Bird watching, or “birding,” is an outdoor hobby that brings you back in touch with nature. Simple and accessible for anyone, the key to getting started with birding is building your bird knowledge slowly to avoid getting overwhelmed.
Bob Duchense, guide for the Maine Birding Trail and birding columnist for the Bangor Daily News, said that birding has increased in popularity, in part because more people were looking for socially-distant outdoor activities during the pandemic.
Still, the appeal goes far beyond a passing fad.
“I think there’s a lot of reasons it’s developed into a bigger and bigger hobby, but birding has always been special because the birds are pretty and we’ve always been fascinated by things that can fly,” Duchense said.
The only equipment you need to start birding is a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Once you start, though, birding is a hobby that will change the way you look at the world.
“The thing with birdwatching is that you’re always able to bird watch wherever you are,” said Amanda Laliberte, programs and communications manager at the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust. “Now that I’m a birder, it’s like a safari every time I get in my car or go for a walk.”
Start in your backyard
It may seem cliche, but the best place to start birding is in your own backyard.
“Start slow because you will get overwhelmed if you rush it,” Duchense said. “I always suggest starting with what’s in your own backyard. Get to know those first and then you can get used to what birds are around your camp, around a golf course. Take it in pieces like that, so you can do it in bite sized portions.”
Duchense said to start by identifying one bird each time you go out.
“Listen for what’s making noise, say the name out loud and then stop,” Duchense said. “Don’t identify 10 birds because you’ll only remember one of them.”
Laliberte said that going out in the early morning is best.
“Early morning and overcast days are the best chances to see them,” she said. “The rest of the time, I think they’re on siesta.”
read more on maine birding
Use your ears
Birds may be beautiful, but experts recommend learning how to rely on your ears for birding.
“Just sort of sit and close your eyes and just listen around you almost like a radar,” said Nicholas Lund, outreach and network manager at the Maine Audubon Society. “Use your ears to track a bird that’s nearby and then watch it to see what it’s doing. Is it eating? Is it bathing? Is it roosting or sleeping?”
Because listening is so important to birding, one of the cardinal rules is keep quiet while birding so you — and anyone else you might be with — can hear the birds.
“Making noise will startle birds and make them shut up,” Duchense added.
Once you spot birds, Lund said to take a photograph or sketch what you see to compare to your field guide. That way, you can start associating the calls with certain birds and specific behaviors. However, Lund said not to worry too much about matching birdsongs right away.
“Birding rewards you the more time you spend with it,” Lund said. “It’s not something you’re going to master easily. If you can trace the call to the actual bird, that’s a rewarding experience. Don’t stress about trying to learn them all right away.”
read more on maine birding
Respect the birds
There are some no-nos of birdwatching that beginners should know. For example, getting too close to birds will stress the animals and change their behavior.
“We use a rule of thumb here when we do bird walks and nature walks,” Laliberte said. “When you hold out your thumb at an arm’s length, if you see the animal around your thumb, you are too close for its comfort.”
Also, look to see if the bird is showing any visible signs of discomfort.
“Just watch the bird,” Duchense said. “If it starts to flinch, if it’s looking at you, they’ll let you know. If they start to look like they’re going to walk away from you or they’re craning their necks in your direction, they’ll pretty much tell you when they’re getting nervous.”
Another rule is not to try to draw birds out with bird calls, which can confuse and distress the birds if they sound like mates or predators. Laliberte said that there is an acceptable way to make sounds in birding — “pishing,” where you make a soft, repetitive “pssh” sound with your mouth.
“I’ve seen biologists do this,” Laliberte said. “That’s within the ethical realm. That way you’re not giving them a predator, prey or mating call. It’s much more abstract than that.”
Finally, do not feed the birds you see in the wild because it will cause birds to get used to humans in a way that can put them in danger.
“You shouldn’t feed them anything outside of their natural habitat,” Laliberte said. “Bread is especially disgusting.”
Track your progress
Tracking the birds that you see will help you get even more into birding — and help with local citizen science efforts.
Lund recommended signing for an account on the website eBird, which is managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
“When you start to develop a history of the birds you have or haven’t seen, it fuels you to find more,” Lund said.
Not only is it a great way to keep an inventory of birds you have and haven’t seen, but the site also uses the information from its users for scientific and conservation purposes.
Even older birders can get into it.
“Because I’m old, I’m resistant to change, but I’ve started using eBird for everything these days,” Duchense said.
Ultimately, though, the most important tip for beginning birders is to enjoy the experience of communing with our feathered friends — no matter what that looks like for you.
“It’s one of the few hobbies you can do until you’re 100,” Lund said. “It really is figuring out the enjoyment of it for you, whether that’s the adventure of chasing birds in different habits or learning their minute behaviors in different life cycles or painting them. There are a lot of different ways to enjoy it.”