Birds are everywhere; in the country and the city. Observing them can be a fun and even obsessive hobby for people, but it can also seem intimidating to those who are not experienced birders. As Master Naturalists, you will need some basic birding information to help guide you in identifying both the birds and the calls they make. Remember, if you are leading a walk, always ask if there is an experienced birder in the group, and ask them to help you find and identify birds. This is not only a great way to help engage your audience, but it may ease your fear of birding!
When you head out into the field to look for birds, you can anticipate which birds you will see based on the habitat you are in. For example, you will see great blue herons, egrets, and kingfishers near the edge of water. Perched on power lines you are likely to see kestrels, doves, meadowlarks, and hawks. In the hardwood forest you will often find warblers, tanagers, and woodpeckers. So, take the time to look around and think about what the landscape has to offer our feathered friends.
To learn to be a birder, you must first have the proper tools. Arm yourself with a good pair of binoculars. Remember, you get what you pay for – the more expensive they are the better quality optics they will have. Bird watching can be very frustrating if you have poor quality binoculars.
Another mandatory piece of equipment is a field guide. These come in all shapes, sizes, and ability levels. All field guides have the same basic components:
Try to find a guide that contains familiar birds and is relevant for your geographic area. Field guides can be very specialized and may prove challenging to the beginner. On the other hand, if you are an experienced bird watcher, you may be very interested in a specialty guide that features only one family of birds. Choose the guide that best fits your needs, but remember that when you are taking a group of people out to look for birds, you will need to include some basics for the beginners. Finally, you should find a checklist for birds in your area. Almost all state parks, county parks, wildlife refuges, and nature centers have them available. Checklists help you narrow the possibilities of what you’re likely to see. If a phainopepla is not on your checklist, you probably aren’t seeing one and it is more likely a grackle!
Birders often keep lists of the birds they have seen, where they saw them, and the date. Some keep detailed lists on computer software designed for this purpose, while others keep a simple notebook with fewer details. Most birders would agree that the most important list is your “life list.” This is simply a list of all the birds you have seen for the first time in your life, and generally these make a lasting impression. Try to remember the first time you saw a bald eagle or a great horned owl; these are sightings to record on your “life list.”
Now you are ready to head out and find those birds! You can use your eyes (and binoculars) to see the birds, but many times you may not get a clear view of the bird. You will need to take clues from where you saw it, its flight pattern, and perhaps its sounds. There are many places to listen to bird sounds online, or you can get tapes at the library. There are also mnemonics and phonetics that have been created to allow humans to describe the sounds birds make using syllables or words. Below is a listing of common bird sounds:
** The following is a reprint from a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Publication.
How to Use Binoculars
Usually, we must account for a difference in eye strength when using binoculars. Center-focusing binoculars have an adjustment to compensate for eye s of unequal strength or vision. You will notice that only one eyepiece is independently adjustable, and it has a scale marked off in diopters, the optical measuring unit for spherical power.Note that the individual eyepiece setting, once adjusted, can be considered permanent. The scale reading should be noted and checked occasionally as it may be moved accidentally by handling or in moments of excitement.
To adjust binoculars for any difference in the strength of your eyes, first, using the lens cover or your hand, cover the objective lens (the outer, big lens) which is on the same side as the adjustable eyepiece. With both eyes open to avoid distortion by squinting, look through the binoculars and, using the central focusing mechanism, focus on a distant object until it is sharp and clear. Now transfer the cover to the other objective lens. Again with both eyes open, but this time using the adjustable eyepiece, focus on the same object until it is clear.
Your binoculars are now properly focused for your use. Now, all you have to do is use the central focusing mechanism to focus for objects at various distances from you. Focusing on moving objects and focusing quickly on something that is about to fly or move out of view are real challenges. If you practice, over time you will be surprised to find how your coordinated use of eyes and binoculars improves. Be patient and practice, practice, practice.
Another challenge is finding and focusing on objects in the sky. This is because the sky has depth, and there is not a background of objects (trees or horizon line) to use as reference points which both find your object and figure out what distance it is at. Note that many binoculars have rubber eye cups which can fold down for use with glasses or sunglasses
** These instructions are from the Shorebird Schools Arctic Nesting Curriculum developed by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Peterson, R.T. 2002. A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston. 455 pp.
This is the field guide that defined modern field guides with its publication in 1934. It has crisp illustrations, great descriptions, and, now, includes distribution maps on the same pages as the birds. If you are looking for your first comprehensive field guide, get this one.
Sibley, D.A. 2002. Sibley’s Birding Basics. Alfred P. Knopf: New York. 168 pp.
This is a well-illustrated book that will teach both the novice and the expert a thing or two about birding. David Sibley is also the author of the outstanding The Sibley Guide to Birds.
Thompson, B. 1997. Bird Watching for Dummies. IDG Books Worldwide: Foster City, California. 432 pp.
This book is part of the “Dummy” series and is known for its laid back and engaging style. If bird watching is intimidating to you, this may be your entrée to this mysterious hobby.
Zim, H. S., I.N. Gabrielson, C.S. Robbins. 2001. Birds (A Golden Guide from St. Martin’s Press) Golden Guides from Saint Martin’s Press: New York. 160 pp.
This is the classic, small Golden Guide from your childhood. It is still in press and for a good reason: it is a great introductory guide. You may also be interested in the Birds of North America Golden Guide, which is the version for grown-ups in the series.
Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. Birding 1,2,3. Available at www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/birding123/
This Web site is a veritable trove of information about birds and birding. This section, in particular, has extensive introductions on how and where to bird. Venture around the rest of the site to find opportunities in citizen science, detailed descriptions of birds, and great photographs and sound recordings that will help you identify almost any bird in North America.
Klemek, B. 2003. “Let’s go birding!” Multidisciplinary Classroom Activities. Young Naturalists: Teachers Guide. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. April 2003. Available online at https://files.dnr.state.mn.us/mcvmagazine/young_naturalists/young-naturalists-studyguides/letsgobirding_studyguide.pdf
This article is geared towards young naturalists and has an accompanying teachers’ guide. It is a great introduction to the basics of birding.
Anderson, T. 2007. What’s in a Bird Song? Young Naturalists. Minnesota Conservation Volunteer. March-April 2007. Available on-line at www.mndnr.gov/young_naturalists/birdsong/index.html
This article, too, is geared towards young naturalists and has an accompanying teacher’s guide. It teaches you a bit about how birds produce their song s as well as how to recognize some common ones.