

American Museum of Natural History Birds of North America

Hess et al

Book

Peterson Bird Field Guide

Roger Peterson

Book | iOS | Android

Audubon Bird Guide

Udvardy et al

Book | iOS | Android

Merlin Bird ID

Cornell Lab

iOS | Android

 

European Bird Identification Books & Apps

European Bird Identification Books & Apps

Author

Get a Copy

Birds of Europe: Second Edition

Lars Svensson

Book

Collins Bird Guide

Lars Svensson

Book | iOS | Android

RSPB Birds of Britain and Europe

Rob Hume

Book

British Birds

Paul Sterry

Book

 

South America Bird Identification Books & Apps

South America Bird Identification Books & Apps

Author

Get a Copy

Birds of South America: Passerines

Ber van Perlo

Book

Birds of South America: Non-Passerines

Erize et al

Book

Birds of Southern South America and Antarctica

de la Peña et al

Book

 

African Bird Identification Books & Apps

African Bird Identification Books & Apps

Author

Get a Copy

Sasol Birds of Southern Africa

Ian Sinclair

Book | iOS | Android

Roberts Birds of Southern Africa

Chittenden et al

Book | iOS | Android

Birds of Southern Africa

Sinclair et al

Book

The Birds of East Africa

Stevenson et al

Book | iOS | Android

Birds of Eastern Africa

Ber van Perlo

Book

Birds of the Horn of Africa

Nigel Redman

Book

Birds of Western Africa, 2nd Edition

Borrow, Demey

Book

Birds of Western and Central Africa

Ber van Perlo

Book

Birds of Africa South of the Sahara

Ryan, Sinclair

Book

 

Asian Bird Identification Books & Apps

Asian Bird Identification Books & Apps

Author

Get a Copy

Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia

Craig Robson

Book

Birds of South-East Asia

Norman Arlott

Book

Birds of East Asia

Mark Brazil

Book

Birds of the Indian Subcontinent

Grimmett

Book | iOS | Android

Birds of the Middle East

Porter, Aspinall

Book

 

Oceania Bird Identification Books & Apps

Oceania Bird Identification Books & Apps

Author

Get a Copy

The Field Guide to the Birds of Australia

Knight et al

Book

The Australian Bird Guide

Menkhorst et al

Book

Field guide to Australian birds

M. Morcombe

Book | iOS | Android

Birds of Hawaii, New Zealand, Central & West Pacific

Ber van Perlo

Book

Birds of New Guinea, 2nd Edition

Pratt et al

Book

 

Step 2: Getting started with bird identification

Learning how to categorise different groups of birds

One of the first skills that birdwatchers learn, is to categorise birds into their various groups. This is a crucial step as it simplifies the identification process by significantly narrowing down the focus area. So, if you saw a bird that looked ‘finch like’, then you can navigate directly to the ‘finches’ section of your bird book and start pinning down the exact species. These broad categories of birds also normally exist all over the world, so it will help you even if you end up birding is a new region with unfamiliar species.

As you become more experienced and encounter more and more species, you will find yourself recognising birds in the field that you may have only ever seen in a book. That is a good feeling and a nice reward that the time you have spent reading about different species is starting to pay off!

Source: All About Birds

 

Start learning common bird calls

Identifying birds by their call is a skill that most birders only start learning once they are more experienced but there is nothing stopping you from starting early. If you are using an app for bird identification, a great way to learn is to play the calls of familiar birds from time to time. It can give you a distinct advantage when searching for what you are looking for, or if you are trying to help someone identify a bird they heard.

Taking it to a whole new level are the people who can imitate bird calls. This can be very useful with territorial birds who will respond to and approach you if you are able to imitate their calls. Probably the most amazing example of this that I’ve come across, is from a guide by the name of Sonto Tembe at Ndumo Game Reserve in South Africa.

Sonto Tembe imitating Southern African bird calls

 

Step 3: What birdwatching binoculars and/or camera do I need?

What Binoculars do I need for Birdwatching?

Apart from your own eyes and ears, binoculars are your most vital piece of birding equipment. With binoculars you can enjoy the intricate beauty that is only revealed with a closeup view of a bird. For the hard to identify species, binoculars provide you with the subtle details you will need.

When you are choosing a pair of birding binoculars, you need to find a balance between weight, quality of optics, magnification, field of view, durability and value for money. This is a lot to consider, especially if you are new to binoculars and birdwatching, so if you are feeling a bit overwhelmed, then take a look at the three pairs of binoculars I have suggested below. They are all excellent and fulfil the important criteria that you expect in a pair of birdwatching binoculars.

Binoculars are traditionally advertised as 'Magnification' x 'Objective Diameter' e.g. 10 x 24mm and these are the first criteria you want to consider. Magnification, simply refers to how much closer an object will seem when looking though the binoculars. 8x and 10x binoculars are the most popular amongst birdwatchers. I have written a blog (8x-or-10x-birding-binoculars) that covers everything you need to help you choose between 8x and 10x binoculars. The objective lens diameter refers to the size of the lens closest to the object being observed. Generally, the bigger the objective lens diameter, the better the low light performance but this comes at the expense of bigger and heavier binoculars. The sweet spot for great low light performance and reasonable weight and size is an objective lens diameter of 42mm. This is why the top selling birdwatching binoculars are either 8 x 42mm or 10 x 42mm. So be careful if you are tempted to stray from this to anything else.

I have written a blog (Best lightweight birding binoculars) that lists the most popular and best reviewed full-size and compact binoculars in three price ranges (budget, mid-range and premium). All the binoculars covered in this list are Roof Prism type designs which benefit from being compact, lightweight and easier to hold than Porro Prism type designs.

 

 

If I had to choose three of the top pairs of budget to mid range binoculars, then they would be the Wingspan Eaglescout, Bushnell H2O and Vortics Diamondback Binoculars. If I were on a budget, them my first choise would be the Bushnell H2O's and if I had a bit more to spend then I would go for the Vortics Optics. Whichever you choose, all of these binoculars are excellent value for money and are among the most highly rated and best-selling in their class. You can get a cheaper pair of binoculars but in my opinion, optical and build quality fall away quickly below the $70 price point.

  WINGSPAN EAGLESCOUT BUSHNELL H2O BINOCULARS VORTICS OPTICS DIAMONDBACK HD BINOCULARS
 
Weight: 595g / 21 oz 436g / 15.4oz 604g / 21.3 oz
Magnification: 10X 10X 10X
Objective Lens: 42mm 42mm 42mm
Waterproof: Yes Yes Yes
Amazon Reviews

817 Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

2,243 Reviews

4.6 out of 5 stars

605 Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars

Price: $74 $89 $170

 

Do I need a camera for birdwatching?

It is also possible to substitute binoculars for a camera with a decent zoom lens. However, the ideal scenario is to have both and certainly more and more birders are adding a camera into their birdwatching arsenal. For most birders, the addition of a camera has a couple of important benefits. 

  • Cameras assist bird identification by allowing birders to study a photographed bird in great detail and thereby get a more accurate identification. This process of taking a photo and then identifying from the photo has been revolutionary for many birders and provided greater certainty around rare bird sightings.
  • Many new cameras are GPS enabled so images can be tagged with location data. Using software to read location and time data helps software platforms automatically organise photos.
  • Cameras have given rise to dual life lists, one list of birds a person has seen and the other a list of everything a person has photographed. Keeping a photographed list, is a fantastic way to add to the challenge of birdwatching.
  • Finally, bird photography helps share the beauty and wonders of the avian world.

Digital photography has given rise to the mass adoption of cameras with high-quality optics for pretty reasonable prices. If you are new to photography and are going to be taking photos for the purposes of assisting identification, then an entry level camera is perfect. If, however, you are already into photography or want to get into bird and wildlife photography, then you should probably consider something more advanced. 
 

Entry level birdwatching cameras

The following three entry level cameras that I have chosen are all highly rated and best sellers in their class. Although I have defined them as entry level, they are still capable of taking really good photos. All cameras feature optical zooms between 50X and 83X which is more than enough to get decent closeups of the birds you are photographing. Furthermore, the Nikon and Sony are both equipped with GPS so importing your photos onto platforms like Chirp will automatically tag your photo with the bird sighting location. GPS tagging of photos is a huge time saver if you are using images to log your bird sightings, so it is something I can’t recommend enough in a birdwatching camera.
 

 

Nikon P900

Sony HX400V

Panasonic Lumix FZ80

 

Weight:

1.98lb

1.46lb

1.36lb

Optical Zoom:

83X

50X

60X

Sensor:

16MP

20.4MP

18.1MP

GPS Sensor:

Yes

Yes

No

Amazon Reviews

887 Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars

260 Reviews

4.2 out of 5 stars

1,498 Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars

Price:

$450

$448

$298

 

Higher-end birdwatching cameras

The following three higher-end cameras that I have chosen are all GPS enabled DSLR’s that are highly rated on Amazon. I have only suggested GPS enabled DSLR’s due to the massive time saving that GPS tagged photos brings to your workflows. I was, however, surprised by the lack of DSLR’s with integrated GPS, hence the two Canon models in the line-up. The only Nikon and Sony DSLR’s cameras with GPS are either very old models, have poor reviews regarding their GPS or are their top of the range $3,000 plus models. If you are not interested in the models in this list, then consider getting a GPS adapter. E.g. Nikon’s GP-1A GPS unit or the Canon GP-E2 GPS unit which simply connects to the flash shoe. These GPS units do the job but in my experience with the Canon 7D and the GP-E2, they are bulky, eat batteries and are one more piece of kit you need to think about.


If you already have a decent DSLR, then you are probably better off investing in a good telephoto lens to go with it rather than a new camera body.

When it comes to selecting a lens for your DSLR, make sure you take a look at this article (Best focal length for bird photography) on lenses and zoom before you make any decisions on what lens to buy.
 

 

Canon 7D Mark II

Pentax K-1 Mark II

Canon 6D Mark II

 

Weight:

2.01lb

2.2lb

3.45lb

Sensor:

20.2MP

36MP

26.2MP

GPS Sensor:

Yes

Yes

Yes

Sensor Size:

APC-C

Full Frame & APS-C mode

Full Frame

Release Date

Sept 14, 2014

Feb 21, 2018

Jun 20, 2017

Amazon Reviews

448 Reviews

4.4 out of 5 stars

16 Reviews

5 out of 5 stars

304 Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars

Price:

$1,399

$1,797

$1,199

 

Step 4: Getting started with your birding life list

It is never too soon to start your life list and these days it has also never been easier. A birding life list is typically a list of all the species that a person has seen over their lifetime. Birders describe adding a new species to their list as seeing a new ‘lifer’. For example, after a recent birding trip, a birder may say: “I saw 5 new lifers on my trip to Madera Canyon, Arizona last week.”

Digital birding life lists

Smartphone apps have made logging your bird sightings and thereby starting your life list incredibly simple. What is fantastic about some birding apps is that they automatically record the time, date and GPS location of your bird sightings. This enables you to automatically create a life list at a multitude of different geographic levels (birding area, state/province, country and region). For example, if you were to see a California condor for the first time in Grand Canyon National Park, your life list would increase by 1 species for Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, USA and North America.

Apart from being convenient, digital life lists make it easier for you to compare and compete against your friends and other birders around the world. Chirp Birding is one platform that simplifies the creation and maintenance of a digital life list and then uses this list to enable users to compete against friends, age groups or anyone on multiple different levels such as state/province, country and region.

 

Hard copy life lists

If you prefer to avoid technology, then that is fine too. Most birding areas provide hard copies of birding checklists. You can use these or just a simple notepad to keep a record of everything you have seen. Then at the end of the day, you can just update your master list with all the new birds you have seen.

Beware though, as soon as your life list starts to grow, keeping track of what species you have seen (and importantly haven’t seen) on a paper life list is going to become a bit of a challenge. One other thing to consider when choosing between hard and soft copy lists, is that most digital listing apps feed sighting data to conservation organisations, so the information you gather can be put to good use!
 

Step 5: Get outside and start birding

There is no better time to start than now! You can pretty much go birdwatching anywhere and in fact a great place to start is your own backyard, or if you live in a very built up area then your balcony or a local park is also a good spot. It might not sound very adventurous but there will be plenty of birds that are common to your local area which are good to start familiarising yourself with. My own list of garden birds is now up to 50 species including some unexpected rare sightings.

 

Step 6: Read/watch a few inspiring birdwatching books and movies

If it is dark or raining and you feel like diving deeper into your new hobby, then a great way to learn and build your enthusiasm is to watch a great birding movie or read an inspirational birding book. I’ve put together a list of the top 18 bird related movies and documentaries as well as a list of birdwatching novels and educational books.
 

Birdwatching Movies & Documentaries to Watch

My favourite documentary is probably the Birds of Paradise section of the ‘Our Planet’ documentary. The documentary is not specifically about birding but it will give insight into the fascinating world of birds.

With regards to movies, my favourite for a bit of fun and light entertainment is ‘The Big Year’ featuring Steve Martin, Owen Wilson and Jack Black. I really enjoyed this movie, so a bit surprised that it only has a rating of 6.2 on IMDB!

Title

Movie/Documentary

IMDB

More Infomation

Our Planet | Birds Of Paradise

Documentary

9.4/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Life of Birds

Documentary

8.9/10

IMDB | Buy/Rent

Earthflight

Documentary

8.5/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Winged Migration

Documentary

7.9/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

Documentary

7.8/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Birdman of Alcatraz

Movie

7.8/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Eagle Huntress

Documentary

7.5/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

March of the Penguins

Documentary

7.5/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Birders: The Central Park Effect

Documentary

7.4/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Crimson Wing

Documentary

7.3/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Ghost Bird

Movie

7.3/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Fly Away Home

Movie

6.8/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Pelican Blood

Movie

6.4/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

Rare Birds

Movie

6.4/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Hide

Movie

6.4/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

A Birder’s Guide to Everything

Movie

6.3/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Big Year

Movie

6.2/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

The Bird Men

Movie

5.6/10

IMDB | Trailer | Buy/Rent

 


Birdwatching Books to Read

For the bookworms out there who will choose a book over a movie any day, here are a few novels and educational books for you to pour over.

Birdwatching Novels

Author

Get a Copy

To See Every Bird On Earth

Dan Koeppel

Book | Audiobook

Kingbird Highway

Kenn Kaufman

Book

A Season on the Wind

Kenn Kaufman

Book | Audiobook

Birding Without Borders

Noah Strycker

Book

 

Birdwatching Info Books

Author

Get a Copy

Sibley's Birding Basics

David Sibley

Book

Bird Watching for Dummies

Bill Thompson

Book

Birding for Beginners

Sheila Buff

Book

Bird Watching for Beginners

Bird Watch Journal

Book

The Beginner's Guide to Birding

Nate Swick

Book

 

Step 7: Join a birdwatching club and accelerate your learning

The best way to learn a new skill is to learn from someone that has already mastered it. Becoming a member of a bird club is a great way to meet and interact with people who are passionate about birding and have a lot of birding experience. So, definitely look into joining your local bird club.

Here are a few resources to help you find local birdwatching clubs:

 

 

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10 people like this.
Andrew Goodall
A very comprehensive and informative read.