Birdwatching for Beginners: How to Start Birding

Ready to learn about bird-watching for beginners? Grab binoculars and a field guide, connect with other birders, then go see more species.

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Watching a busy backyard feeder from your living room window is fun and exciting, but there’s a wider world of birds waiting to be explored. Species as diverse as tiny yellow warblers and majestic bald eagles don’t usually stop by feeders. To see these birds and other far-flung fliers, you have to go to them, especially during spring migration.

bird-watching for beginnersChad Springer/Getty Images
Bird-watching can be a fun activity for the whole family.

For many, knowing where and how to start birdwatching outside the backyard is a challenge. When it comes to birdwatching for beginners, you need a pair of binoculars and a field guide. Then you need to explore the best local hotspots to find birds. Here’s how to get started.

Best Binoculars for Birdwatching Beginners

Celestron Nature DX BinocularsVIA Merchant

Binoculars are the single most important tool for a beginning bird-watcher. A good pair gets you a sharp view of each bird so you can figure out what species you’re seeing. But selecting the right binoculars can be tricky, because prices and quality vary.

For beginning birders, go with a pair priced between $150 and $300 and labeled 8×42; 8 is the magnification and 42, the lens size. The higher the numbers, the more you will be able to see, but these models are pricier and heavier. Plus, higher magnification means a smaller field of view, which can make it difficult to spot the bird.

I like to recommend the Vortex Diamondback 8×42 and Celestron Nature DX 8×42—two solid choices that will not break the bank but will put a reliable set of binoculars in your hands.

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Check out our complete binoculars buying guide.

Best Field Guides for Birdwatching Beginners

kaufman field guideVia Merchant

Choose a field guide that is is compact and easy to understand. A quality field guide will help beginning bird-watchers narrow down and identify species you don’t recognize. It also covers the distinguishing marks you’ll need to get to know so you can tell the difference between males and females of the same species, or between adults and juveniles.

Of the many excellent field guides out there, the two I endorse are Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America by Kenn Kaufman, and The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. The latter also comes in two region-specific editions, one for the West and one for the East.

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Bird notebookVia Etsy

Record Your Bird Observations

Make birding a fun family activity. Keep a notebook together of your bird observations. Kids will learn to notice field marks, behaviors and habitats. It’s a great way to look back on your family’s outdoor adventures!

Hand off the binoculars and go on a birding scavenger hunt with your favorite kid. Make a list of common birds for them to spot, like cardinals, blue jays and robins. You can also keep track of your birds on your phone with birding apps like eBird.

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Here’s how to get kids excited about birding.

red headed woodpeckerCourtesy Daniel Nelson
Red-headed woodpecker at a local park in Peachtree City, Georgia

Best Places to Go Birdwatching for Beginners

With your binoculars and field guide in hand, it’s time to pick where you want to go birding. The best place for beginning birders to begin is a local park near you, which gives you a chance to see and learn about a few new-to-you species while spotting some that are familiar visitors at your backyard feeder. This is also a wonderful way to meet and make friends with other bird enthusiasts.

When you’re ready to explore beyond nearby green spaces, use eBird’s Hotspot Explorer to find other good birding spots in your area. Put in the name of a place to learn what birds have been spotted there, and then get a checklist you can use while you’re out in the field.

Psst—here’s how to see the best birding sites from your car.

Connect With Other Birders

Once you find a site you’d like to visit, consider checking in with a local Audubon Society chapter for specific directions and tips for birding in the area. Over 450 chapters around the country provide a wealth of local information, such as best places to go birding and how to get reports of rare birds that have been spotted. Many chapters provide beginning birder walks and educational programming. Find the one closest to you or to an area you want to explore.

Want to see more species? Go bird-watching in different bird habitats.

Travel to See More Birds

great crested flycatcherCourtesy Evelyn Johnson
Great crested flycatcher

As you continue to expand your horizons, you may want to travel farther to see region-specific species, like California scrub-jays, found only along the West Coast, or great crested flycatchers in the East. Whether you decide to drive a couple states over or fly to a different country, there are endless opportunities to look for amazing birds and get to know other birders.

If you really want to experience the birding community, attend a bird festival. Some of the best include The Biggest Week in American Birding in Ohio, the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in southern Texas and the Space Coast Birding Festival in Florida. In addition to focusing on specific bird-watching opportunities, like the warbler migration at Biggest Week, these events often host entertaining and informative programs, seminars and panels led by experts.

Check out coast to coast birding hotspots for every season.

Use Educational Online Birding Resources

People who’ve been birding for a long time will tell you they never stop learning. I’m always discovering something new about these wonderful fliers. The internet is a seemingly infinite resource for birders, and if you haven’t already connected with the National Audubon Society, it’s a valuable source of information. Other fantastic national organizations with thorough websites (everything from bird news to species profiles and ranges) include the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the American Birding Association and Bird Studies Canada. These groups also focus on conservation, an important consideration for anyone who enjoys being outside.

Follow Birdwatching Groups on Social Media

Then there’s social media. Bird-focused Facebook pages are booming, from Birds & Blooms to small local groups and pages with national rare bird alerts. And #BirdTwitter is active, too.

Search around a little to see what you can find that matches your specific interests. Birding is about more than just seeing new species. It’s about the people, too. When you step out of your backyard, you step into a community that cares deeply about nature and sharing its passion for birds. Welcome to the club!

Want to take better bird photos? Check out the ultimate guide to backyard bird photography.

Rob Ripma
Rob is a lifelong Indiana resident and co-owner of Sabrewing Nature Tours. He has birded extensively throughout the Americas and also spent time birding in Asia, Africa, and Europe. Rob is currently on the executive boards of two organizations: Past President of the Board of the Amos Butler Audubon Society in Indianapolis (after leading the board as President for 6 years) and Secretary for Ohio’s Black Swamp Bird Observatory (BSBO). He also serves as the field trip coordinator for BSBO’s Biggest Week in American Birding annual event. Rob sat on the executive board of the Indiana Audubon Society for three years as Treasurer and Vice President. He is a co-founder of the Indiana Young Birders Club and speaks at a variety of organizations and schools about birds and birding to share his knowledge and experiences in the field. His leadership and expertise led to Rob working as the primary bird blogger for Birds & Blooms Magazine from 2013-2017. Rob enjoys working with both new and experienced birders of all ages and believes that teaching people about birds will not only increase interest in birding but also help them better understand why we must work to protect them and their habitats. Additionally, he loves educating others about the positive impact nature tourism can have on local economies, especially in developing countries. This passion led to his involvement in the production of a PBS television program called, “Flight Path: The World of Migratory Birds”, where a crew accompanied him on a tour to Panama to highlight and bring to life the effect that birds and birding have on both the people that see them and those who work and live in areas visited by birders and nature lovers. Rob graduated from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business in 2008 and lives in Carmel, Indiana with his wife and daughter.