Birdwatching, whether from the kitchen window or out in the field, is enjoyed by millions of people around the world. But what is it about watching birds in the wild that we find so interesting?

For some it’s just that, a good excuse to go out into the wild. For others, it’s the be-all and end-all. And, within these extremes, you can find all manner of profiles: from ecologists and zoologists to photographers and writers.

Bird watchers are nature’s detectives. They’re silent explorers and careful observers.

They are especially relevant this year, as 2018 is the year of the bird. So, what better reason to get out there and find your inner ornithologist? Just before you do that though, read on to the end of the article for some indispensable bird-watching tips!

What do I need to get started?

The short answer is ‘not much’. In its most basic form, birdwatching is a wonderfully flexible passtime. You’ll be surprised how many species of bird you’ll come across just by keeping your eyes peeled and ears open.

However, you’re simply not going to get close enough to identify certain species. So, the most important investment you’ll need to make is on a set of binoculars.

The good news is that this the one and only essential tool for birdwatching. The bad news is a decent set doesn’t come cheap!

Here’s a comprehensive guide to binoculars by the National Audubon Society.

Binoculars and Bird Guide. By 4thebirds |
Binoculars and Bird Guide. By 4thebirds |


Where can I go birdwatching?

If you have your own garden, wild urban space or even just a window that overlooks a park, it’s enough to make a start. Take note of the different species, no matter how common they might be.

You don’t have to go far to see some really interesting species. On a personal note, I’ll never forget my delight when I saw a greater spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) fly past my grandmother’s dining room window. A beautiful, unmistakable flash of red, white and black!

Once you’ve exhausted your local area, it’s time to get out into the field. Go to your nearest national park or nature reserve, anywhere free from the noises of traffic and industry, which mask the sounds of nature.

Remember, different habitats attract different species, so try to vary your bird-watching locations. Which wildlife hotspots do you have nearby? Forests, moorlands, wetlands, beaches?

Flying great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). By Tobyphotos |
Flying great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major). By Tobyphotos |

5 bird-watching basics

1) Read up

Before you head out on a bird-watching trip, it’s always good to go with an idea of what you might find. Look for information about your local flora and fauna.

Make a list of species that you’d like to see and familiarise yourself with them. Their colour, size, shape and behaviour are all important details to find out about.

All About Birds is a great place to begin your search.

2) Dress appropriately

A good birdwatcher goes unnoticed. So, besides staying as quiet and as still as possible, you need to think about your clothing. Avoid wearing bright colours or clothes that rustle.

Also, bear in mind that if you’re out for most of the day, the weather could change. Take extra clothes for all possible conditions.

3) Pick your moment

You’ve chosen your spot and you’re dressed the part in neutral colours. Now you need to think about timing.

Unless you’re looking for birds that engage in sunning (e.g. robins, blackbirds and cormorants), the best time for birdwatching is the early morning.

This period, around sunrise, is when many bird species sing most intensively, culminating in a dawn chorus.

A Darter and a Cormorant sunbathing on a dead tree above the reeds and water. By Marie-Anne AbersonM |
A Darter and a Cormorant sunbathing on a dead tree above the reeds and water. By Marie-Anne AbersonM |

4) Learn to listen

You’re much more likely to hear a bird before you see it. In fact, if you can recognise its song, you’ll be able to identify it without seeing it at all.

Don’t worry if you don’t have an experienced birder to teach you. There are plenty of online resources for you to learn from.

Of course, what you hear may not actually be a bird’s song. Listen out for other audio cues, such as pecking, scratching or flapping.

5) Keep your distance

When you have a bird in your ‘sights’, it’s easy to get excited and try to get as close as you can. If a bird that you’re watching flies away, it’s probably because it wants to keep a safe distance.

You need to make sure we respect that distance. There’s no point in chasing birds; it’s not a race you’re ever going to win! Besides that, it’s likely to cause unnecessary stress to the bird.

Special care should be taken if you come across a bird that’s nesting, as any disturbance could cause the bird to abandon its nest.

That’s it, you’re all ready for your first birdwatching session. Pack up your binoculars, get out there and let us know how it goes!

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James is a freelance language professional based in Barcelona. Besides writing articles for Zoo Portraits, he writes about education and teaches English as a foreign language in businesses, universities and other institutions around the city.



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