If you are looking for a hobby that doesn’t require too many complicated gadgets, look no further than bird watching, also known as “birding.”
Fundamentally, birding only requires two tools to get started: a pair of binoculars and a field guide.
“A field guide, especially when you’re just starting out, is extremely helpful to put some context on things and figure out what birds you’re seeing, and binoculars just really help [because] birds are beautiful, and even more so up close,” said Nicholas Lund, outreach and network manager at the Maine Audubon Society. “There’s so much detail on birds that you just can’t get with the naked eye.”
For beginning birders, binoculars don’t need to be too fancy. Binoculars are generally marked with model numbers that indicate the magnification strength and the lens size. For example, a 10×50 pair magnifies objects 10 times and the lenses are 50 millimeters in diameter.
“There are a lot of binoculars billed as light or portable, but you need the front lenses to be big enough,” said Bob Duchesne, guide for the Maine Birding Trail and birding columnist for the Bangor Daily News. “I suggest that people go for binoculars 7.5 to 8.5 magnification range. Anything smaller than that is worthless and anything bigger than that is heavy and restricts your field of view and that makes it difficult for newbies.”
When it comes to price, Duchesne said you can get a suitable pair of binoculars for about $250, while Lund recommended looking for something around the $100 mark. If that still seems pricey, Lund said the investment will pay itself off over time.
“The thing about binoculars is that they never wear out and most of them have lifetime warranties,” Lund said. “Even though it seems like a high sticker price at first, the cost per year is very, very low. This is something that you’re going to carry with you every time you go birding for decades.”
Before you buy, Lund said to test them out, if you can.
“Make sure they fit your face and they’re comfortable,” Lund said. “Most binoculars have eye cups that screw in and out. If you wear glasses you want to screw them down and if you don’t wear glasses you want to screw them out a little bit so you get some distance from the lenses.”
Also, make sure you practice at home with your binoculars. You want to lock your eyes on the object you want to see first, and then bring the binoculars up to your face.
“Find a branch, keep an eye on that branch and bring your binoculars up every time,” said Amanda Laliberte, programs and communications manager at the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust.
As far as field guides go, experts recommend “The Sibley Guide to Birds,” which also has versions for the East and West.
“Start out with the eastern version which is smaller and easier to use,” Duchesne said.
There are also smartphone apps that can help with identification. There is even an app for the Sibley guide that Duchesne said that he has on his phone. Laliberte recommended an app called Merlin, which she said is great for identifying birds by their visual features. However, the song features on Merlin and apps like it can be less reliable.
“I would say they have a lot of work to do,” Duchesne said. “The ones that try to identify the song for you I find are frequently not accurate. That’s because the birds are frequently not accurate. A lot of birds are horrible singers.”
Lund said that he is torn on the use of apps in birding in general.
“I can see the benefit in inputting a picture and letting the computer figure it out, but you also lose some of the fun of the experience of learning and figuring out what’s what,” Lund said. “Those are useful but it does distract from the accomplishment of doing it yourself.”
Though it isn’t necessary, Laliberte said you might also want to get a bird feeder for your yard and fill it with local seed if you are just starting out.
“It just makes it so much easier when the birds come to you,” Laliberte said. “You start to really get to know them.”
However, Laliberte said that if you opt for a window feeder, you should also put special stickers on your windows to prevent “strikes,” or birds flying into the glass.
Finally, you don’t need any special clothes to go birding. Some studies suggest that wearing red might agitate birds, but other than avoiding incendiary colors, just wear whatever you would normally wear outside to protect yourself from the sun and ticks.
“You don’t need to have pants and vests with tons and pockets,” Lund said. “The beauty of birding is that those are really a field guide and binoculars are really the only two pieces of equipment that you need.”