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Beginner's Guide to Bird Watching

Long time birder, Dolores shares some tips and information. Some of her favorite first sightings have been in her own back yard.

A Great blue Heron at Maryland's Blackwater Wildlife Refuge

A Great blue Heron at Maryland's Blackwater Wildlife Refuge

An Easy, Sustainable Pastime

Birdwatching is an inexpensive, rewarding hobby and, next to gardening, the fastest growing hobby in America. With the increased interest in the ecological movement, bird watching is a pastime that gets you in tune with nature and into the great outdoors.

You don't even have to leave your home to enjoy birds, but can learn how to attract them to your backyard. My husband, an avid bird watcher, keeps a list of the birds he has seen in various places we have visited. His list for our yard includes 78 different types of birds!

Bird watching hones your observational skills and offers the opportunity to learn about these beautiful, fascinating creatures. With the help of a pair of binoculars and a bird identification book, you can quickly learn all about birds, their habitats, and the areas to visit if you want to see particular types of birds.

Bird watching is also an excellent activity for the home school setting. Children learn lessons about ornithology, biology, and the environment. You can incorporate bird watching activities in art projects and for physical education as you take long hikes into natural areas to look for birds in interesting habitats.

Brown Pelican(stock.xchng.)

Brown Pelican(stock.xchng.)

Look Up

Several months ago, standing on a bridge by a lake, I witnessed the flight of a Golden Eagle with a 90” wingspan and a reputation as a fairly rare bird in my area, which was a huge thrill. As I glanced along the bridge, busy with families and fishermen, no one seemed to notice the incredible sight. Because they weren’t looking.

Birding is best with a small group or a partner. You can share information as well as the pleasure of glimpsing a truly fabulous sight. Another person can confirm a sighting. If you’re not sure what you are looking at, a partner may have more experience or a better view.

Bird watching can even be a competitive sport! The World Series of Bird Watching takes place in New Jersey in spring. There, ornithologists and amateur birders compete to see who can spot the greatest number of species.

Most areas of the country have bird clubs and groups that host lectures, slide shows, and bird walks that can be educational and fun. Online groups post interesting sightings in your area if you have a hankering to see a regionally rare bird. The online groups also post information on migratory trends, localized eruptions, and photographs of birds posted by members.

Bird Watching and the Environmental Movement

In 1962 Rachael Carson published her famous book, Silent Spring, which described declining populations of American birds due to the use of chemicals and pesticides.
DDT was found to cause a softening of the eggshells of certain large predatory birds such as the Bald Eagle and Osprey. People were shocked to think that our overuse of such poisons could cause an end to America’s national symbol, the Bald Eagle. Interest in the environmental movement increased dramatically and the public outcry led to the ban of DDT.

As a child, I only saw Bald Eagles on TV. I’d always dreamed of seeing that noble creature, rare due to the use of DDT. Now, I can hop in the car and take you to a spot with a guaranteed eagle sighting.

Environmental trends can be studied through bird watching. Changes in local populations and migratory habits reflect environmental conditions and changes. In the 1980s, people began to notice Brown Pelicans along the Maryland and Northern Virginia Atlantic beaches. Previously, Brown Pelicans lived much further south and the 1980s sightings were seen as oddities. Now, the Brown Pelican is an established species, a beautiful sight as they glide low over the ocean.

Right in Your Own Backyard

You don’t have to be an adventurer to take up bird watching. Backyard birding can present a fabulous array of birds. Even urban areas have their share of birds to watch. Peregrine falcons (dramatically beautiful creatures) have taken up residence in cities all over the country. I saw one of the wildest looking ducks, a wood duck, in Central Park, New York Park City after years of hanging around rivers, bays, and tidewater areas.

Improving your yard as a bird-friendly habitat can enhance backyard bird watching. Plant trees of several types and sizes. Evergreens provide food and shelter in winter months. Native shrubs and flowering plants can be chosen with particular birds in mind.

Always plant native species as your area birds will be looking for traditional native plants that provide their dietary needs. Try to establish a variety of plants that offer year-round food and shelter. Check with your state department of natural resources to learn about the native trees, shrubs, and perennials that will attract birds.

Mountain bluebird

Mountain bluebird

Provide a Feast

Feeders will have hungry birds coming to your yard with regularity. Keep the feeders full and clean them out periodically to prevent diseases and mildew.

Unless you are looking for a hawk feeder, set the feeder up in a sheltered location. Make sure the feeder is high enough to thwart cats. Squirrels can devour tons of birdseed. Purchase a spring-loaded feeder. The weight of the squirrel automatically closes the device. Squirrels get the message soon enough and move on.

  • Do not buy the cheap mixed bags of seed that contain a large amount of filler that birds won’t even eat.
  • Avoid safflower seeds that attract pesky birds like starlings and grackles.
  • Black sunflower seeds are a favorite at feeders. Cheaper than the striped kind, black sunflower seeds are high in fat content and have softer shells than the striped kind. Black sunflower seeds attract cardinals, goldfinch, purple finch, sparrows, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpecker, and titmice.
  • Thistle seeds are tiny black seeds used in a special thistle feeder. They are a bit expensive but the chickadees and goldfinch will love you for it.
  • In winter, suet is a nice addition to your bird feeding station. You can purchase a suet feeder for about $5.00 and use commercially made suet or make your own.
  • Suet recipe: Melt lard. Stir in peanut butter, sugar, seeds, nuts, and fruit. Pour into a mold (a plastic food container) with a string or wire inserted. After the mixture sets, hang by the string or wire.
  • Nectar attracts hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are amazing little things you may not notice unless you are looking. Seen out of the corner of your eye, a hummingbird can be mistaken for a large insect. Bright colored flowers, particularly red flowers are popular with hummingbirds. You can purchase a hummingbird feeder and fill it with a commercially made mix or prepare your own with sugar and water.


Water provided by a birdbath, pond, or fountain provides hydration so difficult for birds to find in urban and suburban neighborhoods. The birds will enjoy a bath as well while you enjoy viewing their antics in the water.

Your water feature needs to be shallow or at least have a shallow end to accommodate smaller birds. A drip or fountain is nice as the sound of splashing water attracts birds.

If you have a pond, make sure there is a shallow end or conveniently placed rock. Backyard ponds have become so popular that Great Blue Herons often cruise neighborhood yards looking for frogs or fish. If you’ve seen a Great Blue Heron in the neighborhood, you might want to stock the pond with inexpensive goldfish instead of koi.

You can also use a shallow dish as a birdbath. Set it on rocks or bricks to gain some elevation. Set the birdbath away from shrubs where predators can hide. Don’t set the birdbath directly beneath the feeder, you want to avoid debris as well as fecal matter.

Change the water often, every day in hot weather to avoid mosquitoes. Clean the birdbath occasionally with a scrub brush.

Bird Houses

Birdhouses can encourage birds to nest in your yard. Cypress and red cedar are good, durable materials to use whether you purchase a birdhouse or make one yourself.

If you do make your own, do not place a perch directly outside the entry hole as it can be used by predators to attack and kill nestlings or to eat eggs.

The roof should overhang the hole to protect the inhabitants from sun or rain. Make sure there are vent holes near the roof under the eaves so that hot air can rise out. Also, drill a couple of holes in the bottom in case of a driving rain so that the water can drain.

Sandhill crane - unusual in our area

Sandhill crane - unusual in our area


You can learn to identify birds with the aid of a field guide. Peterson’s Field Guides and the National Geographic Field Guide are both helpful resources in your quest to understand birds. Both books are easily available online or at books stores.

Roger Tory Peterson created simple identification methods for the non-scientist. His paintings and drawings highlight distinctive characteristics called field marks not always obvious to the amateur bird watcher.

Familiarize yourself with the books. Learn the arrangement of birds in the book so that you can find the appropriate section quickly in the field. Become aquatinted with the types of birds in your neighborhood and in the areas that you plan to go bird watching.

You’ll be looking for different kinds of birds if you go to a wetland nature sanctuary than if you hike in the woods. This is where online message boards or forums come in handy where you’ll find who has seen what and where they saw it.

Birds are identified by size and shape, plumage, behavior, and song.

  • A bird’s size may be difficult to identify at a distance. Learn the sizes of familiar birds for comparison. Is the bird larger or smaller than a sparrow (5” – 6”), a robin (9” – 11”) or an American Crow (17” – 21”)?
  • Shapes vary as well. Is the bird’s bill long and thin to drill into the ground for bugs, or is it short and thick for seed cracking? Does it have longs legs, or short legs? How about the wings? Are they narrow and pointed or thick and rounded at the edges?
  • Birds come in all packages. Some are brown or gray, yellow, or multicolored. Plumage is an important factor in the identification of birds. Sparrows, which all look alike to the untrained eye may have black hoods, or wing-bars (stripes), white patches, or streaked breasts. These field marks are emphasized in the field guides to help you quickly recognize distinguishing characteristics.
  • Your increased observational skills will grant you visual treats that previously were invisible to you. The sight of a bluebird, a not uncommon creature, is incredible. With their azure blue coloration and rust-colored breasts, they seem like jewels. Indigo buntings are a deep, cobalt blue. Goldfinches are bright, luminous yellow. The variety is endless and fabulous.
  • Behavior is another way to identify a bird. Is its flight path a smooth glide, or a series of swoops and dips; does it dart between branches or climb up the trunk of a tree? The movement of, say, mockingbirds is fascinating. Mockingbirds perform a crazy dance on the ground where they raise and flash their wings. Nuthatches more rapidly up and down the trunks of trees.
  • You can search for birds in a particular habitat. Woodlands, meadows, backyards, or tidewater areas offer unique types of birds from the tiny wren to the tall, stately Great Egret.
  • Some birders identify birds by song. You can learn to distinguish between bird songs by listening to recorded calls easily found online.


Of course, your first piece of equipment would be a field guide.

Always wear neutral colored clothing, as birds are very sensitive to color. Neutral clothing allows you to blend in with the environment

Binoculars come in handy for close up viewing and bird identification. Prices range from $50.00 to $900.00. Don’t buy a pair of binoculars until you try them. Focus on a distant object the size of a bird to check the binoculars accuracy and clarity.

You’ll notice two numbers that describe the binoculars focusing capabilities. The first number or power shows you how close a bird will appear when viewed through the binoculars. 7 X 35 means that objects will appear seven times closer than they actually are. The second number indicates the size of the lens and should be 5X the first number. A larger lens lets in more light.

Make sure the binoculars aren’t too heavy.


While bird watching, remember to obey the law as well as follow common sense. Don’t trespass or make a nuisance of yourself. Don’t put yourself in danger or park your car in an inappropriate spot.

Remember to respect local habitats. Never approach or disturb nesting areas.

When bird watching it is best to be quiet and speak in low tones to avoid threatening the birds. Sometimes, a wooded area may seem silent and devoid of birds. But if you stand quietly in one spot, the birds that have fallen silent at your approach will return to life as usual, will sing and move about freely.

Bird watching can involve the whole family, an interested partner, or small groups. It can be a peaceful, solitary activity practiced daily or occasionally. Bird watching is a hobby that can take you out into beautiful pine woods or desolate tidewater panoramas. You can sit on your back porch or merely look out the window.

In any case, bird watching allows you to see some of God’s most beautiful creations. It puts you in tune with nature and the fascinating world of birds.

© 2009 Dolores Monet