27 November 2007

Getting Going, Part I - In the Beginning There Were No Binoculars

In a previous post I mentioned how ideally, in my opinion, someone just starting out birding should go looking for herons and male ducks because they usually have easy-to-distinguish field marks and tend to stay in one open area for a good amount of time. As a disclaimer let me just say that any advice I give is simply what I found worked for me (or not in some cases). I'm sure of two things: 1) that there's no perfect way to start for every birder, and 2) there are, in fact, many ways to start out birding that will provide great experiences. It can't hurt to read about another birder's story, however.

My situation was that I started birding the day after Christmas when I received my first field guide. I didn't have any binoculars so I used my girlfriend's digital camera to take pics of any bird I came across. Later I uploaded them on to the computer and IDed the birds after the fact. As I pointed out in that post, this had the benefit of keeping a record of the field marks of the large slow-moving birds I was able to cut my teeth on in Florida in December. But there are a number of downsides and caveats to those first few days. I was soon back in Massachusetts with winter birds in the northeast to deal with. And IDing a bird after seeing it is risky, especially since so much useful information is provided in the act of watching a bird: its sounds, its habitat (admittedly seen in the pictures), and its behavior. And though I didn't quite have enough experience yet (who does?), it is easier to determine the limiting factor when actively observing a bird. Do similar birds move the same way? If so, do they occur in this environment? Figuring out what bird it's not allows the birder to attack the problem from two directions.

So finding a pair of binoculars is pretty important. Obviously, they combine the ability to capture small visual details like the digital camera (even more so, in fact) with the placement of those details in a broader context in the moment. Being a cheapskate, my advice would be to research any new pair you're thinking of buying, and try to borrow a pair in the meantime. I remember getting used to my binoculars took some time. It was worth it, though. All About Birds has a great gear guide and how to get started guide that really helped me. Go ahead and let them help you, too.

And while I recommended looking for those easy-to-spot birds in the winter to get ready for the brightly-colored singing spring migrants, not everyone has that luxury. It's much more important to just get out and watch some birds. There are all sorts of reasons not to get started. Lack of the "right" birds isn't one of them. Next up, choosing where to go.


Bello Photography said...

Nice blog! Like you i started to become interested in birds about a year ago, although i feel you've got a lot further along than me. I started out with a book - The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America - which i think is just fantastic, especially the artwork. I have Petersons too!

I started by getting a few feeders in the back garden and tried to ID those first. I am up to about 30 species.

Anyway, i'll check back

Bennet said...

30 birds is great for a year, especially if you're mostly feeder watching. Shows how diverse the birdlife is even in our backyards.

Before I got my binoculars my first big bird day in Massachusetts was one of those warm January days we had at the beginning of this year. A mixed-species flock was out in the yard and I just watched from the window. American Robin, European Starling, and Song Sparrow were pretty quick IDs, but I'll admit that the Northern Flicker I saw threw me for a loop (I mean, why would I leap to the conclusion that it's a woodpecker when its poking around on the ground?). Since then I've gotten pretty familiar with my field guides, so even if I haven't seen a bird before, I know where in the book the likely candidates are.

Thanks for the comment Andy!