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Start Bird Watching - A Beginner's Guide

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 0 1

These days more and more people are taking a closer interest in the natural world around them, and starting bird watching is a great way to join in the fun. Whether you're a pensioner looking for something do in your spare time or a parent wanting to get the kids more interested in their surroundings, bird watching is a fantastic and rewarding hobby.

In this article I hope to take you through some of the things you will need to get started and a few things to think about before you start. This will help you to avoid making any unnecessary purchases and possibly getting discouraged and giving up.

Things You Will Need

Firstly - What Sort of Bird Watching Will I be Doing?

This is the first question you need to ask yourself and the answer will guide you towards what equipment you may need. I've listed out some of the common options below.

  • Backyard Birding
  • Shore-line Birding
  • Wetland Birding
  • Woodland Birding

It's quite probable that you will want to do a number of these types of bird watching, or you may start out as a backyard birder and find you progress onto other things as your interest develops. The most important thing is to bear in mind the different requirements when deciding what equipment you might need. So lets get right on and discuss what you things to arm yourself with to get started.

Books - Birding Field Guide

The first thing that any type of birder needs is a bird identification guide book often called a field guide. If you are just starting out or just want to identify the birds visiting your back yard, it is better to get hold of a book that identifies only the common species to be found in your locality.

If you are going to be doing several of the types of birding listed above then you will need to find a good quality combined field guide listing all likely species. Make sure the guide you choose has distribution maps and lists the likelihood of encountering each species (the inclusion of rare species in a good guide book is essential, but it can lead to confusion for beginners if they don't take into account how unlikely it is to see some species).


Even if you are just trying to identify your backyard bird visitors, you will get a lot more out of your new hobby with a pair of binoculars. For almost any other type of birding a pair of binoculars is probably your single most useful and essential piece of kit after your field guide.

The trouble is good binoculars can be frighteningly expensive, and there are also an awful lot of terribly poor binoculars available that you need to steer well clear of.

Binoculars are spit into two main design types – Porro Prism and Roof Prism. You may think of porro prism binoculars as the more old fashioned or traditional type, whereas roof prism binoculars look more modern and have straight barrels. The thing you should bear in mind from a purchasing point of view, is that as a rule cheaper end porro prism binoculars will generally be better than cheaper end roof prism binoculars. This is because roof prism binoculars are more complex to manufacture and so cheaper models are often inferior in quality.

You will no doubt have seen binoculars rated as 8x40 or 10x50 etc. So what exactly does this mean? The first figure refers to the image magnification, so an 8x binocular magnifies the image eight times larger than the view with the naked eye. The second figure is the diameter in millimetres of the large objective lens. A larger lens allows more light in and gives a brighter view, but the downside is the binocular will then be bigger and probably heavier.

So what are the best bird watching binoculars? Generally I would say most people settle for an 8x40. Some prefer 10x magnification, but these need a steady hand to get the best out of. I myself use a 7x40 which suits me for a lot of the birding I do. There are also some very nice and compact 8x32 and 10x32 models available, but for general use I would advise against very compact binoculars in the 8x20 or 10x25 sizes (you generally need to spend a lot to get a good one, and whilst they are great for fitting into a pocket to carry around, they are not that comfortable for prolonged use).

One other piece of advice - Do make sure the binocular you buy has a good wide strap. This distributes the weight and makes them far more comfortable to carry for long periods.


Unless you are lucky enough to be sitting at home with a cup of coffee and watching the birds at the backyard feeder, then you will probably find that birding will cause you to be out in the open in all sorts of weather. You will also probably find yourself carrying a whole host of gadgets, guides and paraphernalia.

A good waterproof jacket with plenty of pockets is a good investment for winter birding. Try and pay attention to how silent the material is when you move. Some man-made fabrics send out an awful lot of noise which can scare birds at close range.

Even in summer, depending on where you do your birding, a thin roll-up waterproof is a good thing to carry in your day pack to avoid having an unexpected downpour ruining your birding day out.

Advanced Birding Equipment

A suitable bird guide, a reasonable binocular and practical clothing are what I would consider to be your basic essentials to get started in bird watching, but should the bird watching bug take hold what other things might you need in the future?

Usually the next big purchase in a birder's career is a spotting scope. These are very useful for birders who enjoy watching shore birds or who watch distant birds from covered hides in nature reserves. They generally have larger objective lenses than binoculars, and have eyepieces that can be interchanged and can deliver high magnifications (generally up to about 65x). To use a spotting scope effectively, you will also need a good tripod. It is also possible to buy hide clamps which can easily attach a scope to the window ledges in covered hides.

Many birders also go on to develop an interest in bird photography, either using an SLR camera and long lenses or by specially adapting a camera to fit their spotting scope (termed digi-scoping).

Getting started bird watching can seem a daunting task whichever type of birding you want to do, but don't be discouraged, just take things one species at a time and you will probably surprise yourself how quickly you progress (and possibly how much you already know!). When you are out birding never be afraid to ask other birders for advice, most are very helpful and will be only too pleased to pass on their knowledge. Just remember we all had to start somewhere.

Happy birding and enjoy your new found hobby!

Tips & Warnings



Sep 28, 2010 8:22pm
This is definitely one of the best articles to be written for IB...It is informative, and well written...keep it up!
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