NOTE** If you are considering buy binoculars or a guide, doing so via the links in this article will net me a very small commission. My suggestions are based on my own personal experience and I only recommend items that I use myself and and find useful!
Get a good pair of binoculars!
Birding with bad binoculars or binoculars not made for birding is almost worse than not birding at all. Poor binoculars will only leave you frustrated and will severely slow your learning curve. I'm not saying you have to spend $2000+ on a top of the line pair of binoculars, but you should probably spend what you can comfortably afford. As a birder, your binoculars will be your most important tool and if cared for, they will last for many years and if you purchase the right pair, you will NEVER have to buy another pair again, unless you decide to upgrade.
As a brand my strong personal preference is Vortex binoculars. Vortex makes a full range of binoculars that suit the needs of any birder from beginner to expert, and at a range of prices. Regardless of the model you choose, the review is generally the same, they outclass the competition at their price point. Of course, an $800 pair of binoculars will outperform a $300 pair, and a $1500 pair will outperform an $800 pair, but I argue that there is a point of diminishing returns, where the increase in quality simply does justify the increase in price. I know many excellent birders who use the Vortex Viper HD 8x42 and simply love them.As a whole, they are a very affordable option. If you feel like entering the market at a bit of a lower price point then the Vortex Diamondback 8x42are also excellent! You don't even have to take my word for it, there are plenty of reviews which clearly state that Vortex is the #1 choice for a high quality binocular that you don't have to sell off a body organ to afford!
The lower price isn't even the best part. Vortex binoculars come with an unlimited lifetime warranty. That basically means that your bins are covered for life against pretty much anything that could ever happen, unless you lose them or damage them deliberately. Also, the warranty is transferable if you sell them or pass them on; no sales receipts or proof pf ownership is required.
Which ever binoculars you choose there are a few important points, you want to be 8-10X magnification and you want an objective lens diameter of between 40-50mm. This is the sweet spot for birding binoculars. Any less and the binoculars might not resolve enough detail or might not perform well enough in low light and any more and they can become really bulky and heavy. Note that this recommendation is for typical birding. If you are doing primarily sea watching or birding solely while hiking etc, then there might be better options and feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.
Be Prepared- Know the Birds of your Area!
Good birders are prepared birders. They know what birds are typical in their area (or the area they are birding) and they know what isn't. They also understand that some species are possible vagrants to a given area, while other species aren't. How does one get this type of information? There are several ways.
1) Get a checklist of the birds of your state or province, or a guide to birding the particular area your are birding in (if one is available). An online checklist to the birds of Newfoundland is available here.
2) Use eBird
Admittedly, I was late to the party when it comes to eBird, but it's really is an amazing resource. You can keep track of your life list, research what birds have been seen in various places at a given time of year and quite easily determine how likely a given species is to occur where you are. This is currently the best way to get information about bird distribution in North American, and the data is improving every day. If you aren't using EBird already, start today!
3) Learn the peak migration times for your area
It's important to know what birds are moving in and out fo your area, this will greatly help you decide where and when you go birding and will prepare for what might might see when you get there. For example, I know that July through August is the best time of year to see large numbers of Shearwaters off of coastal Newfoundland. At this time of year, songbird migration has all but stopped, bird song has slowed and so spending your day looking for interesting songbirds might not be the best use of your time. As well, shorebird migration has not really started for us yet, in a few weeks I will be closely monitoring the tide charts and planning my day so I can be at the best shorebird spots at low tide. You need to have a plan, your plans can change as the day unfolds, but when you set out for day of birding you should have a good idea of the spots you want to hit and why.
Get a Good Bird Guide and use it!
Almost everyone that I know that has an interest in birds has a bird guide. However, most of them never use it, unless they see a bird at their feeder they don't immediately recognize, or are out birding and need to reference it. Good birders read bird guides (and ID articles) all the time! I'm not saying that you need to have a guide with you everywhere you go, but make a habit of leafing through your guide every day. You can pick a group of birds and spend a week looking at only that group, then move on to another group the next week. Put a guide on your coffee table, put it in your bathroom, just somewhere you will have a quick look at it for a few minutes here and there. You will be surprised at the difference this will make in your ID skills.
Also, while speaking of guides, if you are in North America and are looking for a good all purpose guide, do yourself a favour and get the Sibley Guide to Birds In my opinion this is by far the beat all around guide to North American birds, the plates are generally accurate and the text is brief and includes the pertinent information. Another guide worth getting (especially if you like photographic guides) is the Crossley Guide to Birds
Bird with More Experienced Birders
When I first started birding I've benefited greatly by birding with experienced birders. I was able to ask them questions about bird distribution, identification, and any number of other topics. I was also able to observe them; the techniques they used to call in birds; how they birded certain areas etc. I think you will find that the experienced birders in your area are more than willing to share information with you, through social media channels or bird societies, birds clubs and various events, such as Christmas Bird Counts.
Another way to accelerate your learning is by attending an ID workshop. I myself offer a range of birding workshops on a variety of topics ranging from Gull ID, Fall Warblers to How to predict vagrants using the weather. The workshops are offered both in person and online as webinars. You can find a complete list on my Birding Newfoundland Website (the information is useful to birders from all areas, not just Newfoundland!)
Learn Feather Topography
I know, how boring right! In every bird guide there is a page or two dedicated to feather topography- how many of you have actually taken the time to study it? Be honest! It's very easy to just blow by this page to look at the nice photos, or plates, and actually get to identifying those birds your seeing out there. However, if you don't take the time to learn feather topography, you are doing yourself a major disservice, and limiting your ability, and growth as a birder. This might be the single easiest way for each person to improve their birding because it is so overlooked.
Have you ever followed a discussion, either in person, or online, between expert birders? Such discussions are invariably riddled with bird topography jargon. For example, when identifying juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls, one should pay particular attention to the the extent of barring on the greater coverts and the amount of patterning on the tertials. On juvenile Lesser Black-backed gulls the tertials are usually solidly dark brown with neat white edges, that do not penetrate as much into the centre of the feather as they do in juvenile Herring Gull. As well, juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gulls tend to moult later than herring Gulls, so they often retain juvenile scapulars and wing coverts well into the winter when Herring Gulls have already replaced their scapulars with 1st generation feathers.
If you don't have a sound knowledge of feather topography, then chances are you have no idea of what any of that meant and you certainly weren't able to get a mental picture of what I was talking about. This is not something you will learn over night, it does take some practice, but it's worth it, I guarantee it! Some people find it easier to learn these things from someone else, when the various feather groups are pointed out in diagrams and then in actual birds. If you would like some assistance in learning feather topography or any other aspect of birding I do offer online personal tutoring sessions. I'd be happy to design something especially for you. Every workshop I teach includes at least a little time on feather topography, it's that important!
An example of how knowing feather topography can help you ID Sparrows can found here.
Learn the Common Birds in Your Area
I know it can seem boring to see the same birds over and over again, but learning your common birds will pay off big time when you see something unusual. I would especially recommend learning the chip notes and alternate songs, watch them fly and learn their flight patterns. All of this pays off when you don't spend an hour chasing a Robin around that you thought was a rare flycatcher when it flew across the road!
Learn Bird Song
Probably 90% of the birds I identify in Spring are first identified by song. There is nothing that will allow you to see more species of birds in Spring that learning bird song. Many songbirds are difficult to see, spending the majority of their time in the tops of tall conifers or hidden amongst the dense foliage of deciduous trees. Experienced birders will tell you they only see a fraction of the birds they hear and they are able to find rare birds in Spring because they don't waste their time trying trying to get looks at common species. But how does one go about learning bird song?
There are a number of good ways to learn bird song. You can book a personal tutoring session with me and I can design a detailed plan to teach you bird song. You have the benefit of learning the tips and tricks that I have learned over the years that allow me to remember bird songs and you get the benefit of receiving immediate feedback. If you are a true beginner to bird song, I can take you from novice to intermediate in a very short period of time!
However, there is lots you can do one your own, especially if you already have some knowledge of bird song.The first thing you need is a checklist or some kind of list of the birds in your area. One way to do it, is to take a group of birds, such as warblers and try to learn those. Focus on the birds that are common in your area before you move on. There is a great website called Xena Canto which has songs and calls for practically every bird species you can think of. Take your list and go one at a time. First Yellow-rumped Warbler. Listen to it's songs (each bird often has a few variations). Note if the song rises or falls, if it's buzzy etc. Then move onto the next species. Don't try to to do too many at once. If possible have someone quiz you on the birds you've learned. You know kind of like learning to spell when you were a kid- you study the words, and then someone asks you to spell them, the concept is basically the same. Once you get a few under the belt one of the most fun things is trying to identify all of the background songs in the various recordings. It will be tough at first, but stick with it, you will improve, it gets easier over time.
The above are just some of the ways you can become a better birder today. There are many other ways and I probably could have listed 50 different ways, but I wanted to choose things that if employed, would make an immediate impact on your birding. This is a series I will update and add to over time. Please feel free to suggest additional ways to be a better birder or topics you would like to see me write about in general. Thanks for reading.
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