Birding has become one of the largest growing hobbies in the United States.
It attracts people from all professions and backgrounds, and from all income
levels. It is a healthy pursuit, allowing people to hike, breathe fresh air,
and view lovely scenery, all while chasing a quarry that can be colorful,
active, and sometimes just downright cute. You can even watch birds from the
comfort of your own armchair; just put a feeder in the front yard and settle
in. It is also a renewable resource, especially if you put up some bird houses!
There are a few things you will absolutely need if you are going to get
serious about the hobby. First in my opinion is a good bird guide to your
area. There are several, and they are all good. Most of them are perfect
pocket size. Some of the good ones are:
- Peterson's Guide. This is the old standby for birders of the older
generations, and for many years was the only game in town. It has illustrations
by the master Ornithologist Roger Torrey Peterson, and short descriptions
of each bird shown. The illustrations are generalized so that hopefully any
bird of a species, no matter what subspecies or local variation, can be identified.
It uses Peterson's method of field markings, and has helpful arrows pointing
them out on each illustration. The main drawback to this book is that the
range maps are in the back of the book, so you will have to flip through the
book to find out if a bird you have tentatively identified lives in your area.
A really fine book, and deserves a place in any Birder's arsenal. I use mine
almost every day. Two books, Eastern Birds for birds east of the Great Plains,
and Western Birds for west of the Mississippi. Get the semi hardback; the
paperback version is not at all durable.
- Golden Guide. A good book, and not at all like the children's Golden
Guides. It covers all the US, has some of the subspecies covered, and has
sonograms of the songs of each bird. I find this as useful as water wings
on a bicycle, but to each his or her own. The species descriptions are excellent,
and range maps are opposite each bird shown. The illustrations are fine, and
colors are true. Covers all of the Unites States.
- National Geographic Guide. Excellent book, showing subspecies and
regional variations with excellent illustrations. Very good species descriptions,
and the maps are opposite the illustration of each bird. Each illustration
shows the birds in their habitat, something which can be quite helpful. One
of my favorite books, though a bit large. Goes with me on most birding expeditions.
Covers all of North America.
- The Stokes Guide. This one breaks with tradition, using photographs,
but the photos are high quality and close up, and are useful for comparison
with a living bird. Has very good species descriptions with a bit more detailed
description of nesting habits, food preferences, and habitat. Also has
Christmas Bird Count and other data telling whether the bird is increasing,
decreasing, or holding its own in its range. I use this book when searching
for a difficult bird, as it gives habitat data and nesting preferences. Covers
the USA and Canada. Maps are opposite the photos.
- Audubon's Guide, 2 books, East and West. I normally wouldn't mention
this book, as the photos are not very useful (to me, at least), the birds
are arranged by habitat and not with their relatives as in other books, and
there are no range maps, just generalized descriptions. The true strength
of this book lies in the species descriptions, which are truly fine. Some
of them even wax poetic. Find a copy and check out the species description
of the Wood Thrush.
- Birder's Handbook. Absolutely indispensable for any serious birder,
it has wonderful species descriptions with bunches of data, and essays about
all aspects of bird life. Each species is cross indexed with Golden, Peterson's
and National Geographic guides so they can be looked up in them for a picture
of the bird (this book has no pictures). A large book, and I leave mine at
home, using it for reference.
The next tool is optics, and the old axiom holds true: buy what you can
afford. Truly good optics can cost a small fortune, and are made by companies
like Nikon, Canon and Swarovsky. The last mentioned is very popular, and
all of them can start at $400 US and go up from there. Mid range is good,
from companies like Bausch and Lomb, Bushnell and others. Some of these can
range from $100 US and go up to about $600. All will work just fine. If you
are just getting into it, and don't want to spend so much, look in the local
Mart store. I bought a pair of binoculars at Wal-Mart for $16 US, and use
them all the time. If I drop them, (and I dropped a $100 pair a while back),
there is little loss, since dropping a pair of bins ruins them. These $16
pair work fine, and I can ID birds quite nicely with them, so don't be afraid
to start out with inexpensive equipment and go from there. Remember that some of the more expensive optics have lifetime warranties that coverall but the utmost brutality: you get what you pay for. A few things to
- Ease of focus. Some binos are difficult to use due to stiffness of
the focus wheel, and difficulty in getting both sides focussed to your eyes.
Always try out the pair you are getting ready to buy, not the pair on display.
Open the box if you have to. Check for the ability of the barrels to spread
apart to your individual pupil spacing. Look through them in the store, and,
if possible, check the view out a window. I have tried the glasses that "focus
automatically", and they don't. They rely on the eye's focus mechanism, and
if you are over 40 years old, they won't work too well.
- Closeness of focus. Sometimes a bird you have been looking for for
a long time can be in the bushes 20 feet away, and you need to be able to
get a close look to determine field marks. This happened to me once on a
bird I had been looking for (and still am looking for) and my glasses would
not focus that close. I lost the bird, and later dropped the glasses. Must
be a point somewhere. You need a pair that will focus to 10 feet (about 3
meters). These will also be good for butterfly and dragonfly watching.
- Power. "More power" the guy on the home improvement show says, but
it ain't necessarily so. Don't get anything less than 7x, but I wouldn't
go over 10x. Past 10x the natural shakiness of the human body makes the image
vibrate and jump around. This is not conducive to identifying a bird. I have
a nice pair of variables at 7 to 15x, and they do well, just remember that
when speed counts, playing with the zoom feature will cause you problems.
My pair (actually my wife's) need to be refocussed after zooming, and many
times when I get to 15x and focussed, the bird is gone. More expensive glasses
hold their focus through zoom, but you pay dearly for that feature. Most
birders pick the best pair of glasses they can afford at 8 or 10x.
- Portability. Some binos are huge. This gives them a good field of view
at 1000 yards (about 300 or so meters), but after a day in the field, they
will become an Albatross around your neck that you can't check off on your
life list. If most of your viewing will be from a car or kitchen window,
by all means get them. If you are going to be walking, get the best features
you can afford in the lightest pair available. The field of view won't be
that great, but you are looking at a small bird, not players on a football
field. These glasses with the wide field of view are excellent for sporting
events, less so for birding.
- Scopes. No, not the Monkey trial. Telescopes. If you are going to be
looking for birds on the sea shore, on lakes or large rivers, looking for
perched hawks or owls, stuff like that, get a scope. Most people look for
a 40x, some go with a 20x. My wife got me a scope that has zoom from 15 to
60x. I love it, though it may not be the best optics in the world. It has
the same trouble all mid price range zooms have, that of not holding focus
over the range of power, and at 60x on a cloudy day it is DARK, but on stationary
ducks, shorebirds or raptors, it is not usually a problem. Don't ever buy
a cheap scope from the sporting goods counter in a department or discount
store; you will be disappointed. A scope will be your biggest investment
in the birder's arsenal, probably starting on the low end at about $300 US
and clmbing quickly from there. It is not at all unusual to see a birder
drop $3000 US on a fixed focus scope, though it might have eyepieces that
can be changed to allow for different viewing power.
You are well supplied and outfitted, now what? You will likely want to start
a life list. Most bird handbooks have a list of all birds in the region,
and little boxes to check them off. I use my Peterson's for this, as all
the birds are listed in the front of the book, and I can keep track of what
I have seen. You might also want to look for birding groups in your area.
Some old timers are happy to take a fledgeling under their wing, but be warned;
some life long birders are difficult to be around, and have little time for
the neophyte. It has become a way of life for them, and anything else is
foolishness. You can hang around folks like this and learn from them, just
be warned. A little note; I enjoy newbies, and look at everything out
there, not just birds. I may not be the best birder out there, but I have
a good time.
Another note here, and it is good for the experienced as well as the fledgeling.
When you see a bird, and think you have found something rare or out of its
range, CHECK YOUR ID AGAIN and again and again. It most likely isn't what
you think it is. Get someone with experience and bring them to the bird if
it is still there. Look at everything in the book that looks like it and
is common in your area. Most likely you will find it is really a common bird
after all. If it is indeed rare, you will have a small measure of fame. If
not, and you proclaimed it as a rare one, you will look like a fool, and
no one will listen to you after that. I was listening to a radio call in
show about birding here in the mountains of Western North Carolina. The host
had a couple of local experts fielding the calls and a lady was saying she
saw Red Cockaded Woodpeckers in her back yard all the time. You heard
utter silence from the experts, and they tried to tell her it just wasn't
probable, that they were very site specific (old growth Longleaf Pine forest
with hardwood undergrowth, something NOT found in the mountains of NC) They
tried to tell her they were likely Downy's or Hairy's, but to no avail. I
think she said she saw Ivory Bills too.... (Pileateds are common here.)
When looking at a bird, a good rule is to really really look at it. I never get the bird guide out until the bird has flown. In most cases I can ID it from memory, because I have tried to get in my mind as many field marks (wing bars, flash patches: don't worry about these terms, as they are described in the first few pages of any good birding handbook) as possible so that when I get the book out, I have a good idea in my mind of the bird's appearance.
So there it is. Get your bird guide and binoculars, go out and bird, and
above all, enjoy it!