Getting Started

An adult Little Blue Heron eating a Common Pipefish. The Little Blue Heron ranges through much of the East Coast and Gulf Coast, nesting inland northward into Kansas and also up the Mississippi Valley. They are often seen at national wildlife refuges.
Clay Taylor, Swarovski Optik of North America

Among major activities of National Wildlife Refuge visitors are bird watching and wildlife watching. Indeed, an estimated 81% of our 40 million refuge visitors are estimated to engage in some wildlife watching.

Since birding is known to be the major part of wildlife watching, and since birds are probably the "easiest" wild animals to observe and appreciate, it is useful to know exactly how to approaching bird watching.

Fortunately, it's not a difficult pastime to pursue. There are only three requirements:

  • A bird guide
  • Binoculars
  • Some curiosity

You can certainly provide the third element yourself. Indeed, the mere fact that you are interested in refuges, are visiting refuges, and are actually reading these birding pages is evidence that you have the curiosity required to be a competent birder!

So, what you need to get in the way of equipment are the first two items: a field guide and binoculars.

Birding is an activity for a variety of people in a variety of habitats and locations. Here, are two bird watchers at Okefenokee NWR in Georgia.
Photo: FWS

There are some fine field guides currently available, written by Kenn Kaufman, Roger Tory Petersen, David Sibley, or Don and Lillian Stokes. The National Geographic Society's guide (Field Guide to the Birds of North America) is a collectively-prepared guide, that is another excellent guide. You can find any of these field guides easily through a Internet search. Buying them at your local Refuge Shop or birding specialty store is another great way to support those people who support our resource! Every experienced birder has a favorite guide; and they are not all the same. Find a guide you like, one you are comfortable with. They are all designed a bit differently, each has its minuses and pluses, all are good! Each of the books, by the way, has a must-read introduction, designed to give the reader a good start in the joys - and pitfalls - of birding.

Binoculars are more complicated. There are acceptable ones for as cheap as $90 and excellent ones as expensive as $1800. If you are just starting birding, buy one of the cheaper pairs and plan to "buy up" to better quality as your needs and skills demand and grow. Look for ones that are 7-power or 8-power. If you go above that, the quality deteriorates unless you are willing to pay dearly for the requisite adjustment. Ask among your birding friends, and sample different brands and styles to find binoculars right for you. Here are some things to consider:

  • Power and size: Binoculars are described with two numbers, such as 7 x 35 or 8 x 40. The first number is how many times the binocular magnifies what you're looking at, 7-power or 8-power. The second number is the diameter, in millimeters, of the large, objective, lenses through which light enters the binocular. Which power you choose is a matter of personal preference. Birding binoculars usually have lenses between 30mm and 50 mm; those larger than that are very heavy, and smaller ones will not admit enough light to work well, especially in twilight conditions.

  • Field of view: This term refers to how wide an area you see when you look through binoculars. It's the slice of the world you can see, from side to side, left to right. The figure is usually expressed as a field width at 1,000 yards, although some manufacturers describe the field of view as an angle. You should seek out binoculars that offer a minimum of 330 feet at 1,000 yards or 6.3 degrees of arc. The wider the field of view, especially if you are an eyeglass wearer, the easier it is to scan a large area or to follow a flying bird.

  • Roof or Porro: These describe the prisms forming the two basic designs of binoculars. Roof-prisms have the eyepieces and the objective lenses in a straight line; this design is more compact than the wide-bodied and traditional porro-prism models, which have objective lenses spaced farther apart than the eye-pieces. Roof-prisms tend to be more rugged than porro-prisms of the same quality, but they are also usually more expensive. Do be aware that within a given price-range, porro-prisms often give the user a slightly better optical performance.

  • Eye relief: This is the measure of how far away from the binocular eye-piece your eye needs to be. This distance is usually given in millimeters; depending on the binoculars considered, it may be from 8mm up to 24mm or occasionally even more. Longer eye-relief makes binoculars easier and more comfortable to use, and is especially important if you wear eyeglasses. (Eye relief is critical for eyeglass-wearers, since these folks have eyes which are already set back 12mm to 20mm from their glasses. Note: be sure to roll down your binoculars' eyecups.) Eye relief shorter than 16mm is usually fine for non-eyeglass-wearers.

  • Feel: It's important to buy a pair of binoculars that feels comfortable when you use and carry them. Consider weight and size. Even a modestly-weighted pair of binoculars, say, at 32 oz, can feel mighty heavy at the end of the day! Most birders avoid pocket-sized "compact" binoculars, but for young birders with little money and small hands, a pair of compacts may be a good option.

When you are ready for the big leagues, you will certainly want to consider a quality spotting scope - on a solid tripod- especially if you have a penchant for far-off seabirds, waterfowl, or shorebirds. Digiscoping - the growing practice of taking digital photos through a spotting scope - is also a very good reason to buy a quality scope!

A group of students at Yukon Flats NWR, Alaska, observing birds through spotting scopes.
Photo: FWS/Mark Bertram

It's best to go afield with someone who is more experienced, someone or a group to provide you with beginning skills and hints. A local bird club, or a field-outing run at your favorite National Wildlife Refuge is ideal. This way you can start to learn what to expect by season and by habitat. This way you can also learn the bird sounds from people who can give you helpful cues.

Besides the field guides, there are a number of good "how-to" books which can guide you through different stages of birding activity and expertise. We can recommend for of the following books. They are listed below in increasing order of complexity or sophistication.

  • The Complete Idiot's Guide to Birdwatching by Sheila Buff (Alpha Books, 1999, 410pp, $18.95) - this lamentably-titled book is really a great introduction with fine ideas on getting started, field trips, equipment, habitats, backyard-birding, and some resources.

  • Bird Watching for Dummies by Bill Thompson III and the editors of Bird Watcher's Digest (IDG Books, 1997, 384pp., $19.99) - another sadly-titled book, but part of a highly successful series, this is a step above the previous volume, but only because it includes slightly more details and better resources, with some good conservation projects added.

  • Pete Dunne on Bird Watching by Pete Dunne (Houghton Mifflin, 2003, 334 pp.; $12.00) - this is a gem of a book, compact, informative, and a delight to read. Dunne provides solid information for the beginner and intermediate birder and also weaves in a number of conservation messages within the text.

  • Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley (Knopf, 2002, 154pp, $15.95) - This is a high-intensity book, designed to teach you how to look at birds. It's a great guide on ways to hone your identification skills, to get into the fine points of plumage, habitats, behavior, and sounds. It's highly recommended for the birder with some field time already under his/her belt.,

The Black-crowned Night-Heron is a striking wetland bird, often observed sitting hunched and motionless in trees or branches near water. They become far more active after dusk.
Photo: FWS/Gary M. Stolz

We won't devote much space here to backyard birding and feeder-watching except to say that it is a superb way to learn about birds. The first three of the four books listed above devote considerable space to the backyard scene, with lots of ideas over how to attract birds to your home through native plantings, placement of bird-boxes, and appropriate feeders. Instead we stress here your Refuge birding experience afield, although many refuges do have some excellent bird-feeding stations at visitor centers!

When birding, you should always keep in mind the issue of appropriate behavior, or ethics, in the field. This has to do with your impact on the birds, the habitat, and on others afield. An excellent set of guidelines is the "ABA Code of Birding Ethics," developed and promoted by the American Birding Association and reproduced in many books, newsletters, and websites. You would do well to become familiar with the principles involved. (Download pdf)

You can also get other excellent introductory bird-oriented "All about birds" information through a project between Swarovski and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology site located here.

Finally, we include in this introduction on starting birding with three side-notes on related developments: family radios, watching insects, and digiscoping:

  • Birders are increasingly using an inexpensive standard FRS (Family Radio Service) or FRS/GMRS radio afield. This kind of common communications is often very helpful when driving in multiple vehicles or when spread out in multiple parties, whether at a Refuge or not. A number of state bird organizations and local bird clubs have already adopted or encouraged a common channel. We suggest using channel 6, subcode 6 as the standard default channel, with 11-22 as the backup if there is a problem. (We mention this here because most of the "How-to" books referenced above - with the exception of Pete Dunne's book - don't mention current radio-use.)

  • Yup, bug watching is growing! Many birders just ease into butterfly-watching. There are some wonderful companion butterfly field-guides to teach you about the habitat, range, and identification of these lovely insects. Some people are also getting enamored with dragonflies. Yes, there is lots to watch, and it's not always birds... or mammals... or reptiles... or amphibians. (Do note, however, that binoculars for watching butterflies or dragonflies need to have close-focusing ability, with 4-to-6 feet desirable. These kinds of binoculars are often on the more expensive end of the scale.)

  • As mentioned above, digiscoping is a great activity to accompany your birding and wildlife-watching. We will develop some pages on digiscoping here soon. In the meantime, you may want to view the following collection of links by Mary Scott.

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