Basic Birdwatching

Carroll Holland

Birdwatching is a good hobby. A morning walk is as good as it gets, in both healthy exercise and enjoying nature. Second, this can be either a time of solitude for yourself, or a social activity with family or friends. It also seems to satisfy a hunger or quest for knowledge, and for some, the spirit of competition.

There are three basic tools required to begin birding.  First, you need a good pair of binoculars. You can’t identify a lot of birds without binoculars and you will be amazed at how much difference they will make.

You always want to buy the best binocular you can afford. TRY BEFORE YOU BUY. I bought my wife a new pair of Pentax 8x40 binoculars and they were always on the closet shelf; she didn’t like the weight! Buy the best you can afford, but any pair is better than no pair. You should be comfortable with weight and size, make sure they have close focus and a wide-angle field of view, and do not buy “ZOOM.” Again, TRY BEFORE YOU BUY!

Birders need binoculars with “Close Focus” adjustment. This means that you can focus on an object close to you; this varies between 4.5’ to 50’. You want something less than 10’ if possible. You also want a wide field of view. This is usually given in so many feet at a 1000 yards; the important part is that the wide field of view is good when you are in close focus, so you don’t lose sight of the bird hopping around in the bush beside you.

Binoculars are labeled by their power and the diameter of the objective lens; for example, 7X35. 7 or 8 power is best, though some can hold the 10 power steady. The second figure is the diameter of the objective lens. The wider the objective lens, the more light it gathers. There are two types of binoculars, the Porro-Prism and the Roof Prism. The Roof Prism is the better binocular; the Porro Prism is the best buy for cheaper binoculars. Binoculars are very sensitive to being dropped, they get out of alignment, and the way you will know is that you will end up with a headache. Some of the binocular are armored and/or waterproofed. Some new binoculars come with a narrow neck strap; wear this if you want a sore neck. I buy a wide camera strap or one of the new harness that suspend the weight from the shoulders.

There are several other things to be considered concerning binoculars. The term relative brightness is determined by dividing the objective lens diameter by the power. Thus, a 7x35 has a relative brightness of 5. The “light transmission capability” of the binocular varies with the square of the objective lens diameter. Thus, a 7x35 has a LTC. figure of 1225 while a 6x20 has a LTC.figure of 400. So a larger objective lens is important when the light levels are low, such as dawn or dusk. Make sure the lens are MULTI-COATED. It will make all the difference in the world as to colors and good images. It will make the difference between 95% versus 50% Light Transmission Capability.

The third factor to be considered is the age of the birder!! The exit pupil of the binoculars can be between 2 millimeters in bright daylight and up to 7 millimeters in low light conditions. After the age of 50, many older people’s pupils won’t dialate more than 5 mm, so a large objective lens with the greater weight is not necessarily a benefit. However, you want as large an exit pupil lens as possible

The new binoculars have pop-up eyecups that pull out and older ones have rubber cups that fold down. If you wear glasses, you fold down the rubber eyecups or push the pop-ups in; otherwise, the pop-ups are pulled out or the rubber ones are left up. Also, if you wear glasses, make sure that the binoculars have at least 14mm “eye relief.” When you wear glasses, do not remove them, but put the eyecups against your glasses to help steady you. Now, when you look thru a pair of binoculars, you want to see only ONE circle, not two parts of circles. This means that the binoculars must move enough so that your eyes can see one circle. This is called the Inter-Pupilary distance. This is especially important if a child might want to use your binoculars, as they must close enough for his eyes to see a single circle.

Binoculars have a center focus adjustment knob; do NOT get the ones that have a flat lever. Now you are going to make what is called the “Diopter Adjustment.” Put a lens cap on the right objective lens, and using the left eye, focus on some object at a distance of about 25’, such as a sign where the letters can be focused nice and sharp. Once you have this adjusted, you will not adjust the center focus knob again. The right eye cap is removed and put on the left side. The right eyepiece is adjustable, rotates, and is usually marked with + or – indicators, while the binocular body has a center mark indicator. Focusing on the sign again, rotate the eyepiece, so that your view is again in sharp focus. Note where the diopter mark is in relation to the center mark. This adjustment is one that you will use at all times; if you change your prescription glasses, you might need to readjust. Do not try to do this by squinting instead of using a lens cap; it doesn’t work.

Now, you have your binoculars adjusted, but how do you use them. There are two methods that are used to focus on an object. The first method, called the Landscape Method, is to find an object near your target and use that to get on it. For instance, find a telephone pole, go up until you get to the wires and the follow the wire across until you have the bird. Or, focus on the tree trunk, go up to the branch and follow it out to find your bird. A better method, called the ZEN Method, was the method used by the famous Japanese archers of ancient times. Find your target, turn your body square to it, the move your head (not your eyes) until you are looking directly at the bird. Now, without moving your head, bring your binoculars up to your eyes and you will usually have the bird in view.

You must remember that most birds generally don’t sit still long enough for you to take your time in looking at them. If you see a bird, and then look down at your binoculars and the bird moves, you won’t see where it went and be able to keep track of it. So just bring your binoculars up to your eyes using the Zen method and you will become successful. This is also where a wide field-of-view is important.

Second, you need a Field Guide. A Field Guide is a book showing all the birds of a particular area. It is authored and illustrated by experts and it is like having an experienced birder with you. There a number of guides for the U.S. at various prices but usually less than $20.00. I recommend the National Geographic Society Field Guide as it covers the U.S. in one volume, it is accurate, and the maps are beside the drawings. Remember that to identify a bird, you need to know the correct field marks, and photographic guides do not always show what you need to see. Field Guide birds are arranged in Taxonomic or evolutionary order. Beginners take a while to learn how to navigate this type of information. However, remember that water birds (including shorebirds and gulls) are primitive birds as are also the birds of prey, so they are located in the first half of the book. The last half of the book is a listing of perching birds, including warblers and finches, which are usually smaller birds.

The first thing to do is to read the introduction. This is VERY important. It explains how the information is presented You will also learn the topography (names of parts) of a bird, which you will use when you write down a description in your records. It will explain how to use the maps, and gives an explanation of the colors used.

Birds are grouped by family and the beginning of each family has a short description. Birds of similar size and shape are grouped on the same page for comparison purposes. There is a written description of the bird and also a range map showing where the bird will be found in the U.S. The drawings show plumages of the birds and also list their size. Florida birders must remember that many birds are here only during the winter, and will not be in breeding plumages; they must study the winter plumages for many birds to be able to identify them.

The U.S. has about 900 species of birds and with different plumages, there is quite a lot to learn. However, if you look at the range maps, you will see that beginners don’t have to worry about too many. Also note which are here in winter and what their plumage looks like. Still, there are several hundred which you may see. So how do you get started. I have always taught the simplest way to learn the birds is to study one page at a time. The easiest way is to leave the Field Guide in the bathroom, and every time you sit down on the “pot,” you study a page. In six months you will be an expert.

Third, you need to keep records. This can be done with a checklist, notebook, a tape recorder, or a computer. You need to keep a record of what birds you see. At first, you wouldn’t have trouble keeping track of all that you see, but as time goes by, you might want a record to refresh your memory on what you have or haven’t seen. There are preprinted notebooks listing all the U.S. birds in a format made especially for beginners. There are also computer programs with this type of information. Many locations have checklists which you can use, and which tell you what you might expect to see. Most people keep a “Life List,” what is a record of all birds you have ever seen.

Since you are a beginner, you will have trouble at first of putting down what you see. One problem is that you look at a bird, don’t recognize it, and start studying the field marks. The bird moves or leaves and you are not sure what you saw. I learned that when I am looking to identify a bird, I say aloud what I am seeing, so I find it easier to remember. For instance, “a warbler bill, wing bars, chest streaking,” and the bird is gone. You will probably remember the colors without a problem, but with this verbal description, you have a 30-warbler list down to about 9 possibles. I personally have a small audio tape recorder in my shirt pocket with a lapel mike, and whenever I see a bird, I turn on the recorder and start talking, without having to take my binoculars down to write a note.

At first glance, you see the bird’s size, shape and colors. When you see a bird, the first thing you look at is the bill. This is primary family identification. If you don’t see the bill, it is sometimes very difficult to identify your bird. Next are the wings; in addition to shape, you want to notice if there are any wingbars. Then check the tail; is it long or short, rounded, forked, or square? Does it have a tail band or side feathers that are of different color? Does it flick it’s tail up and down or sideways? Last are the legs; what is the color and are they long or short? Size of a bird in a tree is fairly easy to judge, as you have the leaves to compare to it, but in the sky, size is difficult unless you have another bird nearby to compare with. Also, habitat should help your identification.

Where to you find birds? Mostly everywhere. Some birds are most active at dawn or dusk, some in early morning, and some at any time of day. Water birds (ducks and shorebirds) are around most of the time. So use the early morning and evening for land birds and the middle of the day for water birds. An eco-tone (a boundary between two different habitats) is a good place; a railroad track down a forest cut, for instance. Also, many birds you wish to see occur only during migration, so a special time of the year is when you need to look for them.

The more you bird, the easier it will become to identify them. Join the Audubon Field Trips or go with bird clubs, and experts will help you. There is a book by Allan Cruickshank titled How to Know the Birds, which gives tips on how to tell various birds from each other. Good birding etiquette requires quiet, so others can see what you have seen. Don’t get ahead of the leader; he might want to show a bird up ahead that you could scare away. Don’t talk loudly or at all; birds here quite well. Join the Indian River Audubon Society or the American Birding Association, and you will meet quite a few birders. ABA has a catalog with books, optics, audio tapes, video tapes, and CD-ROMs which are excellent, and ABA gives discounts. Going to festivals and bird conventions will also have many seminars which are very instructive.

The more you bird, the easier it will be to identify that rarity because you are familiar with the usual ones.