drawing of birding equipment

Introduction to Bird Watching Basics 
Part Two: Identifying Birds

Part One:  The Equipment

The Equipment | Binoculars | Practicing With Your New Binoculars | Field Guides | Field Guide Organization

The Equipment

Let's start with the easiest part of birding, which is deciding what equipment you need. There are only two absolute essentials: binoculars and a field guide. Pretty simple right? This is one more reason to like birding - it is inexpensive. In fact, birding is one of the least expensive hobbies a person can undertake. There are no monthly dues, no rackets to string, no nets to tie up, no golf clubs to buy, no green fees to pay or balls to lose. Binoculars of adequate quality can be purchased for around 100 dollars, a good field guide is around 20 dollars, and with these supplies you are well on your way.

Binoculars

Binoculars are a birder's eyes on the world, and they can greatly affect the quality of a bird outing. Good binoculars make for good birding, while bad binoculars can lead to missed birds and severe headaches induced by blurred images, double vision and eye strain. Binoculars come in many different shapes and forms and carry such descriptions as "roof prism," "close focus," "armor coated," etc. At the outset, you don't need to spend too much time deciphering this arcane lexicon. If you really get hooked on birding, you can learn more about binoculars later and trade in for a better pair. There are a few simple rules to consider and questions to ask when purchasing your first binoculars.

  1. Make sure the power (or magnification) is at least 7-power. The power is the first number given in the numerical notation that describes binoculars. For example, a "7 X 35" pair of "glasses" will make objects appear as if they are seven times as close as they actually are. Seven-power binoculars are about the minimum needed to see birds well. Binoculars 10-power or stronger can be difficult for some birders to hold steady.
  2. Make sure that the second number ("40" for an "8 X 40" pair of glasses) is four to five times as large as the power (e.g., "8 X 40," "10 X 42," etc.). This second number describes the diameter, in millimeters, of the large lens that faces the object of interest - the "objective" lens. The larger this lens is, the greater the amount of light the binoculars gather and thus the easier it will be to see characteristics in dim light or on a dull-colored bird. Larger lenses are heavier, however.
  3. Are the binoculars too heavy for you to carry and use for at least two hours straight? Don't end up with a hunchback because your binoculars act like a yoke.
  4. Can you flex the barrels of the binoculars fairly easily? To test to see if they are too flexible, spread the barrels out as far as possible and then hold onto only one of the barrels. Does the free barrel slip or fall from the spread position? It shouldn't.
  5. When held a foot away, do the large objective lenses reflect a bluish/greenish or purplish tinge? If they do, the lenses are color-coated (a good thing). This coating reduces internal glare in the binoculars and increases the amount of light that actually reaches your eyes. Check the lenses to make sure the coatings are free of any blotches or scrapes.
  6. Can you bring the barrels of the binoculars close enough together so that the image you see merges into a single, clear image within a single, perfect circle? If the image isn't singular or clear, the binoculars may be out of alignment or the eyepieces may not come close enough together to accommodate your eyes. These two problems may lead to eye strain and severe headaches. Make sure any pair of optics you buy "fits" your face.
  7. Do you wear eyeglasses or sunglasses? If you do, your binoculars should have rubber eye cups that twist up and down or fold back. This allows you to put your eyeglasses up closer to the eyepieces of your binoculars and gives you a much larger field of view.
  8. Do the binoculars produce a clear image of an object only 15 feet away? Some binoculars do not focus on objects this close, so you may miss the sparrow or warbler that skulks in a nearby bush.
  9. Look at a sign with large lettering. Do the letters close to the edge of the field of view appear as precise and well-formed as the letters in the center of the field of view? Image distortion towards the edge of binoculars is common in bad binoculars - like looking through a fish-eye lens. Look for a pair that has minimal distortion.
  10. When you focus on a license plate or small sign two blocks away, are the letters and numbers clear? They should be.

Practicing with your new binoculars

Before using your binoculars, it is important to adjust them so they compensate for the differing strengths of your two eyes. Take a lens cap and cover up the right objective lens with it. Then look through the left lens and focus on an object 30 feet away using the main focusing knob located between the two barrels of your binoculars.

Once you have focused on the object, move the lens cap from the right lens to the left lens. Look through the right lens at the same object (but don't touch the main focusing knob!). If the image you see is not as clear as it looked through the left lens, adjust it using the focusing ring (diopter) located on the right eyepiece or on the center column of your binoculars. Take note of where you have set the focus on the right eyepiece or center column. Now your binoculars are adjusted to your eyes and are ready for action.

Next, spend some time developing the hand-eye coordination you'll need to spot birds quickly. Most birding is definitely not like watching football. With birding there's much more action - everything is happening at 1/100 the scale and moves 100 times as quickly over an unlimited expanse of space. It takes time for beginning birders to get the knack of spotting birds with their binoculars. The secret is to learn to spot a bird with the naked eye and then lift the binoculars up to your eyes without ever taking your eyes off the bird.

I usually recommend that the fledgling birder find a comfortable spot at a local park and spend time just practicing spotting objects with their binoculars. Initially, set the focus lever on the binoculars so that an object approximately 30 feet away is in clear view. This is a good average distance from which you can learn to focus the binoculars in and out. Next, begin to look for birds with your naked eyes and then find them with your binoculars. Simply follow the bird around for a while, lowering and lifting your binoculars every so often. Don't worry about identifying birds yet. Just watch what they are doing. Soon, you'll be able to spot and focus like a pro.

Field Guides

There has been a veritable explosion in the number of field guides published about birds over the last few years. Until the late 1960s, the guide most widely used was Roger Tory Peterson's original The Birds of Eastern North America, the first field guide of its kind produced. This book literally made birding a popular activity by making accurate identifications of birds possible. Today, however, there are specific field guides available for certain regions of the country (most states now have their own field guide) as well as for specific groups of birds, such as hawks, gulls, shorebirds, ducks and others. These specialized books may eventually make their way into the library of a birding enthusiast. Still, beginners need only consider the comprehensive guides when choosing their first field guide.

When purchasing your first guide, it is best to start with one that displays paintings of birds rather than photographs. Paintings allow artists to include all distinguishing features (called "field marks") that help to identify a bird in each illustration. Often, photographs do not show all these marks due to lighting or positioning of the bird. Photographic guides can be a valuable companion reference, however, especially when studying the details of a bird's shape. Of the many comprehensive guides available, here are four of the most popular.

Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Sixth Edition, 2010. Roger Tory Peterson
The fully updated "Peterson guide" offers a clarity and consistency hard to find elsewhere. This is because nearly all the paintings in the guide were drawn by Roger Tory Peterson rather than several different artists as in other guides. In addition, the guide is limited to birds found in the eastern and central United States, which means Floridians do not have to sort through birds that do not occur here very often. Peterson also uses a simple, effective method of highlighting the field marks of different birds by using arrows to point to them. These simple, visual indications of key features help save valuable identification time in the field. A drawback in previous editions was that range maps describing where each species of bird occurs were grouped at the back, rather than placing each map beside the bird's picture and description. In this edition, however, small "thumbnail" range maps are included on the same page with each species' description (fear not, larger range maps are still found in the back.) A "combined" eastern and western edition (2008) is also available.

Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America. 2005. Kenn Kaufman
The Kaufman guide is among the most popular of the photographic guides today. Digitally enhanced images (with distracting backgrounds removed) show identification characteristics that are sometimes not apparent in other field guides using photographs. The guide is organized by bird family groupings instead of by strict taxonomic classification ("phylogenetic" order - discussed later in this booklet). This feature will appeal to beginners but may confuse those used to traditional field guide organization. The text contains clear descriptions on how to identify each bird plus interesting life history information.

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Fifth Edition, 2006. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer
This popular field guide is among the most recently revised guides and includes the current common names of all North American bird species. The National Geographic guide also contains more illustrations and gives better descriptions of the variation that certain birds exhibit in their color patterning. For example, Red-shouldered Hawks in Florida generally are a lighter color than Red-shouldered Hawks in other parts of the country. Most field guides mention this, but drawings in the National Geographic guide actually show this type of variation. For some species, there may be as many as five illustrations showing the coloration differences of juvenile birds, subadult birds, males versus females, as well as differences that occur across broad geographic regions. This additional information can help to settle some tricky identification problems, but may also overwhelm beginning birders with more information than is needed to identify the common birds around their neighborhood. Separate eastern and western editions (both published in 2008) are now available.

The Sibley Guide to Birds. First Edition, 2000. David Allen Sibley
This landmark guide is a relative newcomer compared to other illustrated guides discussed here. However, Sibley's exceptional, high-quality paintings cover virtually all birds found in the U.S. and Canada. If you travel out west this can be a benefit - you won't have to purchase another field guide. Like the National Geographic guide, it features multiple illustrations which cover the variations in plumage across a species' range and between sexes and age classes. The large size of this book makes it cumbersome to carry in the field. However, smaller and separate eastern and western versions of the guide (both updated in 2003) are available and are much more portable.

A few other guides you may find helpful are:

  • All the Birds of North America. Second Edition, 2002. Jack L. Griggs
  • National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America. First Edition, 2008. Jon L. Dunn and Jonathan Alderfer
  • Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America. First Edition, 2008. Roger Tory Peterson
  • The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. First Edition, 2003. Daved Allen Sibley
  • Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America. First Edition, 2008. Ted Floyd
  • Stokes Field Guide to Birds: Eastern Region. First Edition, 1996. Donald & Lillian Stokes

Once you have selected your field guide, do not - repeat, do not - immediately run off looking for birds, because what you'll actually find instead of birds is trouble and frustration. Many a field guide has spent more time collecting dust than helping to identify birds because the owner didn't learn how to use the guide. Sit down with your field guide when you first get it and read through the complete introduction. Next, look at some of the pictures and figure out where some of the common birds you recognize are located in the field guide (i.e., front, back, or middle).

Field Guide Organization

I have watched numerous beginners spot a bird and immediately open their field guide to the middle pages. They then look to the right ten pages, look left ten pages, and don't find the bird. Then they look right 20 pages, look left 20 pages, and still don't find the bird. After looking a few more pages left and right, they heave the guide into the air out of disgust and give up the whole enterprise.

This happens because the person hasn't learned how bird species are arranged in the field guide. It's no wonder they get frustrated. Field guides, just like dictionaries and phone books, are ordered according to a precise system that determines where different birds are located in the book. If you were looking up the word "aardvark" in the dictionary, you wouldn't begin somewhere in the middle, would you? Similarly, if you see a sparrow-like bird sitting on the ground, don't start searching through the middle of a field guide because all the sparrows are located in the last quarter of field guides.

Most guides are roughly organized in "phylogenetic order." Phylogenetic order is the way scientists classify all living things (not just birds) based on their evolutionary history - which creatures, according to likenesses in their present-day appearance, most probably evolved from common ancestors. You can learn more about this ordering system by reading your field guide. The point is that birds having similar physical appearances occur very close together in a field guide. You won't find sparrows on the same page with hawks, or a loon facing a warbler. All sparrows, loons, warblers, hawks, and even gulls and blackbirds are located many pages away from one another.
 

Classification

There are five essential levels of classification by which all birds are grouped. When we refer to birds of the same "species," for example a group of 15 American Robins, we are using the most specific level of classification. Similar species are grouped into a "genus," then different genera (plural of genus) are grouped into a "family," different families are grouped into an "order" of birds, and finally all orders are grouped into just one "class." This is the class "Aves," which in Latin refers to all birds. As you may guess, species in the same genus are more closely related to one another - and look more alike - than species in different genera. Likewise, families grouped in a single order are more similar to one another than families grouped in different orders.

Most field guides covering North America contain about 800-900 species, grouped into over 300 genera, grouped into 74 different families, grouped into just 20 different orders (guides limited to eastern or western North America have about half as many species).

Bird Families

The most convenient and logical classification level for the beginning birder to focus on is the family. There are simply too many genera and species out there for a novice to grasp easily, and identification to a particular order is too broad to be challenging. More importantly, by learning the general shape, size and appearance of the different families of birds, you will develop the powers of observation that characterize a good birder. In fact, you probably know more about some of the families than you realize. For example, if you can recognize a Laughing Gull, you already know a lot about the general sizes and shapes of all the gulls. Similarly, by knowing what a Northern Cardinal looks like, you know a good bit about buntings, grosbeaks and other members of this family - namely that they have very thick, pointed bills. Florida's state bird, the Northern Mockingbird, is in the family of mimic thrushes. All birds in this family have the same approximate size and shape, including that long tail.

Armed with the ability to recognize the shapes of the major bird families and a good local field guide, you can go anywhere in the world and immediately find yourself head and shoulders above non-birders in terms of identification skills - even though you don't have any familiarity or experience with the local birds.

So when you first get your field guide, spend time looking at its organization and the way it groups families of birds. Divide your guide into four sections using tags or sticky notes. The first quarter will contain the families of large water birds, the second quarter the large land birds (ending with the woodpeckers), and the last two quarters will contain the small land birds (all in the order "Passeriformes," commonly called the "passerines" or "perching birds"). Continue to look for common species that you already know and use these as a guide for learning the common characteristics of other species in the family. Remember, you should begin birding using your head, not running around chasing after elusive thrushes and confusing fall warblers. Look casually, not frantically, at birds you don't know. Equipped with your spyglasses and trusty field guide, you can now begin to get acquainted with all those flitting bundles of feathers.

Introduction to Birdwatching Basics 
Part Two: Identifying Birds