Top tips for birdwatching

by Jonathan Elphick

Here are some tips for birdwatching that will help you discover the fascinating world of birds. They have been put together with the help of Jonathan Elphick, editor of the Natural History Museum book Atlas of Bird Migration.

1. Study a good field guide

Familiarise yourself with different families of birds. Study a good field guide until you can tell a goose from a grebe or a wagtail from a warbler, for instance.

Next, learn the difference between subgroups, such as the sea terns and the marsh terns. Finally get to know the different species. Rainy, grey days can be good times to do this.

Learn from others. When you go out, ask other birdwatchers for help. Join a local bird group. Subscribe to bird watching magazines and journals.

2. Take notes and sketches

Take notes and sketches while out birdwatching. Try not to look at your field guide before you have studied the bird you wish to identify.

After getting to know the names of the different parts of the bird (the feather groups, such as crown, eyestripe, nape, chin, breast, rump etc), take notes on details of plumage – colours and patterns – ideally with a quick sketch of the bird. You don’t need to be a great artist. Add details of where and when you saw the bird, how many there were, any interesting behaviour, and the weather. 

3. Get some good binoculars

Get a decent pair of binoculars. You will be entering a new world of wonder. You don’t need to spend a fortune, just buy the best you can afford. Binoculars that are comfortable to use and good optically will help prevent eye and neck strain.

If possible, go to a specialist birdwatching supplier rather than mail order or cheap high-street chain stores, so you can get the best advice. Try different models out in real birdwatching conditions. If possible, ask other birdwatchers if you can have a look through their binoculars.

4. Use your binoculars the right way

Always take your binoculars with you. You never know what you may see. Some of my most memorable views have been of birds seen on a visit to the shops!

Don’t keep your binoculars in their case. Before you can get them out, the bird may have disappeared. And don’t carry them in your hands or dangling by their straps, as you could easily drop, knock or damage them.

Shorten the neck straps so that the binoculars are not thumping painfully against your stomach as you walk but resting firmly on your chest. You can replace the straps with wider ones that have padding or moving sections to relieve the strain when worn for a long time. For this reason it is also wise not to choose a pair that is too heavy.

5. Don't look down

When you see a bird, don’t look down at the binoculars. Keep your eye on the bird and raise the binoculars to your eyes, then quickly adjust the focusing wheel to get a sharp image. This will take a bit of practice at first, but will help you to avoid missing birds.

6. Use telescopes for long range
Laughing gulls, larus atricilla

Laughing Gulls, Larus atricilla

When watching birds in open country, such as wildfowl on a lake, waders at an estuary or seabirds offshore, a telescope will hugely enhance your ability to identify birds at long range. You will need a strong tripod to keep the telescope steady, too.

7. Practice good fieldcraft

Think like a hunter and stalk the birds carefully. Be slow and patient and avoid sudden movement. Don't wear bright clothing or materials that make a loud rustling sound, and try to avoid talking or even whispering loudly when near wary birds. Camouflage yourself against the background and keep below the skyline: walking along the top of a seawall, for instance, will disturb feeding waders, tiring them unnecessarily as well as depriving you of more than a brief view of them flying off.

8. Use hides where possible

Most bird reserves have at least one hide. You will get brilliant views of birds that are otherwise hard to see well, and this is an excellent way to become really familiar with their distinctive features. Always think of the birds and of other birdwatchers. Leave a hide quietly and unobtrusively, don’t shout or point out of windows, and don’t block other people’s view.

9. Learn bird calls and songs

Don’t forget that as well as watching them, you can identify many birds by listening to their calls and songs. Learn these by listening repeatedly to the many excellent CD’s and DVD’s now available. And, best of all, learn to identify any unfamiliar call or song by locating the bird responsible.

10. Give something back

In exchange for the delight birds bring, give something back. Join the RSPB and your local Wildlife Trust. Contribution not just money but also time by helping with fundraising and habitat creation, maintenance or education projects at reserves.

Take your birdwatching further by sending details of the birds you see to your County Recorder (full details in The Birdwatcher’s Yearbook & Diary, published annually by Buckingham Press, Tel:  01733 561 739; email: admin@buckinghampress.com ).

You can also join the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology), who depend on amateur birdwatchers to carry out surveys that increase our knowledge of Britain’s rich birdlife and help in its conservation.

Cartoon image of lab coats

Over three million people visit the Museum each year, more than the population of London when the Museum was built, in 1881