Being a Better Beginner, Part 1: Finding Birds

I decided to write this series of posts based on recent observations of several new beginning birders appearing in the online circles that I frequent (this is a good thing!). I know that there is plenty of material out there about how to be a better birder, but I feel like I can offer a unique perspective as someone who is definitely not an expert but has at least some knowledge of the hobby (yes, it’s a hobby), got into birds at an older age than many, and can remember my frustrations and pitfalls of newbiehood. So I offer my advice on being a better beginner, knowing that I myself am still a beginner in many ways.

To begin, I offer you my origin story:
My obsession started out with a tiny point-and-shoot camera that my uncle sent to me for my 20th birthday. Wanting to make good use of it, I set out onto the campus of Ohio State in Columbus, looking for things to take pictures of. A Northern Cardinal (still just “cardinal” to me then) landed in a tree near me, and I fired away! Awesome! Then I saw an American Goldfinch (just “goldfinch”) and nearly flipped out. TWO colorful birds? Wow, that was pretty amazing! I immediately decided to take as many pictures of as many cool animals as I could. Anything was fair game, but I realized there were many more birds than I even knew about. As my list grew to 10 then 20 then 30 species of birds, I realized that it was game on. I would find ALL of the birds and take their pictures. I got a field guide, started adding exotic birds like House Finch and Song Sparrow to my life list, and never looked back.

There are certainly many levels of birderhood, and there are many who are content just to see what is at their feeders. This is how I got hooked, as campus was my “yard” back then. It was all I needed at first, because literally every bird was a new bird that had to be identified. But as many feeder watchers surely know, new birds will begin to taper off after a while. That is fine for some people, but for those like me who have to see more, it was frustrating when I hit a wall after getting all the common birds. My field guide said there were tons of ducks and warblers (oh man, how excited I was to learn there were birds called “warblers” and that there were 40ish species!) and I wanted to know why I wasn’t seeing them. The first step in seeing more birds is to find birds, so I offer this advice.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal – Columbus, 2005. If you want to see more than these guys, take heart!

1. If you aren’t using a field guide, get one. They are the best way to know what is out there and what you are missing. Most will recommend the Sibley Guide, and it is great, but I started with Peterson, and I even see value in getting one of the smaller, less-scientific regional guides if all you want to know is what is out there. Know of course that these smaller guides will only take you so far, and you will need to upgrade to a beefier model once you get your wits about you.

2. Research and begin to understand the timing of birds. This was probably my biggest obstacle as a newbie. Peterson says that ducks and warblers can both be found in the spring in the Midwest, but you must know that “spring” means totally different things to different birds. If you go out in May looking for Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you are searching for Magnolia Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers in March. This frustrated me to no end. The best resource for timing that I can recommend is the eBird bar charts, which will tell you how often birds are seen in an area every week of the year:

3. Get out of your yard! It’s amazing how many times I visited the same couple of small ponds around campus, frustrated that all I could ever find were Mallards, Canada Geese, and that one lucky time a Blue-Winged Teal. When I finally made the decision one day to drive out to a local reservoir, I was astounded to find Pied-Billed Grebes and a Common Loon easily within my grasp. It was at this point that birding became intentional for me, and not just a hobby I enjoyed while in my every day routine. You must move around to find birds, even if the places around you seem like they should have the birds you’re looking for. Subtle differences in habitat are key to attracting some species over others. Two ponds might appear very similar, but the depth of the water and the invisible food in it will create big differences in the waterfowl that you see.

Common Loon - Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

Common Loon – Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

4. Be patient. If you go looking for something and it isn’t immediately visible, don’t give up. It took me a long time to learn this. Even 15 minutes can change a lot, and something even better than what you expected may appear without warning.

5. Be persistent. Go out weekly at least. Only when you are in the field will you begin to accumulate knowledge about where certain birds will show up, and repeated exposure to a species will help you know what you’re looking at faster and faster. It will also make it easier for you to know right away if something is out of place.

6. Finally, be persistent again. Don’t be jealous or get discouraged from the other birds you see people posting on Facebook; if two hours in your local park didn’t net you anything good, know that it takes time and effort and traveling to eventually stumble across a great bird on your own. But giving up quickly will never get you anything.

In closing, find birds! The next part is identifying them.