Bird-Watching for Beginners

Want to start bird-watching on your hikes? This guide covers the who, what, when, how and why of birding with tips and gear recommendations.

Alexandra Marvar

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Coastal birds in flight


Looking for a way to be happier, healthier and spend more time in the great outdoors—one that doesn’t require much money or time? Good news: It’s as simple as stepping outside and looking for birds. Tens of millions of people around the world consider themselves bird-watchers—and the hobby spans all age groups, abilities and geographies. As most any birder will tell you, it’s easy to get started—and it’s easy to love. 

Bird-watching, or birding, is booming, and newcomers find it alluring for many reasons. It can be done nearly anywhere, in environments that are urban or rural, tropical, desert and even arctic. It requires hardly any gear at all. A pair of binoculars can be a big help, but birding with just your eyes or ears can be just as engaging. 

Some people love birding solo, as a meditative activity or an act of self-care. Other people enjoy birding with a guide or in a group.

If you like the idea of bird-watching but don’t know quite how to get off the ground, here’s a guide to get you started: 


Birders in Colombia
A group of birders looks into the trees in Colombia. Photo credit: Alexandra Marvar

AnchorAnchorWhat Is Bird-Watching?

Birding—the act of watching and/or listening to birds—is about appreciating living birds in the wild, observing them in their natural habitat. 

You might hear both the terms “birding” and “bird-watching” used. Is there a difference between the two? 

Both birding and bird-watching refer to the act of observing birds as a way of spending time outdoors. You might hear serious, longtime or old-school birders make a distinction between bird-watching for beginners and hobbyists, and birding for those who are more experienced and dedicated to the pursuit. 

Increasingly, birding is the term of choice for many individuals and organizations who view it as more inclusive (some people listen to birds as much as watch them). For this guide, we’ll use both terms interchangeably. 

In fact, there are all kinds of approaches: Avid birders—called twitchers in the United Kingdom—will drop everything on a moment’s notice and rush to a particular location to spot a particular rare bird when they catch wind of its presence. Adopters of slow birding, on the other hand, relish doing quite the opposite: observing the everyday birds in their immediate surroundings, paying close attention to their behavior and habits, getting to know them like neighbors.

There’s no right or wrong way to be a birder. Anyone who is interested in birds—or in a new way of connecting with their environment—can do it. 



AnchorAnchorWho Can Bird-Watch?

What kind of people will get the most out of birding?

Birding is for all ages.

Bird-watching has something of a reputation for being an activity for older adults, says avid birder and inclusive-tourism expert Bonnie Lewkowicz. And it’s true that it’s a popular choice of activity for retirees seeking new ways to fill their time, as this practice is outdoorsy, highly adaptable and has a low barrier to entry. But those same reasons have helped this almost meditative activity become popular with younger people too. Birding’s necessary slowness offers a new way to experience nature and connect with the environment.

According to Lonely Planet, smartphone apps that identify birds by appearance or sound have made the hobby more popular among younger generations. In fact, the iPhone app store rankings show the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID application in the top 10 of reference guides. National Geographic reports that the increasing popularity of wildlife photography has also inspired younger adults to take more notice of our feathered friends.

Guides for school-age birders—like Audubon for Kids and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s free lesson plans for kindergarten through 12th grade—can help turn a walk around the neighborhood into a scavenger hunt. 

There isn’t any optimal age for birders, Lewkowicz says. She birds with groups that are diverse in every sense, from age, to race, to ability.

Birding is for everybody.

People of all identities and backgrounds enjoy watching birds: It’s a free activity that requires little more than your attention. But not everyone feels welcome within the birding community. Many organizations are working to change that. The Black AF in STEM collective has organized #BlackBirdersWeek since 2020 to connect and increase the visibility of Black birders. Amplify the Future raises money to offer scholarship opportunities for Black and Latinx/e birders; it also offers networking and professional opportunities. Meanwhile, organizations and events like Feminist Bird Club and Philly Queer Birders are all about making sure everyone who loves birds feels safe and welcome on the birding scene.

Birding is accessible.

Lewkowicz is a founder and director of Access Northern California, a resource that helps folks plan accessible outdoor adventures, birding included. Lewkowicz is the author of A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide: San Francisco Bay and the Nearby Coast, and is dedicated to removing barriers for wheelchair users like her to experience the outdoors. 

One of the greatest ways to do that, she says, is birding. After all, she says, birding is so adaptable, you can do it by ear, by sight and without even leaving your vehicle—all you need is a window, a bird feeder or a video stream, and you’re in business.

Jerry Berrier, who has been totally blind from birth, has been birding by ear since 1972. Now, he helps his local Audubon chapter, Mass Audubon, design accessible trails as part of its All Persons Trails initiative, and he leads workshops on birding by ear throughout New England.

Berrier says he knows that by not being able to see, he is missing out on the visual beauty that the world has to offer. Hearing a description of a visual image, he says, doesn’t satisfy his craving to experience it for himself. Birdsong and bird calls are one way he can tap into the beauty of the natural world. And he brings his hobby everywhere he goes.

“I certainly am birding anytime I go anywhere,” Berrier says. “As soon as I get out of the car, I've got my ears tuned in, wondering what I'm going to hear.”


AnchorAnchorA Brief History of Bird-Watching

For centuries, the appreciation of birds in North America came by way of hunting and collecting them. But as scientists learned more about conservation and protection of wildlife—and as technology like binoculars emerged—the 20th century brought about a change: People gradually began to embrace the idea that one needn’t actually kill the bird to observe it. With that realization came the first-known print usage of the term “bird-watching,” in 1901 by British naturalist Edmund Selous. (He had the epiphany that birds were better left alive while watching a pair of European nightjars in flight.)  

By 1905, the Audubon Society was founded, its earliest focus being on the protection of sea and shorebirds. The popularity of bird-watching as a hobby grew throughout the early 1900s and surged during World War II. According to ornithologist and author Tim Birkhead, birding was considered a welcome distraction from the stressful events at hand for soldiers, prisoners of war and folks back home alike. The activity’s popularity continued expanding throughout the mid-20th century, eventually inspiring the 1968 formation of the American Birding Association, a nonprofit dedicated to advancing recreational bird-watching.

Since then, the number of birders around the world has continued to fly upward. Data compiled by the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment shows one in three people over the age of 16 has dabbled in the practice. Other research estimates that some 20% of adults in the U.S., across all age groups, commit time to birding each year. Especially since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, experts say, newcomers have flocked to the hobby.


AnchorAnchorThe Benefits of Birding

Birding is not only beneficial to participants, but also to the natural world around us. Here are some of birding’s biggest perks.  

Benefits to Individuals

As many bird-watching devotees will tell you, birding brings experiences of connectedness and joy. 

Science backs this up: In a 2020 study on the benefits of birdsong, researchers at California Polytechnic State University found that people who heard birds while hiking outdoors reported greater feelings of well-being than those who didn’t. Another 2020 study, from the German Center for Integrative Biodiversity Research, found that seeing new bird species generates a sense of satisfaction comparable to making more money. Did you see 10% more birds on a recent trek than you’ve ever seen before? The research suggests you might feel as good as if you got a 10% raise at work.

Most recently, a 2022 study by researchers at King's College London found that seeing or hearing birds can give your mental well-being a boost—a dose of positivity that can last, according to the data, up to eight hours. This was true even for people with a depression diagnosis, which the researchers say may indicate the therapeutic potential of birding for people with mental health conditions.

Benefits to the Environment

Birding is more than a hobby for many: Bird-lovers have an opportunity to contribute to a better understanding of bird populations by participating in a number of citizen-science projects that collect bird-sighting data and specific observations.

Organized bird counts are one great way to get involved. For example, tens of thousands of birders around the world take part in the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count for three weeks every December and January, reporting what they find as contributions to global avian data. And each February, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology hosts the four-day Great Backyard Bird Count, where birders log their findings in the eBird app. 


AnchorAnchorWhere to Go Birding

According to bird researcher Ben Nickley, director of the Berkshire Bird Observatory in western Massachusetts, you can bird almost anywhere, all year round. Factors like season, time of day, habitat and geography will simply influence what birds you’ll see.

Some places are more “birdy” than others, he adds, and some times of the year—like spring and fall migration—you are more likely to encounter a greater variety of different bird species. But as a general rule, the best places to start birding are nearby greenspaces—whether that’s a local park, trail, bike path, nature preserve or yard.

“Birding is a great hobby because it gets you outside; it encourages you to explore new places and come to know and appreciate more deeply the places you frequent,” Nickley says. He loves how grounding the exercise can be, and that you can take your bird-watching along with you wherever you go, any time: “All you have to do to find them is get outside and start paying attention. Anytime you travel, it’s an opportunity to see new habitats, and therefore, new bird species,” he adds. “Each place has its own natural elements which make it special, and as a birder you are in tune with that.”

While birds are practically everywhere, you may want to seek out specific areas to watch them. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recommends searching for a bird refuge or sanctuary near you. You can also browse local bird hotspots via the eBird bird-watching world map


AnchorWhen to Watch for Birds

What Time of Day

Just like (most) humans, birds sleep at night—and they wake up hungry. So the best time to spot a bird will be sometime between dawn and late morning. But if you’re just not a morning person, don’t fret. In most greenspaces, you’ve got a good chance of spotting birds all day long, all year round.


What Time of Year

Spring and Fall

In spring, migratory birds are returning from their wintering grounds and, depending on the species and its migratory range, that might involve making a journey of thousands of miles. This is a very exciting time of the year to bird, Nickley says, because it brings “an influx of colorful, tropical birds, just bursting with song.”

Birds migrate by night, he adds. “If they find themselves above a gray cityscape in the early morning, they are going to go for any green areas they can find. They need these places for shelter and food resources.” He recommends looking to your urban parks for examples of this.

Because birds mate in the spring, you’ll hear the most birdsong this time of year too, as they call out to attract a mate or defend their breeding territory. In the North American autumn, resident and migratory birds are buckling down for the winter ahead and conserving energy on all fronts. But keep your eyes to the skies, because migrants—from warblers to waterfowl—are on the move. 


Even if you live in a snowy climate, you can bird in the winter. In fact, winter is one of Nickley’s favorite times of the year to go birding in New York state’s Appalachian Taconic Mountains. “Most life is in this dormant state, but not our resident birds,” he says. 

One of his favorite things about winter birding are the mixed-species flocks that sweep through. He might spot a flurry of black-capped chickadees, eastern bluebirds, downy woodpeckers, golden-crowned kinglets and more, all in one group, as if banding together to get through the winter.

“It’s also a good time to start learning birds,” Nickley says, “because there are fewer species around, and you can start to really get familiar with the year-round resident species.”


Every summer, birds settle into their breeding territory and pair up with a mate to raise their young. Various species have different preferences for where to nest: high up in the top of a coniferous tree, at the water’s edge on a shoreline or tucked deep in the spartina grass of a marsh.

Some birds are synanthropic, meaning they live right alongside humans, even benefiting from human activity. Think of the house sparrow, which thrives in even the most urban environments. As writer Diane Ackerman explains in her book The Genius of Birds, in cities, you might even spot a house sparrow lining its nest with cigarette butts, which contain nicotine, a pesticide that keeps away parasites. Other birds are partial to ecotones, the term for a fringe area between two different habitat types. 

If you want to find a certain bird, Nickley says, especially in the summer, look to a field guide to learn its preferred habitat, and then seek that type of space out.


AnchorAnchorBird-Watching Gear

According to Nickley, a field guide and pair of binoculars are “all the gear a birder will ever need.” 

Isaiah Scott, a birder from Rincon, Georgia, recalls falling in love with birds as a young teen, after feeling a bit awestruck after coming across the Wall of Birds on the Cornell University campus. He's in his early 20s, and bird-watching—along with photographing birds and making artwork based on his favorite species—is more or less a full-time pursuit.

For that reason, he says his must-haves include a camera as well as binoculars and a field guide. His birding primarily takes place in the biodiverse coastal and forest bird habitats not far from his home. “Optional: a backpack with a water bottle, snacks, a birding journal and my GoPro camera if I'm recording my birding experience,” he says. 

Naturally, Jerry Berrier’s birding kit looks a bit different: He carries a series of mics and devices that allow him to amplify birdsong and record it for future playback, whether that’s for enjoyment or to help him identify a new-to-him species. 

Here’s are some beginner gear tips from experts: 

Dress to blend in so the birds stand out. Consider wearing colors that blend in with the habitat where you’re birding and clothing that doesn’t make lots of noise, so you can slide in under the radar. Birds are always on the lookout for danger, and bright colors, including white, might send them flying. (Of course, sometimes you need to wear bright colors—for example, some trails even require hikers to wear blaze orange during hunting season—so be sure to keep safety in mind.)

Choose the right bird-watching binoculars. Make sure they're a comfortable width for your eyes, and consider selecting a set with a slightly wider field of view. That'll help when it comes to zeroing in on a bird in the distance. Read more in How to Choose Binoculars.

If you don't have binoculars, don't sweat—but do pull up an app and get to know bird calls for birding by ear, since it will likely be easier to hear them than spot them with the naked eye.   

A good field guide is your birding best friend. One thing professional birding guide David Jara Cortés and his colleagues in northern Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range never part with are their birding field books. They’ve got big fat versions at home or in a backpack, and when they’re traveling light, they have birding apps on their phones and pamphlets with the region’s most common birds in their back pockets. 

Guides come in both tangible and digital forms, and you’ll want to decide which works best for you.

  • Birding books: Birding books are often organized by region: For U.S. bird-watching, for example, you might find regional (e.g. Pacific Northwest, Southeast) or state editions. Each publisher takes a slightly different approach to organizing and presenting a vast amount of information, including details about habitat, migration patterns, variations between male and females and more. Visit your local REI Co-op, library or bookstore and browse guides in person before you commit.
  • Mobile apps: Traveling light? Mobile apps can be your guide too. Smartphone apps like eBird, Merlin and the Audubon app can help you identify feathered friends by size, type, color, behavior and even audio recordings of bird calls. Some also allow you to log the birds you’ve spotted, for tracking your own sightings—and, in some cases, contributing to avian research projects’ data collection efforts.
  • A place to take notes: Don’t want to rely on your phone while out enjoying nature? Some birders prefer to carry a notepad and pen to quickly jot down bird names or descriptions while in the field. When you get home, look up the birds you weren’t sure about, and add your “lifers.” (When you identify a type of bird for the first time, that's a "lifer." It’s given special distinction because you only get one first time.) 

Shop All Birding Gear 


AnchorUsing Binoculars for Bird-Watching

If you’ve never tried using binoculars for bird-watching before, don’t worry: It’s not always easy right away, but you can get the hang of it. At least, that’s what Cortés likes to tell his first-time bird-watchers. 

Make sure they are fitted to your eyes. Cortés says to adjust the eye cups to the right width. You shouldn’t be seeing any black crescents.

Find the bird with your eyes first. “Don’t search for the bird through the binoculars,” Cortés instructs his group. Rather, spot it first unassisted, then bring the binoculars up to your eyes without moving your gaze, if you can. Adjust your focus from there for a close-up look.

Read How to Choose Binoculars for more information.


AnchorAnchorResponsible Bird-Watching

Patricia Kappemeyer, a board member and the communications chair for the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society in South Carolina, says it’s not hard to be an ethical birder. If you’re abiding by the rules of the refuge, preserve or park where you might be birding, respecting the birds’ space, and heeding the birds’ warnings, you’re on the right path, she says. And, as with any time spent in a shared greenspace, follow the Leave No Trace principles

The American Birding Association breaks down the basics in their simple, three-point Code of Birding Ethics.

Abide by rules and regulations. Stay on dedicated paths and trails, and make sure photography is allowed before you snap pictures. If you’re thinking about bringing your dog along, check first to make sure they’re permitted—and always properly dispose of waste and follow posted leash laws. This is vital, especially in bird breeding habitats. 

For example, the small endangered piping plover nests in open sandy shorelines along the Great Lakes and East Coast. If you let your dog run around in their ground-nesting areas, you could do a lot of damage to the population: One misplaced foot—or paw—can wipe out an entire nest, so err on the side of caution.

Respect birds’ space by keeping your distance. Stay far enough away from the birds so they don’t feel threatened. Not only will you get a better view through your binoculars, you’ll be doing nature a favor.

Kappemeyer often birds in and around Hilton Head Island, where the shoreline and surrounding mudflats are crucial stopovers for migratory birds like the red knot on its way to and from South America, or the dunlin making its yearly journey to the Arctic.

“A lot of people come here for our shorebirds, which are particularly vulnerable, because they will flush really quickly,” she says. This means they get startled and fly off, which can be exhausting—and it can lead to predation and other life-or-death risks for the birds you love. 

Pay attention to the birds’ warnings: “If you see the birds stop feeding to take note of you, fly off or start giving kind of their alarm calls, that means that you're stressing them out,” Kappemeyer says. “Stress leads to changed behavior.” If you’re going to inch closer to a flock of birds, be careful, quiet and slow. One rule of thumb, Kappemeyer says, is to walk around the flock and approach it from the back, trying to stay out of view. 

If birds are circling an area and vocalizing warnings in your direction, they might be telling you to stay away from their nest. Eggs can be nearly invisible, especially in an environment like marsh grasses or sand, so to avoid endangering the birds you’re there to see, never trespass in roped-off areas.


AnchorHow to Improve Your Birding Skills

There are more than 10,000 species of birds, and dozens could be around your favorite trail.  

Here are a few tips for building your bird-watching skills.

Find a mentor. Cortés, the birding guide in northern Colombia, has spotted more than 2,000 birds in his career so far—but even he had to start somewhere. He got to know his local birds (around 500 species). Then, when he wanted to see more, he cold-called a known expert bird guide in a different part of the country, Minca Birding founder Fidel Agudelo, and asked for advice and guidance. 

Today, Cortés works for Agudelo’s guiding company, and when Cortés is stumped he isn’t sheepish about asking his mentor. He’s also learned a lot through joining other birders in an international bird count in which birders around the globe participate via eBird: October Big Day. He says the experience of birding alongside these experts has improved his skills by leaps and bounds.

Be consistent—and persistent. “My techniques are to read a lot and to be in the field all the time, because one doesn't finish learning,” Cortés says. He isn’t just a fan of seeing big, beautiful, extravagantly colorful tropical birds like the vibrant Andean cock-of-the-rock or the iridescent emerald and ruby-colored white-tipped quetzal. He also pays attention to the tiny, comparatively bland-looking birds, and in this way he gets to know vast new slices of the bird world.

Isaiah Scott gives the same advice: Get all the experience you can in the field, finding birds, observing them, noting details and looking them up when you get home to learn more. “Simply go outside and start observing birds that live around you,” Scott says. Soon, you'll start to notice all kinds of important clues—calls, colors, behaviors and more—that will help you later on. 

“You will learn to identify and differentiate species of birds by seeing birds, hearing their song or figuring out where certain species live, especially when you go birding in different habitats,” Scott says. 

Watch with your ears. As Berrier will remind you, birding isn't just about watching. Learning avian calls—and then keeping an ear out for them—can give you a big clue as to what you just glimpsed in the treetops. 

Berrier notes that mobile apps like Larkwire will help you learn bird calls, and bird ID apps including Merlin and BirdNET will even listen for you and surface a list of possible matches.

Pick up a birding book. Stuck indoors on a rainy day? Can’t sleep? Procrastinating a work task? Flip through a field guide. Guides typically group birds into families (e.g. sparrows, swallows, gulls, ducks). Getting familiar with these families makes it easier to figure out what you’re looking at when you see a new bird. Did you spot a bird over the water that looked like a seagull, only smaller? You’ll have a head start in navigating a big birding book if you already know to flip to the “terns” section to browse for what you saw.

Guidebooks also present helpful information like geographic ranges, which can be instrumental in telling an eastern bluebird from a western one. Getting to know these categories will give you a solid head start when it comes to figuring out what just flew by.

Find accessible birding sites. Birdability is a disability and birding-advocacy organization that helps people living with mobility challenges, blindness or low vision, who are deaf or hard of hearing, or have chronic illness, intellectual or developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and other challenges get to know and experience the benefits of birding. In collaboration with the National Audubon Society, Birdability offers a crowdsourced map of accessible bird-watching sites throughout the U.S., including trails, bird blinds and observation platforms.

List your lifers. Any bird species you’ve seen for the first time is a “lifer”—as in, you only get one first time to spot it in your life. Lots of birders like to keep track of the birds they have seen, Nickley says. “It’s fun to do this, in part because it compels you to get out and find new birds.”

Keep a list in a notebook or an app like Audubon, Merlin or eBird.

Kappemeyer takes it a step further than a lifer list: She keeps a birding journal, observing things like seasons, the weather, the tides and other species or events that are happening when she spots birds. This is how she knows that if she wants to get a look at some red knots, she can likely find them out with the horseshoe crabs on spring full moons. “It's really helped me get better,” she says. 

Become an early riser. Even if you’re not a morning person, try getting up and out early in the day. In migration seasons, many birds travel by night, touching down at dawn on the first patch of green they see. Want to clock a big handful of species in a short amount of time? Pick a local green space, visit in the early hours of daylight and see what a different world it is, for you and for the birds.


Avid birder Isaiah Scott is always looking up. Photo credit: Isaiah Scott
Avid birder Isaiah Scott is always looking up. Photo credit: Isaiah Scott


Additional contributors: Patricia Kappemeyer and Ben Nickley both contributed expertise to this guide as well. Patricia Kappemeyer is a board member and the communications chair for the Hilton Head Island Audubon Society in South Carolina. Ben Nickley is the director of the Berkshire Bird Observatory in western Massachusetts.