Bird watching is a popular pastime for many Ohio residents. It’s inexpensive, interesting, and provides opportunities to meet fellow animal lovers. However, many people don’t know how to start. If you’re interested in becoming a birder, here are some basic guidelines for getting started.

First, the phrases “birder” and “bird watcher” are interchangeable. Birding is literally the act of looking at birds. Some people may prefer one or the other, but there is no formal difference between the two. People also take different approaches to birding in general – some look at it a bit more scientifically and try to identify various species, while others prefer to enjoy their natural beauty. Whichever you want to do is fine!

Two pieces of equipment you will need are binoculars and a field guide.

Good binoculars can be expensive – between $100 and $300 – but there are many less expensive options available (as well as more expensive ones!). Most major sporting goods stores will probably carry them at the best prices, but a local wildlife center or pet store might have them too.

In addition to price, things to look for in binoculars include:

  1. Make sure that the binoculars are comfortable to hold in your hands and that they fit your eyes well. You don’t want to be distracted from the birds due to the inconvenience of using your binoculars.
  2. Look for binoculars that have at least 8 times (8x) magnification and a 30 to 42 millimeter front lens. The size of the front lens dictates light gathering capability, which is essential to vision. Some common notation you might see would be 8×32 (8x magnification, 32 mm front lens), and 10×42 (10x magnification, 42 mm front lens).
  3. Look for waterproof binoculars to handle all weather conditions.

Field Guides are usually between $15 and $40 and come in two types: guides with photographs and guides with paintings or illustrations. These guides vary based on publisher and/or author, and some people prefer one type over another, though there is no one “best” field guide. The most popular brands are Sibley, National Geographic, and Peterson.

Before spending your money, you can go to a local library or bookstore and read through some of them to determine which you like best before making a purchase. Also be sure to check out a regional guide rather than one covering the entire United States; for example, a “Birds of Ohio” or “Midwest Species” guide. This will reduce the number of species you have to look through when trying to identify a bird.

There are also smartphone apps for birders! iBird is a popular app that works on Apple, Kindle, Windows, and Android devices. It comes with most of the information that a paper field guide has, but with lots of extra features. For example, some versions allow you to record birdsong so that the app can identify the species.

Once you have your equipment, it’s time to find some birds. Many birders start out in their own backyards and branch out to a local park or wilderness area. Joining other local birdwatchers can help, as they may have more experience with where to find more birds or specific species.

If there is a local bird organization in your area, they will often hold specific outings that you can join or will post local bird walks that you can take with a group or by yourself. You can look up local organizations online, if you are so inclined. There might be an Audubon chapter near you or a different type of bird club, which you can locate through the Bird Watcher’s Digest’s bird club finder.

When out on a walk move slowly and quietly, and listen for birds as well as to look for them. Often you will hear them long before you see them, and you don’t want to cause them to move by crashing through the foliage.

When you spot a bird, keep your eyes trained on it and slowly raise your binoculars to your eyes, rather than looking down to put your eyes into your binoculars and then attempting to relocate it through the lenses. This will prevent you from losing track of the bird, especially from far distances.

Now for the trickiest part of birding – identifying the bird!

The first step is to identify the most obvious characteristics of the bird. These are called field marks. The most noticeable feature is your first field mark; for example, a white head with a distinctive black marking. Then ask yourself what the next most obvious characteristic is – perhaps a dramatically long tail – and so on.

Bird Watcher’s Digest suggests starting at the top of the bird’s head and working down the body towards the tail, noting the two or three most prominent field marks. Most of the common North American birds can be identified by the physical features on the top halves of their bodies. However, also keep in mind the bird’s general shape and size, as well as its behavior (e.g. pecking for insects or soaring) and any sounds it is making. These can be equally helpful in identifying a bird.

Here in Ohio, most groups estimate there are around 200 bird species. Some of the most common Ohio birds are:

  • double-crested cormorants
  • ring-billed gulls
  • red-breasted mergansers
  • Caspian terns
  • ruddy ducks
  • American pipits

Familiarizing yourself with some of the more common species in Ohio well help you with identifications in the field, and will help you know when you are spotting a more rare species. There are many websites that help you become familiar with Ohio birds, as well as allow you to enter your own sightings, including eBird Ohio and the Ohio Ornithological Society.

Many birders enjoy keeping a list of the birds they see on each outing. Many also keep a Life List of all the species they have seen throughout their lifetimes. You can do this for yourself or to provide to an organization; many collect such data to keep tabs on species in the area, like a state ornithological society. There are also organizations that collect national data, such as eBird.

After that, it’s all in your hands! Birding can be a wonderful, life-long hobby that will provide entertainment for many years. It promotes an appreciation for animals and the outdoors, and will give you some expert knowledge on birds, too. Good luck and happy birding! –Samantha West

Cardinal Photo via photopin (license)

Samantha is a senior Zoology major at Ohio Wesleyan University. She has loved animals and wildlife since childhood, and hopes to work in species conservation upon graduation.