How to Get Started in Birding

The more time you spend in the great outdoors, the more wildlife you'll encounter. You'll be relaxing at the campground, listening to the creek, watching deer graze in a nearby meadow when a small bird with a bright blue mohawk flies overhead. It was so quick you didn't get a great look, but that blue will stand out in your memory until you get home to identify it on the Internet.

Later, a large bird of prey with a three-foot wingspan and a red tail soars overhead. Suddenly you want to learn more about birding. You want to identify birds, and learn about their habitat and migration patterns. You want to sing their song and know where to find them, but you don't know how.

Birding is a great way to engage with wildlife while camping. And with the vast number of species, there's always something new to learn.

There are a few simple things you can do to get started with bird watching.

First, buy a birding guide or field book. National Geographic's Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a fantastic book for beginners. Also check with the ranger station in your area or destination for pamphlets, and look for local field guides. Any field book will help you know what to look for, help you begin to identify birds, and provide additional information about what you're looking at.

Binoculars for Bird Watchers

Now that you have the information and field guide to help you identify the birds, you'll want to get a closer look. Binoculars come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and price points. Depending on your level of interest, find a pair that will suit your needs without breaking the bank.

Consider is the intended use of the binoculars: If you plan to go on extended bird watching hikes, you might opt for a lighter, more portable pair. Other things to consider are climate and time of day. suggests that beginners can spend between $100 and $200 dollars on their first pair and then upgrade as your interest grows and evolves.

Nikon makes a pair called the Trailblazer (8x25) that is lightweight, waterproof and affordable. You can find them for about $90 online or at REI. If you plan to take them on extended hikes, upgrade the strap to one that takes the pressure off your neck. Something like the Vortex Binocular Harness can be found for about $20.

The Secret to Bird Watching

Most of the time, you'll hear a bird before you see it, and sometimes you may not see it at all.

There are a number of online resources and CDs that will help you learn birdcalls but apps are an increasingly popular tool for birders. iBird is toted as "the world's best selling field guide app," and for good reason: the latest version, the iBird Explorer Pro, can identify a bird call if you hold your phone to the noise. Plus, it takes the guesswork out of identification. Enter details about your location, the shape and size of the bird, and the habitat, iBird can help you narrow down the possibilities.

In the Field

Check with the local ranger station or naturalist for birding tours when you arrive at your birding destination or campground. Often these are free tours that you can sign up for, or possibly there are more extensive birding tours that you may join.

Look for local bird clubs in your area as well. If you go birding with a group, and hopefully with an educated leader, you'll learn more quickly and have a group to share your enthusiasm with.

To get more serious about birding, buy a journal and take notes. After watching the bird, write down a few observations like:

  • General size and shape of the bird
  • Facial and beak characteristics
  • Distinctive colors and markings
  • Wing shape and size
  • Flight patterns

You'll also want to take note of the location, habitat and, of course, the bird's call.

Plan your next camping trip to a bird destination and time it with migratory patterns. A little bit of research, studying and planning for your next birding tour can help maximize your knowledge and the experience.

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