Birding for Beginners | A Discussion with a Seasoned Birder

small bird eating flower seeds
Photo: Mathew Radford

Birding is a sport that any bird lover can take part in. However, if you’re just beginning to explore birding or have only dabbled in it so far, it’s important to understand a few key concepts and considerations.

For most nature lovers, including gardeners, there is a common thread that binds us all: our fondness for birds. Whether we are strolling through the woods, having a picnic at the park, or tending to our gardens, the presence of birds brings us joy. 

There is something so irresistible about them—their melodic songs and the assortment of sizes and colors, not to mention their playful antics. My husband and I often liken it to watching a “bird soap opera,” as we observe the lively spring activity in our garden, each bird adding its unique drama. How can we not fall head over heels for them?

But what if we want to take our love of birds to the next level? What if we want to actively seek out birds that may not ever visit our backyards or local parks? What if we want to go to them instead of waiting for them to come to us? For many passionate individuals, birdwatching, or “birding,” becomes a lifelong pursuit and hobby.

black and white warbler
A Black-and-white Warbler (mniotilta varia) - Photo Credit: Mathew Radford

Interviewing an Expert Birder

As someone who loves birds but is not an expert in birding, I decided to explore this topic more by collaborating with a seasoned birder to shed light on this subject. My friend, Mathew Radford, a fellow nature lover, podcast host, author, and local experienced birder in Eastern Oklahoma, graciously shared his expertise with me by letting me interview him on his podcast Bird’s Eye View.

In that episode, I had the opportunity to ask him questions about birding from the perspective of a birding novice or beginner. Mathew peeled back the curtain on this captivating hobby and provided valuable insights for anyone starting out or looking to deepen their birding journey.

Below is a summary of that interview. Consider this a beginner’s guide to birding, and the podcast episode the ultimate birding Q&A for anyone interested in taking on this lifelong hobby. To listen to our conversation be sure to check out this episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or online here.

What is Birding vs. Birdwatching?

Birding and birdwatching are terms that are sometimes used interchangeably. However, as Mathew explained to me in our conversation, birding is generally seen as a more active pursuit. It’s a blend of adventure and science that involves traveling to see birds, maintaining lists of sightings, and often participating in the scientific study of birds.

The Spark of Interest in Birding

Most birders have a ‘spark bird’ that ignites their passion. Mathew says that these initial encounters are often accompanied by a supportive mentor who introduces you to the world of birds in some way, or you may grow up in an environment where you observe birds regularly leading to a deeper interest in avian life.

Mathew’s interest in birds began in childhood, surrounded by abundant birdlife on a farm near the Snake River and Yellowstone Park. His curiosity about birds developed by observing them daily and wondering about their behaviors. A pivotal moment came one Christmas when his brother gifted their parents a Roger Tory Peterson bird book, which opened a window to the wider world of birds.

However, Mathew says it wasn’t until college, with the opportunity to take an ornithology class and participate in field trips, that his birding knowledge truly expanded.

For me, as a child growing up in the country surrounded by the forests of Southeastern Oklahoma, birds were a constant presence. From listening to my grandfather try to imitate the melancholic song of the Whip-poor-will as the sun went down or watching robins tug worms out of the ground after a rain, birds were the backdrop of daily life. 

While it’s hard to pinpoint a single spark bird that ignited my initial interest back then, in recent years, I’ve fallen hard for the Eastern Bluebird. Watching them build their nests and raise their young each spring in the garden is one of the highlights of the year and has definitely added to my love of birds.

eastern bluebird
Observing Eastern bluebirds raise young in the garden has been the spark bird for me in recent years.

Understanding the "Life List"

No conversation about birding is complete without discussing the life list. This is a term that comes up frequently and I really wanted to dive into the importance of this concept in the world of birding, and I learned that it’s a nuanced topic.

A “life list” is a record of all the bird species a birder has observed and identified. It’s more than just a tally of birds encountered; the life list represents a birder’s travels through different locations and captures the moment they connected with a specific bird for the first time. 

The criteria for adding a bird to a life list can vary among individuals. While you might think that birders only count a bird if they’ve seen it, identifying a bird based on its song counts too. Including auditory encounters in the life list makes sense when you think about how some birds are more often heard than seen like the Whip-poor-will or the Barred Owl.

Life lists can be categorized in various ways too. There are local life lists that may cover birds seen in one’s hometown or state, and regional lists that might encompass a broader geographical area, like Eastern Oklahoma or the entire United States. On a grander scale, there can even be a world life list, which is the holy grail for many birders who aspire to include species they encounter internationally.

The rules that govern what counts on a life list are typically set by the birder themselves rather than one legal governing body. While there are organizations with specific criteria for official counts, individual birders may have their own standards. For instance, if a birder sees a species outside its known range but is confident in their identification, they may choose to include that bird on their personal list.

A swainson's warbler
Swainson's Warblers are an example of a bird that is more often heard than seen. To catch a glimpse of this one, you may have to visit dense southern swamps. - Photo Credit: Mathew Radford

Essential Birding Equipment for Beginners

Anyone can go outside and spot a bird, but having the right equipment is the first step towards unlocking the full potential of this hobby. The following tools are fundamental to equip beginners with the means to get started or deepen their birding experience.

  • Binoculars: Crucial for detailed observation. Good quality ones cost around $180-$200 and ideally have 8x or 10x magnification.
  • Field Guide Books: Essential for identifying and understanding bird behavior.
  • Notebook or App: For keeping records of sightings.
  • Digital apps also help with identification and locating birds in your area.
Binoculars and Their Importance

The quality of binoculars significantly impacts the birding experience. Factors like magnification, lens diameter, and especially exit pupil measurement are crucial. 

In our conversation, Mathew explained the concept of the exit pupil and its importance in depth but I will just summarize it here. The exit pupil is a measurement that indicates how much light can enter the binoculars to reach the user’s eyes, calculated by dividing the diameter of the objective lenses by the magnification.

For instance, binoculars labeled as 10×50 have a magnification power of 10 and an objective lens diameter of 50mm. Dividing 50 by 10 gives an exit pupil of 5mm, which is ideal for bird watching. This size correlates to the maximum pupil dilation of the human eye in low light conditions, allowing for a bright image and a wide field of view.

It’s essential for birders to balance high magnification with a sufficient objective lens diameter.

Understanding the exit pupil helps birders choose binoculars that will serve them well in various conditions, from the dim light of dawn or dusk to the full brightness of day. It’s an essential factor to consider for anyone serious about their bird watching equipment. 

Anyone interested in birding will definitely want to listen to this part of the podcast conversation for more detailed information and Mathew’s binocular recommendations.

Top Birding Apps

Apps like iBird Pro, Merlin Bird ID, iNaturalist, and the Audubon Bird Guide are invaluable for identifying birds by sight and sound. eBird is a fantastic resource favored by birders for tracking sightings for their life list and discovering bird hotspots.

Recommended Field Guides

For new birders, field guides like The Sibley Guide to Birds, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and National Audubon Society Birds of North America are highly recommended for their comprehensive information and ease of use. While some birders opt for guides with photographs, others prefer those with detailed drawings to highlight features that may not be captured in photos.

Field guides are a great resource for beginner and advanced birders.
Advanced Tools

With birding, you’re well-prepared to begin your adventures with the basic equipment listed above. As you grow in the hobby, however, you may consider more advanced gear for an even deeper dive into the world of birding. Here’s a list of more advanced tools you might work your way into.

  • Spotting Scopes: For distant viewing.
  • High-Quality Cameras: For documenting bird sightings, especially rare birds.
  • Specialized Apps: For tracking and reporting sightings.

Birding Techniques and Strategies for Beginners

To increase your chances of spotting birds from your life list, Mathew suggests preparing by researching birds you’re likely to see and their behaviors. Prior to visiting a new area, it’s beneficial to concentrate on a select number of local species. 

Study their visual markings through photos and illustrations, and familiarize yourself with their vocalizations. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed if you attempt to recognize too many species at once.

Instead, narrow your focus on those you are likely to see in the area you will be exploring and get to know them beforehand so you can be confident in your identification when you do encounter them. Joining birding groups or outings can also significantly add to your learning experience, as more experienced birders can offer valuable insights.

The woods at Haikey Park
To increase your chance of spotting birds, go where they're likely to be nesting or hunting for food. This often means seeking out wilder places to spot more rare species.

Overcoming Common Challenges in Birding

Beginners often get frustrated when they face challenges in accurately identifying birds. Patience is key, along with accepting that not every bird will be easily identifiable. It’s called a “life” list for a reason, because it’s a lifelong endeavor. Engaging with local birding communities or going out in the field with more seasoned birders can go a long way to helping a beginner be successful.

Birding and Travel: Adventure and Precautions

Naturally, birding and travel go hand in hand. Traveling to see specific birds sometimes leads to adventurous and unexpected situations. It’s imperative to go prepared, not only to maximize the birding experience but also to ensure your own safety, safety for those traveling with you, and respect for the environment.

Traveling birders should always research their destinations ahead of time, understanding the local regulations, especially when it comes to private property. Be respectful of landowners. Birders should always secure permissions where needed and adhere to the local guidelines.

Dress appropriately for the terrain and weather conditions, carry sufficient water to stay hydrated, and have a well-thought-out plan. Birders should inform someone about their plans, especially if heading into isolated areas, and consider traveling in groups when possible.

Birders should also be equipped to handle first aid, know the basics of navigation, and be aware of potential hazards, from wildlife to weather changes. It’s also crucial to be environmentally conscious—sticking to trails, avoiding disturbing wildlife, and leaving no trace.

On Mathew’s Bird’s Eye View podcast, I recommend listening to episodes like 17 and 21 in season 1 which offer valuable insights into smart travel strategies for birders and examples of precarious situations you can get into if not prepared.

Raven in Arches National Park
While exploring Moab, UT with my husband and daughter a few years ago, we delighted in watching several Common Ravens (Corvus corax). Although they're not a rare bird sighting, the ravens' cheeky personalities and vocalizations left us with cherished memories we still talk about today.

Understanding Bird Migration in Birding Strategy

Since not all birds are homebodies that stick around all year, I wondered to what degree bird migration patterns play a role in birding strategy. I asked Mathew to touch on this and talk about how bird migration and the resident range of homebody birds affect how birders plan their local outings and arrange more distant travel.

I learned that understanding bird migration is a key element in creating a successful birding strategy. Migratory patterns tell us a lot about the presence of specific bird species in various regions at different times of the year. By studying these patterns, birders can plan which species to look for during various seasons.

Bird populations can be categorized into groups: those present year-round, summer or winter visitors, and migratory pass-throughs. For instance, certain warblers might only be observed during their spring, stopping over briefly as they travel to their breeding grounds. 

Baltimore oriole
We are often visited by a few migrating Baltimore Orioles enjoying our hummingbird feeders in late spring or early summer.

In Eastern Oklahoma, there might be resident birds like the Northern Cardinal, American Robin, and Common Grackle that are present throughout the year. However, there are also species like the Brown Creeper and the White-throated Sparrow that only appear during the winter months.

Also in my area of Oklahoma, Baltimore Orioles migrate through in summer often visiting our hummingbird feeders. Similarly, in late May and August, Oklahoma becomes a temporary rest stop for shorebirds and sandpipers on their migration. Places like Bixby or the sod farms in Leonard become crucial habitats where birders have the opportunity to observe these species. 

Missing the narrow window of opportunity to see these birds could mean waiting another year for a chance to add them to your life list.

Birders can also use this knowledge to plan outings or even travel to regions where sought-after species are known to migrate. Tools like eBird can be instrumental in this planning by providing recent sightings and historical data about peak migration times. This can turn a routine birding outing into a targeted mission to spot a long-awaited migratory bird.

Ethical Birding Practices

For birders, it’s important to understand and practice ethical birding by minimizing disturbance to birds and their habitats. This includes avoiding unnecessary noise or movement that might startle nesting birds, and respecting their homes by not damaging habitats.

Flushing occurs when a birder, either intentionally or inadvertently, causes a bird to flee from its spot—whether it’s resting, feeding, or nesting. It can happen simply by walking on a trail, in a park, or venturing too close to a bird’s habitat. 

In the modern day urban environment, flushing birds can sometimes be an inevitable part of birdwatching, but making an effort to avoid unnecessary intrusion is part of responsible and ethical birding.

The Role of Taxonomy in Birding

For gardeners and plant lovers, we often identify plants by their scientific names to avoid confusion. I asked Mathew if that was also the case for bird identification amongst bird enthusiasts and whether or not knowing bird taxonomy was important for beginning birders. 

He explained that while understanding the scientific classification of birds isn’t essential for beginners, it becomes more relevant as birders gain experience and start studying birds more deeply. Taxonomy is useful in communication about birds, but beginners don’t need extensive knowledge of taxonomy to start birding. 

Over time this knowledge will grow and become more important for the life list. For example it could be useful in being able to distinguish between different flycatchers or warblers. 

Bird Conservation and the Role of Birders

Birders play a crucial role in conservation efforts. By understanding bird populations and participating in conservation activities, birders contribute to the preservation of avian species. Sharing knowledge and promoting bird conservation within one’s community can also have a positive impact.

We discussed the importance of habitat for birds: they require suitable environments not just for living but also for protection from predators, nesting, and finding food, which can range from seeds to insects.

One of the primary ways birders contribute to conservation is by supporting the preservation and restoration of large tracts of native habitats. These areas are crucial for the survival and health of bird populations. By participating in and advocating for conservation efforts, birders help ensure that these critical habitats are maintained and protected.

I asked Mathew what birds we have lost in North America in his lifetime and he listed several. Among these lost species are the Bachman’s Warbler, the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, the Eskimo Curlew, and the Kākāwahie or Molokaʻi Creeper, some of which he may have had the opportunity to see as a child since their extinction is that recent.

These losses underline the urgency of bird conservation efforts and serve as a reminder of how fragile some bird populations are. 

Meadow grasses
When we contribute to saving and preserving wild landscapes, we help ensure a future filled with birds.

Perspectives on Rare and Invasive Bird Species

I wondered if all birds are “equal” in the hearts and minds of birders. From listening to Mathew’s podcast I hear guests talk a lot about the excitement of seeing a rare bird, and that makes total sense to me from the perspective of birding as a sport or having those personal life list goals. 

But I wondered if all birds hold equal weight and specifically how experienced birders feel about invasive birds. For plant lovers and gardeners, we are keenly aware of what the gardening community might term “invasive” plants or insects. These are species that are often vilified, as if they have no right to exist in our gardens and landscapes.

I wondered if it was the same in the world of birds. I’m reminded of starlings that once took over a martin house we erected, or the house sparrows that crowd out the bluebirds in spring, and how cowbirds displace and replace the eggs of other species. 

Mathew had an interesting perspective on this and one that I also relate to when it comes to “invasive” or non-native plants and insects.

A nest with eggs
This nest has been visited by a cow bird which replaces the resident nest's eggs with her own.

He explained that the birding community values both rare and invasive bird species. While rare birds often spark excitement, invasive species like starlings or house sparrows are also recognized as part of the ecosystem, altered by human activity. 

The presence of these so-called invasive species is more a reflection of human actions than the birds’ inherent nature. When encountering an area dominated by starlings and house sparrows, it’s a sign that the original habitat has been heavily modified or eradicated by human activities. 

Afterall, aren’t humans the ultimate invasive species, altering ecosystems to the extent that they become hospitable to birds which would otherwise not dominate there? Understanding and documenting these species is also part of a birder’s goal.

Warblers: The Jewels of Birding

I thought it was fitting that we wrap up the conversation about birding for beginners by highlighting a specific bird loved by many bird enthusiasts.  In many of the podcast episodes I have listened to on Bird’s Eye View, I hear Mathew and his guests talk about warblers. 

Mathew explained that warblers are especially favored among birders for their vibrant colors, complex songs, and significant role in ecosystems as insect predators. Their migratory nature and the challenge of identifying them can add to the excitement. He says “warblers really symbolize the last bits of native habitat so people just love them and birders want to track them down and see those native warblers.”

Northern Parula Warbler
Warblers like this Northern Parula are the eastern jewels of the forest with their bright colors and complex songs. And since they migrate from the tropics, their presence is fleeting. - Photo Credit: Mathew Radford

Final Thoughts

To sum it up, birding is an endless adventure of discovery and learning. It’s about connecting with nature, respecting wildlife, and contributing to the understanding of bird life. I hope this guide serves as a jumping off point for those new to birding. I know that interviewing Mathew and writing this guide has really helped me gain a better understanding of birds and the hobby of birding and birdwatching.

Whether you’re a beginner observing the common birds in your backyard or an experienced birder about to set off on your next adventure to spot a rare species, it’s all about enjoying and protecting our feathered friends that we share this planet with. 

To leave you with a final thought from a seasoned birder, Mathew says, “if you love birds, focus on habitat. Learn about how birds live and what they need. Contribute to saving and preserving it. This will help you find birds and save them for the future.”

To listen to my conversation with Mathew Radford on the Bird’s Eye View Podcast, find it here on Spotify and here on Apple Podcasts.

Links to Additional Resources:

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