Section One - Birdwatching Preparation
1. Determine Birdwatching Objective
Non-Specific Birdwatching Objective: Birdwatching with no-particular species in mind, could be an “identify as many birds as possible” approach or a “sit back and enjoy the birds as they fly by” approach. Ex. Bob casually walks around local park and spontaneously spots and identifies birds.
Specific Birdwatching Objective: A determined approach that involves preparing an entire birdwatching session around finding a specific species of bird or birds. Ex. Casey wants to find a Hooded Warbler, so she researches Hooded Warbler identification (size, color patterns, songs/calls), habitat preferences (where exactly to find the bird) and behaviors (what habits define the bird). She then travels to specific location, based off her research, where Cedar Waxwing are present and finds a Cedar Waxwing.
2. Get Birdwatching Equipment
Binoculars: Outside of the ultra-casual birdwatcher, binoculars are highly recommended for success in birdwatching. Not only will binoculars provide a birdwatcher with a much closer view of birds but they will also make a substantial difference when attempting to identify specific species. Keep in mind that most birds prefer to keep their distance from humans and many of the most desirable species spend much of their time high in trees – these factors make it very difficult to observe birds without a visual enhancement like binoculars. For a binocular reviews and recommendations see: The Ideal Birdwatching Binocular and Equipment Reviews
Camera: A step above binoculars, snapping pictures is a very popular practice among birdwatchers. Besides capturing beautiful images of birds, pictures are also a great way to identify birds. For more see: Bird Photography Tips and Equipment Reviews
Dark-Earthy Colored Clothing: As mentioned before, most birds prefer to keep their distance from humans, wearing bright colors makes the birdwatcher more noticeable to birds and therefore makes them more likely to fly off. Wearing dark – earthy colors (dark green, brown, gray, black, or even camo) is highly recommended.
Field Guide: A field guide can be in the form of a book or mobile app, they feature profiles on birds found in a specific area or region. The profiles will provide valuable information on bird attributes like: size, color patterns, songs/calls, behavior, habitat, and dietary preferences – all of which can be very helpful when trying to identify birds. Field Guides are often pocket sized and waterproof – meaning they can be taken out in the field and used promptly. Field Guides are highly recommended for beginners. Visit our online Field Guide: Bird Profiles
Journal: Many birdwatchers like to record the birds they find, this is often done in a field journal but note-taking mobile apps will work just as well.
Bug Deterrents: Bugs – most infamously mosquitoes, flies, and ticks can ruin a birdwatching session. Preparing an arsenal of deterrents – especially when birding near water (mosquitoes, flies), in a grassy field (ticks), or on a hot day (flies) is highly recommended. Clothing is the most basic deterrent – wearing long sleeves and pants will deprive these pesky bugs of what they want most – contact with skin. Tucking your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks or shoes will further seal off openings commonly used by ticks to access the skin. A lightweight, breathable bug suit is a great choice. If long clothing is not an option or you want the extra protection, consider a bug spray or natural bug deterring oil.
3. Choose a Birdwatching Site
For Specific Birdwatching Objective: Choose a site tailored to the habitat and dietary needs of the specific bird species you seek. For example, Casey stands a much better chance of finding the Cedar Waxwing if she visits a woodland with fruiting trees/shrubs and a water source than if she only searches in her suburban backyard.
Non-Specific Birdwatching Objective: While site selection is not necessarily as important for a birdwatcher who is not seeking a specific bird species, it still makes sense for them to visit a site known for harboring a large and diverse bird population, as the birdwatching session will likely be more enjoyable and certainly more productive.
General Site Selection Tips
The largest numbers and greatest diversity of species are often found at sites in close proximity to body of water, surrounded by or in close proximity to a woodland or forest. In many cases these are state or privately preserved parks.
It’s always a good idea to select a site with a large diversity of native plants – as native plants attract the highest number of insects (the number one source of food for wild birds) and produce the most sought-after berries, fruits, and seeds.
For on overview of the different habitats and what specific birds are most often found at those habitats see: Bird Habitats
4. Choose a Date & Time
Plan in advance if possible – use weather forecasts to determine date and time.
Ideal Birdwatching Conditions = Early Morning (5 to 9 AM) with Clear, Sunny Skies. Another great time is after a storm; especially during migration.
A low point in bird activity usually at midday, especially when temperatures are high. But there is often a surge in activity as the sun prepares to set.
The most crisp image for viewing birds (with naked eye, binoculars, and when taking photos) is with the sun behind your back.
Peak Birdwatching Season is over Spring Migration (April to May) and Fall Migration (September to October).
So in review: If it’s early morning in the months of April, May, September, or October and weather forecast calls for clear, sunny skies – drop what you are doing and GO BIRDWATCHING!!!
Section Two - In the Field
5. Check Hotspots
Hotspots are the areas within a birdwatching site where birds are most likely to be located and thus are the spots a birdwatcher should most frequently monitor.
For a backyard or non-specific birdwatcher, hotspots are going to be at the bird feeder, birdbath (or other water source), and in or around native plants (such as in the garden, brushy understory, or in trees).
For a birdwatcher seeking a specific species, a hotspot should include the specific plants and habitat features that are known to attract the specific bird.
Examples of Species-Specific Hotspots:
A Cedar Waxwing hotspot would include a water source and at least one of the Cedar Waxwing’s favorite fruit producing plants – such as: Eastern Red Cedar, Serviceberry, Hawthorn, Wild Cherry, Wild Blueberry, or Crabapple.
General Hotspot Tips:
Water Sources, Forest Edge Habitat, and Brushy Areas are spots favored by the majority of birds and should thus be targeted by birdwatchers.
Native Plants like American Elderberry, Oak, Maple, Red Mulberry, Wild Blackberry, and Wild Cherry are known to attract the greatest numbers and varieties of birds. Many non-specific and even specific birdwatching sessions should start with observations of these plants.
For more on this topic see:
Once a birdwatcher finds a hotspot they must be willing to wait there– even if bird activity is not high in the spot initially. Patience at hotspots (for both specific and non-specific birdwatching objectives) generally pays off – as birds do favor certain environmental features and plants. While waiting at a hotspot, it is best to do all you can to blend into the environment – besides wearing dark/earthy colors, try to be as quiet as possible (if you must talk - whisper). Also avoid sudden movements – if you must move (even to look in different directions) make your movements slowly and carefully. Finally stay alert, some birdwatchers make the mistake of going on their phones while waiting at a hotspot – this has led to many missed opportunities. If you go through all the trouble of preparing a birdwatching session and finding a hotspot – go all in to find the bird – messing around on your phone can wait.
Note on Attracting Birds with Sound: Some birdwatchers use recordings of specific bird calls and songs in attempts to draw in birds. This practice has proven quite controversial as the sounds may distract birds from their delicate lives – drawing them away from their nest and foraging activities while exposing them to predators. Playing bird calls/songs may also backfire– remember birds sing to claim territories, playing a bird song may confuse birds into believing the territory they are on has been claimed and may even dissuade the bird from visiting in the future.
7. Approaching a Bird
If you find a bird and want a closer view, it is best to approach in a discreet and non-direct fashion. A birdwatcher is much more likely to scare a bird off if they walk (or run) directly towards it – a more effective option is to approach the bird from a side direction with cautious movements. Walking on your toes, in order to avoid crunching leaves is recommended. If the bird appears to notice your presence while you are attempting to approach – don’t get flustered – instead try to remain as still and calm as possible, when the bird’s attention shifts off you – then slowly move closer. Remember birds are naturally on alert for danger, do all you can not to act like an obvious predator. Also, be mindful of other birdwatchers - don't be selfish and move towards bird (and risk scaring it) if others are also observing or photographing it.
8. Relax & Have Fun
Leave the distractions in your life out of birdwatching. Relax and just focus on the beauty of nature and that of the birds. If you prepare the right way, know that you have done all you can to find the birds you seek and take comfort in the fact that whatever you end up in finding is a result of your preparation. When it is all said and done it’s not always about the birds you find but instead the experience of finding them.