Watching birds is a lot more fun when you know what you're looking at. Here's a collection of our best birdwatching tips to make things more fun for you ...and the birds!
Our top birdwatching tips is to use a systematic method for observing birds. A systematic method will build your birding skills fast, which means more fun for you.
What you’re about to learn may seem challenging at first, but don’t be discouraged. Developing a system for observing birds is no more difficult than creating any other routine. You’ll get the hang of it in no time.
Where to start
How about in your own backyard? If you've got room for a bird feeder and/or a bird bath, you can bring the birds to you.
A bird bath will attract feeder birds and also those that normally don't use a feeders, like hawks, owls and robins.
Once you're familiar with the birds around your home, think about joining a bird club outing or taking a guided tour of local birding hotspots.
Related: Shocking bird loss since 1970
See also: How to attract wild birds you love
You might like: Attract more birds with a bird bath
General birdwatching tips
Tips for observing birds
Getting familiar with the words for parts of a bird’s body is important to learning how to watch birds. Your bird book, field guide, or special birders’ field notebook if you have one, will include a diagram of bird parts, or you can download this one (right-click and ‘save image as’).
Memorizing a good number of these parts will help you observe birds accurately and fast, which make them easier to find in your bird book.
Work with your field guide to get a feel for the general shape, size and beaks of different groups of birds. (See How to Use a Bird Identification Field Guide.)
Be sure to pay particular attention to notes on behaviors that are unique to a certain group of birds.
For example, only a few kinds of birds feed on tree trunks, so any bird doing so must be either a creeper, a nuthatch or a woodpecker. Knowing this kind of information will help you make short work of identification.
Another example: birds are highly specialized for certain kinds of food and environments, and those that migrate do so on predictable routes and schedules.
This means that they are reliably found in specific areas at specific times, which is a really solid clue for identification (or exclusion.)
Your field guide will show you where a bird is normally found at different times of year.
Use a checklist to keep track
Birding checklists are handy not only for keeping track of your sightings, but also for finding out what birds you’re likely to see in your area. The American Bird Association, National Audubon Society and many state wildlife departments and organizations offer checklists. You can also get Avibase’s Bird Checklists of the World in downloadable PDFs here. (Click on the plus sign beside each region for a list of areas to choose from.)
Write down what you see
“Not having a clear idea of what to focus on can result in an observation that yields no useful information.”
– David Allen Sibley, Sibley’s Birding Basics
Sketching and jotting down what you see while the bird is handy is much more important than grabbing your bird guide and flipping through it.
Taking notes will not only force you to be a keen observer, but will help you retain what you learn and speed up your learning process too.
Even crude sketches can be valuable, and you will get better with practice, I promise.
Even if you don’t think you need to do this to identify birds, your notes could become keepsakes and memory touchstones for the future.
They could even help scientists who study natural history some day.
James Eike was a non-scientist bird watcher who kept daily notes over 30 years - see a sample to the left.
His collection of 80 notebooks is now part of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and is considered quite valuable.
You may laugh at the idea that your notes could be valuable, but there are 3 billion fewer individual birds alive today than in Eike’s time.
It’s entirely possible that the notes of today’s birding hobbyists could be important in another 30 years.
Your notebook can be a simple spiral bound pocket pad, a hardback lined journal or even a book of waterproof pages made especially for birders.
Birdwatching tips for field notes
Here's what to include in your notes:
Bonus tip: Practice these observations on your garden birds so that when something unusual comes along you can scribble at top speed and capture all the details.
Keep a SONG in your heart
There are four keys to bird identification, which I like to think of as a SONG:
S – Size and shape
O – Observe prominent colors and marking
N – Notice the place and environment or habitat
G – Get the behavior on paper
Size and Shape
How big is the bird compared to other birds you know? (It’s notoriously hard to make an accurate estimate of how long a bird is, so compare it to familiar birds or other birds nearby.) Is it bigger than a robin, or smaller than a sparrow?
Consider that in cold weather (or when feeling aggressive) a bird will fluff its feathers out and appear much rounder and fatter. Herons and other birds with long necks sometimes have their heads pulled down close to their bodies, which makes them look quite different.
Can you describe or sketch the bird’s bill shape and length, wing shape and leg length, especially relative to other parts of the bird?
For example, you might note that the wings of a flying bird are about twice as long as they are deep, or that a bird’s bill is half the length of its head.
How is the tail shaped? Is it fanned or held closed in flight? Does it tip up or down?
Does the bird have a crest, extra-long tail feathers or other standout features? For example, the Blue Footed Booby has brilliant turquoise legs and feet. You can’t miss them!
(Don’t laugh! The Blue Footed Booby and its brown-footed cousin are native to the Galapagos islands off South America, but have occasionally been sighted as far north as Vancouver Island, on Canada’s west coast.)
Observe prominent colors
Make a point of developing an orderly method for looking at the bird’s colors and markings, for example: crest (head), chin, throat, breast, belly, back, and tail. What color are these parts?
Does it have any prominent markings, like spots, wingbars or a bi-color tail?
Can you make a quick sketch of the bird’s facial markings? What color(s) are they? What color is its beak?
What does the beak look like – long and thin, curved, short/thick, even crossed?
Notice the place and habitat
Where did you see it? Note the exact place (with GPS coordinates for uber-geeks.)
What is the environment like – desert? Forest? City? Shoreline (river or ocean)? Do you recognize any of the natural trees and plants you see?
If so, write them down and try to estimate how dominant the major ones are. For example, “Mature conifer forest, 50% Douglas Fir.” (But don’t stress if you don’t happen to know that kind of thing.)
Get the behavior on paper
What is the bird doing – foraging, bathing, feeding young, carrying nest materials, grooming? Where and how is it looking for food?
What is its stance and posture? Can you sketch it?
Does the bird hold its head high or low? Tail up or down? Does it flick its tail?
Does it feed or perch in an upright position or does it hang upside down? (The white breasted nuthatch at right normally feeds upside down.)
What kinds of sounds is it making? If words come to mind, like “chicka-dee-dee-dee”, write them down.
Maybe it sounds like a toy rubber ducky or perhaps a truck or forklift in reverse (both terms have been used to describe nuthatch vocalizations.)
Birdwatching tips: Extra credit
Think you know a bird well? Challenge yourself to identify it from further away; from its calls and song, or while in flight.
Kudos to you if you can do it. You’ve really made the most of these birdwatching tips!
There’s more to bird watching than “point and blink.” When it comes to birding, the closer you look the more you’ll see. The more you see, the more your sense of wonder will grow. And it all comes from knowing how to watch birds. Hopefully our expert birdwatching tips will help!
What can you share about how to watch birds ? Let me know in the comments.
Top Image photo by Wayne Crenshaw