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 wheel!) If the image you see is not as clear as it looked through the left lens, adjust it using the focusing ring attached to the right eyepiece of your binoculars. Take note of where you have set the focus on the right eyepiece. Now your binoculars are adjusted to your eyes and ready for action.
Next, spend some time developing the hand-eye coordination you’ll need to spot birds quickly. Most bird watching is definitely not like watching football. With bird watching 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.
Find a comfortable spot at a local park and spend time just practicing spotting objects with your 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. Then 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.
What is a field guide? A field guide is a little book that’s packed with information about birds. It’s the next best thing to an expert birder by your side. It describes and shows pictures of the birds, and it tells you which details of each bird to look for. A field guide can tell you what kinds of birds might be in your particular area and give some excellent tips on what to look for in your bird watching. If you don’t have a field guide, you won’t have a clue about what kinds of birds you will be seeing, so this is essential to have. A field guide will generally cost you around $20.
A field guide contains pictures of birds and tips for identifying them. The best book for new birders is Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds or the Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds. When you become familiar with the birds in your area, you will probably want the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America 3rd edition. For young birders, we recommend Peterson First Guide: Birds. It describes 188 common and conspicuous birds and it won’t overwhelm you with too many choices. You will also want to look at the new Stokes 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 bird watching a popular activity by making accurate identifications of birds possible.
Today, however, there are specific field guides available for certain regions of the country (Texas even has its 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.
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).
If you want to become an avid outdoor birder, you’ll want a guide that is easy to carry and flip through quickly. If you are more of a backyard birder, watching local species on your feeders and birdbath, portability is not as important.
Field Guide Organization
Numerous beginners tend to 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.
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 blue jays, 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).
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 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.
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.
This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. We recommend something smaller than the standard 8 x 11 variety. Carry something that is easy to handle and can be kept on your person without being too intrusive. What do you want to jot down in your notebook? Birds you have seen, where you saw them, what they looked like, what they sounded like, etc. When you record these observations right when you see (and/or hear) them, you will be able to better reflect on your experience later on.
While this is not necessarily considered an essential piece of equipment for bird watching, we think it should be. If you happen across a particularly beautiful species of bird and want to capture it for later study, you could rely on your mind, or you could just snap a picture.
Most of the world is going digital these days. With your digital camera, get one that has the maximum pixels selected for the best pictures. Be sure you have a zoom lens so you can get “up close and personal” with your fine feathered friends. And, by all means, turn off the flash! Nothing can scare away a bird quicker than a flash of light from your camera!
If you have pictures of the birds you see, you can also do more in-depth analysis of the birds once you get home. With pictures, you can delve more deeply into your field guide and document the exact birds you came across in your expedition.
And think of the photo album you can create! Beautiful!