15 Practical Bird Watching Tips for 2021

image of an eagle through binoculars

You are new to birding and need actionable tips for your birding trip that’s probably happening tomorrow morning? You are in the right place.

Here are specific and actionable bird watching tips that help you to become a better birder.

1. Get the sun at your back

If you’re a pretty laid-back bird watcher, the simplest trick in the book is to make sure the sun is behind you. The sun catches their feathers and illuminates the colors, which contrasts with the background environment, allowing you to spot birds more easily.

birds in nature

On the other hand, if you’re looking at birds with the sun in front of you, all you’ll see are black silhouettes. While you can enjoy their chirping, you won’t be able to fully appreciate their plumage and color. Since bird identification is mostly done on a visual basis, you won’t be able to do this either. 

So if you’re looking for the best bird watching spot in your home, consider the position of the sun at the time you plan to find birds. If you’re going on a hike, walk in the direction away from the sun. This way, you can maximize the light for better chances of spotting birds.

2. Get the right pair of binoculars

Of all the bird watching tools available on the market, the one every birder should invest in is a pair of birding binoculars. This allows you to find a bird and identify it from a distance. If cared for properly, a good pair can last for years.

Beginners may want to start with 8x42s. The first number indicates magnification strength, while the second is the diameter of the objective lens.

man with binoculars

You may think that higher is better, but a higher magnification will mean it’s harder to hold steady, while larger objectives tend to be heavier. Ideally, birder stuff should be easy to carry, as you may be walking around for hours.

You will want a pair that has a wide field of view (FOV). This is how much space in feet you’ll be able to see if you are watching from 1000 yards away. The wider it is, the more you’ll be able to see. Some binoculars may even have fog- and water-proof features.

3. Set a target list for each birding trip

To build up excitement about your bird watching hobby, list down a set of target species that you’re hoping to see on each trip.

Say you’re planning to go at daybreak to a famous birding spot by the lake. Beforehand, learn about birds in that area that live or feed on fish. From there, pick 3-4 species that catch your eye.

Read in-depth about their habits, their appearance, and their calls. Use these bird tips to customize your plans and route, increasing the likelihood of seeing them.

woman writing into a journal

You might even plan a trip to a place specifically to see a specific bird! In birding lingo, this dedicated pursuit to see a rare avian species is called “bird twitching”.

While sitting in one place or wandering around aimlessly will still allow you to see birds, there’s a different kind of joy when you find something you’re actively looking for.

There’s no guarantee you’ll ever see it, but when you do, the feeling of accomplishment is definitely there.

4. Practice “the freezing technique”

Birds are (literally) flighty creatures, so birders need to take great care not to spook them out. Movement, noise, and light can frighten them away, so birders must minimize that in order to get a good look at them.

The freezing technique is an effective way to do this. This entails stopping every few minutes to stay still and observe your surroundings. You can even sit on a log so you’re more comfortable.

two photographers

Take out a pen and notebook so you’re at the ready to take notes as you see birds. Note that turning the pages of a field guide can scare them away.

When you freeze, make sure to scan the environment from canopy to underbush. Allow yourself a good number of minutes of staying still so birds in the vicinity will regard you as non-threatening.

Different birds have different sizes of comfort zones, but you may be surprised at how close some of them can get when they are used to your presence

5. Try pishing

Bird watching is one of the rare outdoor activities where you need to be quiet and move slowly. The idea is to put yourself in the best position to see the bird. But this is easier said than done.

You may be able to identify the best vantage point, but it may be difficult to get there quickly. Twigs, dried grass, puddles of water–all these could get in between you and the perfect view.

bird in nature

If you’re having a hard time getting to the best position to see the bird, then get the bird to change position for you. One of the simplest tips of bird watchers involves “pishing”.

These are sounds you can make that have been found to intrigue birds. When they hear it, they turn towards the sound, or even move closer to it.

There are two ways to “pish”. One is by saying the word “pish” itself. This blows air through your clenched teeth. You can also kiss the back of your hand to make a small, squeaky noise.

6. Start your bird life list

A bird life list is a checklist of all the species you have ever encountered. It can be in a journal form, a checklist form, or even saved on an online document or app.

This record is a great way to build your knowledge and remember your birding experiences. To start your life list, you should start off by learning birds in your area.

woman writing into a journal

Familiarize yourself with common avian neighbors in your area. You may be surprised to find you recognize some faces, even if you don’t know their official names until now.

Novice birdwatchers can start off in their own backyard. This helps you practice using field guides and explore online resources in the comfort of your own home.

Note the species, date, location, and any thoughts you may have. As your birders journal grows, you can look fondly back on what you’ve seen and share this with fellow bird enthusiasts. Adding a new entry is always an exciting event!

7. Get the timing right

There is no single best time for bird watching. The answer to the question “when are birds most active” depends on the kind of bird you’re looking for.

Songbirds like the robin, blackbird, and thrushes are most active at dawn because the calm and still morning air allows their calls to be heard by potential mates, particularly during the breeding season.

Foragers are also early risers because the warmth of the sun stirs sleeping insects out of the soil.

bird in nature

Vultures, eagles, and hawks are seen flying in the late morning and afternoon because they rely on sun-warmed air currents to soar through the air, rather than expending energy flapping their wings.

Going birding at night is more difficult, but seeing owls, nightjars, night herons, whip-poor-wills, and other nocturnal birds makes it worthwhile.

This means you can go birding anytime that is most convenient for you and still see birds. You can also plan birding trips according to a species that you want to see.

8. Master the four-step bird identification process

Even when you’ve got a bird looking you in the eye with perfect visibility and lighting, it’s not always easy to identify it. After all, there are so many species present in a single region.

The amount of information in bird resources can be overwhelming. To break it down to bite-sized pieces, just take note of the following: (1) habitat, (2) behavior, (3) size and shape, and (4) color and pattern.

bird in nature

Use habitat and behavior to help you in the initial stages of planning a birding trip.

Narrow the down species in the area at that time of the year, then take note of their feeding and nesting behavior so you have an idea where you’ll most likely see them.

Finally, familiarize yourself with the size, shape, colors, and patterns so you can easily spot them. You can write bullet points or one-sentence descriptions for each of the steps.

Alternatively, you can use apps that allow you to attach reference bird pictures for easy visualization.

9. Follow the birding ethics guidelines

Wild bird watching may seem unintrusive, but the mere presence of humans in the vicinity may cause changes in the birds’ behavior. This is particularly true for popular birding spots that receive many visitors throughout the day and night.

As such, all bird watching enthusiasts must strictly adhere to standard birding ethics. These are meant to minimize human impact on the birds and their natural environment.

bird photographer silouhette

Birders should not endeavor to be as unobtrusive as possible to prevent causing stress and anxiety in birds. This includes being quiet and observing birds from a respectful distance.

No traces of human activity should be left behind, including food waste, plastics, or other garbage.

Activities that alter the natural avian behavior are also not allowed, including feeding and the use of strong lights at night. This is also a sign of respect for other birders who want to observe the birds in their natural state.

10. Learn to identify birds by ear

Humans are primarily visual creatures, but there are many times when we look at the birds up in the trees and only hear their calls.

While it may be a little more difficult to do, learning to distinguish different bird sounds gives you a deeper appreciation for these amazing animals. Thankfully, modern technology has made learning about bird calls much easier and more accessible.

bird in nature

Many bird enthusiast associations and research groups such as the National Audubon Society have online audio resources and apps that you can peruse.

You can also watch videos of particular birds singing so you can easily connect the sound to a visual.

Start by listening to bird sounds of avian species common in your area. You may hear this in your backyard, or even as you go jogging. This serves as great practice as you start learning to distinguish between bird calls.

As you build your repertoire, you get better and better at differentiating birds by ear.

11. Wear the right clothes

There is a whole lot of bird watching stuff you can buy, but the first thing you should buy is appropriate birdwatching clothing.

While birds don’t experience the same range of colors that we do, they can easily spot contrast.

Brightly-colored clothes, including white ones, stand out from the environment and make your movements much more noticeable.

man in the nature

Instead, you should wear darker, earth-toned colors to blend in. Dull grey, green, and browns are good options. You should also consider the clothing material.

Don’t use fabrics that rustle or easily snag on branches. Avoid wearing accessories that could clink as you move. Outdoor clothes and footwear made for nature watching and trekking should be fine.

Don’t forget to check the weather report for your trip. You may need to bring a raincoat, warm clothes, or rubber boots for rainy and snowy weather. Bringing along a strong flashlight comes in handy in case you’re out until dark.

12. Pack a birding bag

To make your trip pleasant and safe, make sure you prepare your birding bag ahead of time. Ideally, use a compact and light backpack with pockets to keep your stuff safe while giving you mobility.

Your basic birding gear should include a pair of binoculars, a notebook and pencil, and a birding guide. It’s a good idea to bring sunscreen, a hat, and water and snacks for yourself.

woman in the shore

Check the weather report so you can prepare for rain or shine. If you’re exploring a wide and wild territory, you may want to bring a GPS device.

Take a page out of the professional bird watchers’ book and bring a camera. You don’t have to have the expensive ones with mile-long lenses either!

If you happen to be in the right place at the right time, even a simple camera can allow you to take a good bird picture. Just make sure to turn off the flash to avoid stressing the birds out.

13. Use bird hides

Bird hides are man-made structures made specifically for bird watching activities. The external appearance is designed to blend in with the environment, while still providing an unimpeded view of the outside.

People who watch from here are hidden from the birds’ view, allowing them to observe the natural behavior of the birds without scaring them off with simple movements.

It’s also a good place to seek shelter if the sun or rain impedes your birding trip.

bird watching tower

Do a quick online search for bird hides near you. This is a chill way to observe birds–you can even bring a flask of hot cocoa or coffee to sip on as you appreciate the beauty of the avian species.

Since you are not seen or heard, you can consult your field guide to your heart’s content.

But be sure to respect other birders who happen to be in the hide with you. Make sure to clean up after yourself and keep the noise to a minimum.

14. Visit birding hotspots

If you’re a beginner planning to go on a birding trip, make sure you know the birding hotspots in the area you’re visiting.

These are sites that avian species have been known to frequent, which greatly increases your chances of spotting them.

Hotspots are typically areas that provide water, food, or shelter to one or several species. Forest edges, bushy areas, lakes, and ponds are often tagged as hotspots.

birds in nature

Familiarize yourself with native fruit- or berry-bearing plants so you can easily spot them in a forest. American elderberry, maple, cherry, oak, and wild blackberries are some bird-attracting plants that you might want to stay near.

But the easiest way to find birding hotspots is by visiting the eBird.org website. Make use of the data gathered by thousands of bird enthusiasts and researchers to find the absolute best bird hotspots.

It also lists the species most commonly spotted in that area, so you can familiarize yourself with them for easy recognition during your visit.

15. Follow the crowd

A helpful birds 101 tip: The saying birds of a feather flock together definitely rings true. Birds that have the same feeding habits or type of shelter will usually congregate where the resources they need are abundant.

That’s why one of the best and simplest birding tips is to follow the crowd.

During the winter, songbirds join flocks of other avian species to minimize threat of predation and to find food more easily. There is safety in numbers, after all.

birds in nature

Following the call of a single songbird may lead you to an area rife with birds. For example, heeding the call of a chickadee may lead to a canopy teeming with titmice, woodpeckers, kinglets, and nuthatches.

So if you aren’t getting much luck on a birding trip, don’t let your spirits fall. Following a single bird’s call may be well worth the effort, leading you to a large feeding flock.

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