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Bird watching: how to get started

( 17 January 2018 )

Author Niall Edworthy on getting started with the free pastime that travels to you, bird watching.

Bird watching
A Great Tit perches on a pair of binoculars

You don’t have to skulk around in the bushes of remote countryside all day to be a bird lover. Bird watching has one glorious virtue that no other significant pastime can hope to match: you can become a fully fledged enthusiast inside a minute and it doesn’t matter a jot where you live, what age you are or how much money you have. (It being to the cycles of nature rather than the economy that birds are subject, watching them is a recession-proof activity.) 

You don’t even have to leave the comfort of your home and garden or need know the first thing about birds, other than that they are those funny feathered creatures that prefer to travel by air than land.

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Enriching the experience

At its simplest, bird watching is an activity that involves doing exactly - and no more - than what it says on the tin. The only effort it demands is observation. 

There are a number of ways to develop and enrich the experience of watching birds, but getting started couldn’t be more straightforward. Simply look out of the window. What other activity brings its entertainment and fascination to your very doorstep? And the joy of bird watching has its own momentum: the closer you observe, the greater the satisfaction and wonder you experience at the beauty, variety and behaviour of nature’s most extraordinary creatures.

Britain can boast roughly 550 species that either live here or visit our shores throughout the course of the year. That is more than any other European country and many of those birds are regular visitors to gardens, parks and towns. We are all familiar with the sight of sparrows, robins, blackbirds and blue tits, but plenty of other species, some of them fairly exotic, will pay an occasional visit and can be persuaded to make regular appearances if you invite them in by providing food, water, plants, shelter or even a potential nesting site.

Find out what exotic birds might visit a British garden

Getting started

You don’t have go on a course, buy a heap of expensive equipment or join an exclusive club to become an enthusiastic and knowledgeable bird watcher, but there a handful of inexpensive items that will go a long way to make the experience all the more enjoyable and encourage newcomers to take their interest in birds to a higher level. 

Firstly, an authoritative identification book with well laid out information and clear and accurate colour illustrations of the species will soon prove to be indispensable. There are plenty of good ones to choose from today for around £10 or less.

Although you can enjoy watching birds using only your unaided eyesight, a pair of binoculars lifts the experience into another realm. Being flighty, jumpy creatures, ever mindful of predators, birds tend not to hang around for long periods when feeding or washing, and you have to strain your eyes to see the smaller ones that have sought the sanctuary of the shrubbery and the treetops at the crunch of an approaching boot or appearance of Tiddles the cat.

Cocky robins, sparrows and blackbirds, as well as wood pigeons, collared doves and magpies will be slower to retreat, but with most other species it's difficult to get up close to observe their remarkable behaviour and quirky idiosyncrasies in their daily struggle to survive. 

It's one thing to watch a bird pecking away at a peanut feeder, but an altogether more absorbing one to watch one busily flying back and forth to build a nest or singing from the treetops to attract a mate or fend off a rival for their territory. You can buy a perfectly adequate pair for under £50 and even better quality second-hand ones can be acquired for even less.

Choosing the right binoculars for bird watching

Remember always to find a bird with your naked eye first. It’s no good searching with your binoculars because the field of vision is too narrow. Getting the right magnification is important too and a common mistake is to be tempted to go for the ones with the biggest numbers. 

The specification is given as two numbers with a cross between them (e.g. 8x30 or 7x20). The first number refers to the power of magnification, so an 8x pair will make objects look eight times closer. Birdwatchers, however experienced, don’t want the magnification to be any greater than x7 or x8 as it’s difficult to keep the image stable. 

Avoid fancy zoom binoculars too as they don’t let in enough light. The second number in the specification is the width in millimetres of the largest lens, and the larger it is the more light it admits, making it more effective in dull weather, sunrise and dusk. The drawback is that the bigger the lens the heavier it is to hold, which is something to bear in mind as it can be tiring to hold your arms up for long periods of time.

You are also better off buying a pair with a focusing wheel that doesn’t need much turning to secure a quick, clear image either long-range or close-up. 

Don’t buy binoculars you haven’t tried because different pairs suit different eye sockets. Those who wear spectacles should choose binoculars with fold-down rubber eye-cups. Most birdwatchers today prefer to use rubber-coated binoculars because they are easier to grip and are not as cold in winter.

Where to see British birds

Armed with an inexpensive guide and ‘bins’, theoretically you need never leave the boundaries of your garden, but such is the magic of birds that in all probability it will not be long before you start venturing beyond, even if that means nothing more than taking your binoculars with when out for a walk. 

To see a variety of species seek out the best sites near to you, including woodland, meadows, farmland, estuaries, coastlines, riverbanks and lakes. If you know any experienced birdwatchers, try to spend a day with them to learn some tips.

Often it is sound and not sight that alerts a birdwatcher to the presence of a bird, so it may be a help invest in a birdsong CD so you can start to learn the songs and calls of some of the most common species (they are curiously relaxing to listen too as well). It’s often just after daybreak when birds are at their most active, especially in the breeding season with so many extra mouths to feed, so here’s one final piece of advice: buy an alarm clock.

Find out about some of the best sites to see birds in the UK

Niall Edworthy's book, Bald Coot & Screaming Loon: A Handbook for the Curious Bird Lover is published by Eden Project Books.

Read our guide to photographing garden birds

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.