Beginning Bird WatchingThe essentials and how to get started.
Bird watching along trails in northeast Ohio is one of the best outdoor activities you can participate in. Birding gets you outdoors, gives you exercise, makes you think, and hones your observational skills. Birds can be elusive, but this gives the sport an air of mystery, since you never know what bird you will find, or when.
Birds can be observed visually, as well as being detected by their songs. You can also identify bird species in an area by examining their nests. Eventually, a bird watcher will want to master all three of these modes. To begin, visual observation and song identification will either be a good start, depending on your preference. It is generally best to start out with visual observation so that you can put a face with the name. After you learn what the birds look like, it may be easier to begin learning to identify them by their songs.
One way to easily begin identifying birds is to install a backyard bird feeder. This will allow you to attract a large variety of birds and look them up in your field guide. Choose a feeder and bird food that will attract the type of birds you are interested in. For example, if you want to see hummingbirds, you will need a humming bird feeder. A flat feeder will attract ground feeders, while suet blocks hanging in your trees will attract others. You should also provide a bird bath because water attracts birds. Some birds seem to be attracted to the sound of running water, so a small fountain may be a wise investment if you are serious.
Once your feeder is up and attracting birds, you will need a field guide to help identify those birds! A useful field guide will include at least names (common and scientific), pictures, field markings, range, and habitat information for the species common in Northeast Ohio. Your individual preference will dictate whether you buy a guide with drawings or one with photographs. Most naturalists seem to prefer drawings because the drawings accentuate the important field characteristics, while a photograph is sometimes unable to convey this information as clearly. However, photographs may give a better feel for the size, shape and colors of the bird. For Ohioans, we recommend Birds of Ohio Field Guide. For others, try The Sibley Guide to Birds (Audubon Society Nature Guides Series).
After a month or so of practice at the bird feeder, you should feel pretty comfortable identifying the common birds of the area, at least when they are sitting still for you. When you head out to the trails and fields to search for your feathered quarry, it will be a little tougher. You will need to be observant as you scan the trees and shrubs and sky. If you are lucky, a close-by bird will sit still long enough for you to positively identify him. More likely, you will get a quick glimpse of the bird, then he will flit off to a branch just too far away to make out the details. This is where a good pair of binoculars comes in handy. We recommend a lightweight pair with a magnification in the range of 5 to 8 with a lens size about 5 times the magnification, so 8 x 40 or 7 x 35 are well suited for birding.
When you spot a bird and want to get a closer look, keep your eyes focussed on the bird and bring the binoculars to your eyes without losing your focus on the bird. This is somewhat difficult at first, but over time it will become second nature.
Once you become good at spotting birds in your binoculars and identifying them out from a distance, you will know a fair number of them by sight without looking them up. This is the time to start learning their calls if you have not already delved into that subject. CD's of bird songs are the best method for this, short of spending days in the field with an expert, and happening to hear a fair number of species each day. We recommend Birding by Ear: Eastern and Central North America .
When you are starting out, it will be worthwhile to join a group of birders that has regular hikes. Birders are generally a friendly lot, and you will learn quickly by attending a few birdwalks. As your birding skills develop, you may become a hard core birder, in which case these groups will be invaluable to you as you plan vacations, try to expand your life list, or just want a buddy to come out in the field with you on the spur of the moment.
Beginning birding will have its moments of frustration, but if you give it a good try and learn the basics, in no time you will be addicted!