Five Tips for Bird Watching Beginners

Blackburnian Warbler

For many outdoor enthusiasts, a trip to the woods or waterways might include a firearm or fishing pole, along with enough extra gear to make a pack mule shudder and rethink his day job.  But for others, the same outing might require nothing more than a pair of binoculars and a guidebook – if even that.  Bird watching, or “birding” as it’s called by many of those engaged in the hobby (known as birders), is a popular and enjoyable way of getting the whole family into the great outdoors without the need of lots of equipment, a license or being saddled with the limitations of a short season.  And what better place to experience the great outdoors than Nature’s Mountain Playground?  With five parks, two state forests and more than one-third of the Monongahela National Forest calling Pocahontas County home, birders have access to the largest offering of public lands in West Virginia. 
        According to the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR), over 300 species of birds make West Virginia their home for at least part of the year; either migrating through the state or wintering here.  And Pocahontas County offers ample space and wild places to view many of these birds.  If you’ve ever been curious about birding, there’s no better place to give it a try than Nature’s Mountain Playground.  Here are five tips to help any new birder get their start.  

Gear

        Get the basics.  Unlike many other outdoor activities, birding does not require tons of gear.  For anyone wishing to get into bird watching, the amount of gear can be pared-down to two simple pieces of equipment – a birding guidebook and a pair of binoculars.  A guidebook uses either birding photography or paintings of birds along with descriptions of their appearance to aid in identifying which birds are which.  The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America by David Allen Sibley and A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America by Roger Tory Peterson are frequently recommended as good guides for beginners.  If the idea of packing a book into the field strikes you as a little “old School”, there are birding apps. available that not only help to visually identify birds by their specific markings, but also aid in audibly identifying them by their songs.  
        The second half of most bird watcher’s arsenal is a good pair of binoculars.  Birding binoculars may not always be necessary but, because many times identifying a particular bird relies on seeing small details, binoculars are considered a good investment.  There’s no need to break the bank when it comes to buying binoculars.  Something in the cost range of $100 to $200 will suffice.  When considering binoculars for birding, be sure you understand what you’re buying.  Binoculars are differentiated by two numbers with an “X” between – for instance, 7×35 or 8×42.  The first number indicates the power of magnification while the second represents the width of the front lens measured in millimeters.  Therefore, a binocular marked 7×35 would magnify a subject seven times its actual size seen through a front lens measuring thirty-five millimeters.  Once you understand this, it becomes a numbers game in deciding which binoculars would suit you best.  Purchase a binocular too high in magnification and you may have trouble keeping a steady view of a bird.  Choose a binocular with a small front lens and you may find the lens does not gather enough light to see clearly.  Most beginning birders find a binocular in the range of a 7×35 or 8×42 to be about the best fit for bird watching.  
        The only other gear consideration to keep in mind is clothing.  This is as easy as giving a little thought to what’s hanging in your closet.  There’s no need to hit the woods in full  camouflage.  Simply avoid bright colors and anything that makes unnecessary noise.  I’m looking at you Velcro!  Also, a brimmed hat of some kind can never hurt.  The shade from a hat will be easier on your eyes in bright sunshine and can help when using binoculars. 

Where to Go and When

        Get outside.  Now that you’ve bought a couple good birding books and invested in a good pair of birding binoculars, your next thought might be where’s the best place to begin bird watching.  Well, the good news is, birds are pretty much everywhere.  You could even start in your own back yard.  Don’t be surprised, however, if you find yourself eventually drawn to a larger variety of birds than your backyard offers.  Where to go then?  This is where things like habitat and season come into play.  Birds are usually found in greater numbers along the edge of habitats.  In other words, look for birds along the edge of fields, streams, back roads and woods.  With over sixty-two percent of Pocahontas County comprised of either state or federal property (totaling 349,000 acres), Nature’s Mountain Playground offers more outdoor space for birding than anywhere else in the state. 
        The season also plays a big factor in locating birds.  Late spring through early fall is when West Virginia experiences its largest assortment of birds.  Spring, in particular, is a great time for spotting many species due to their bright breeding plumage.  Don’t forget about winter.  For those of you willing to brave the cold months following the fall, the WVDNR reports there are over fifty species of birds that remain in state during the winter months.  Lastly, many birders agree, rising early in the morning yields the best results in seeing more birds, as many species are both more active and vocal in the early hours of the day.  In this case, you could say it’s the early worm that gets the bird. 

Identifying Birds  

        Do your homework.  When you begin to think about trying to identify a specific bird out of so many different species, the idea might seem a little overwhelming at first.  However, a little study and practice will go a long way.  Many new birders will be tempted to rely on the color of a bird to help identify it.  While this will work with a few birds, many species share the same colors, making identification by color alone a little tricky.  It’s best to reference your birding books for the physical markings of a particular bird you might be interested in finding.  These “field marks” include representative features like the shape of the body and bill, tail shape, wing and rump patches, eye rings and wing bars to name just a few.  This is where the combination of your birding book and binoculars will pay off.  The birding book will illustrate what features to look for and the binoculars will help you zero in on them once a bird comes into view.  You may even be fortunate enough to find a local birder to go with you and act as a birding guide, helping locate birds of interest faster and more efficiently.  

Birding Ethics

        Be ethical in the pursuit of your new pastime.  Most birders employ a code of ethics while in the field.  These are common sense ideals that many outdoor enthusiasts already put into practice and are good habits to adopt anytime you are out and about in any of the parks and forests of Nature’s Mountain Playground.  The following are just a few guidelines recommended by The American Birding Association and National Audubon Society:

  1. Respect both the birds you’ve come to watch and their habitat.
  2. Don’t disrupt nesting birds. Leave eggs and young birds alone.
  3. Don’t strike hollow trees in the hope to flush out a bird. You could cause a bird to vacate its nest leaving their young behind.
  4. While in state parks, forests and national forests, stay on marked trails.
  5. It’s never okay to trespass on private land. Request permission from the landowner.
  6. Don’t leave trash and litter in the woods and forests. What you leave behind, if consumed, could kill a bird.

Birding Groups

        Consider joining a local birding club or online birding groups.  Most locally operated birding clubs are a great means of support and aid to new birders.  If there’s no birding club in your area, an online birding group might be a suitable alternative.  Birdingpal.org is a great place to start.  Many of these online groups offer support and suggestions on birding supplies, links to resources and even birding gifts.  

        There you have it.  Five tips to get you started in the wonderful world of birding.  So, whether you’re new to birding or have been at it since before you knew which end of the binoculars to look through, there’s always more to learn; always new places to explore.  If you’re wanting to spend more time in the great outdoors, why not give birding a try in Nature’s Mountain Playground?

Baltimore Oriole