I’m all about improving my birding skills, but sometimes it feels like I’m just treading water. There is just so much to learn about birds it takes years to feel like you’re building any skills. Just when you think you’ve come to terms with the species in your area, then migration starts or you travel somewhere else and it’s like heading back to square one. Here are a few birding tips I’ve learned that help the process.
Birding Tip #1: Get a Birding App
Downloading a birding app to your phone means you can verify what you’re seeing in the field without having to bring a guidebook with you. Plus you can do it stealthily if you don’t want others to see you are looking something up!
Most apps contain a feature where you can narrow down which bird you’ve seen by its characteristics (size, colour, shape etc.). This can be indispensable when you’re starting out or if you need a refresher! They also include bird calls, so if you were able to hear the bird then you can verify it against the sound clip on the app.
I’m currently using Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab of Ornithology which has a great feature where you upload any bird photograph and it will id it for you (with surprising accuracy!). If you’re curious about this feature, take the bird id quiz I put together where you can compare your score against the app!
If I’m travelling to another country then I’ll download the specific bird app for that area onto my phone. You can also find separate apps for different bird families which can be helpful. More about that in tip#2.
Birding Tip #2: Focus on One Bird Family
Of course the ultimate goal is to be able to quickly and easily identify any bird that you see. But the reality is that it’s easier and more productive if you focus on one family of birds. Over the last year during migration I’ve really been focusing on warblers. Something about how small and beautiful they are, how challenging they can be to see and photograph and the large distances they travel has me hooked!
This fall I downloaded The Warbler Guide – Princeton University Press on my iPhone which has this great feature where you can view warblers in 3D – perfect for analyzing those small details on any part of the bird. I’ve also dedicated most of my birding time during spring and fall migration to getting out there and trying to see as many warblers as possible.
The next target for me is shorebirds. I find them ridiculously challenging to identify!
Birding Tip #3: Go Out with a Local Bird Guide
Once you’ve chosen your “target” family then it can be really helpful to go out with a bird expert in your local area. This way you can be sure of what you’re seeing and if you take photographs of the birds, you can use them as a reference point to look back on. Sometimes it’s really nice to just be told what you’re seeing! If your guide is good they will give you identification tips and even show you diagrams and photographs so that you can id the birds on your own.
Birding Tip #4: Take Photos of Birds
Photographing birds is a total game changer for bird identification. Gone are the days where you have to remember the exact field marks you saw and then cross reference them with a bird guide when you get home. Now you can easily take photos in the field and even compare them with your birding app in the moment to get an id.
If you’re just starting out with bird photography then I highly recommend getting a superzoom camera like the Canon SX50. It’s so lightweight and easy to bring along with your binoculars and you will be surprised how good your pictures are!
Birding Tip #5: Join a Birding Facebook Group
A big perk of social media is that you can connect with other birders in your area. Often enough others are more than willing to help you with your identification challenges. You can also meet other people who are the same level as you who may want to go birding. Even looking at the birds other people post can be a learning opportunity!
One caveat is before you start posting all your “mystery” birds and asking others to identify them for you, I suggest you make an effort to figure out what the bird is yourself first. People will be more willing to help if you take a stab at identifying the bird yourself and then ask others to confirm.
Birding Tip #6: Use eBird
If you don’t know about it already, eBird is a huge international scientific bird database where birders can post the birds they’ve seen at specific locations. In short, it is an awesome tool for improving your birding skills because you look up what others have seen at a location. This is a great way to know what birds you can expect and as a verification check for a bird you have seen.
You can also look up species maps for birds you’re hoping to see. For example, last winter I was obsessed with seeing Evening Grosbeaks. I continually checked the eBird species map to find out where others had been seeing them. Unfortunately not many were seen in Ottawa and I didn’t have the chance to go further afield to where they were being seen. Next winter I will see one!
They’ve also just added a feature where you can create a public profile page that highlights your bird sightings and pictures. You can also share your bird lists to Facebook or to other eBird users.
What birding advice do you have that might benefit others? Post in the comments below ↓