Bird watching is fun, from backyard birding to the great outdoors, wild birds are fascinating to watch. You probably found my blog because you are a beginner looking for information on bird watching; I want to help you and other beginners to find what you need. I have put together the following guide to help people get started with bird watching. Let’s get going…
What equipment do you need for bird watching? The basic equipment every bird watcher has includes – bird feeders and bird food, optical equipment such as binoculars and scopes, a field guide (for identifying birds), a decent smart phone camera or a DSLR. If going further afield, suitable footwear and clothing are essential, as are food and drink.
Your Bird Watching Gear Checklist
The gear and equipment you need will largely depend on how you intend to do your bird watching and what your budget is. For those who prefer to stay at home and watch the birds in the garden, a few basic provisions will get them started. Maybe just a bird feeder, an old pair of binoculars and a lot of patience will provide enough enjoyment for some.
For those who want to go further afield to spot birds, a more comprehensive list of equipment is recommended. For the hardcore spotters a good quality DSLR camera is a must, along with a spotting scope, camera mounts, tripod and all the gear.
Whichever type of bird spotter you are, from novice to pro, you will need some or at least all of the following things from my bird watcher’s checklist.
1. Field Guides
A Field Guide is basically an illustrated book or other similar reference material that will help you to identify most birds you are likely come across. The majority of guides will be printed in colour with clear pictures showing the colours, markings and maybe the comparative size of each bird.Many of the more comprehensive guides also cover habitats, maps and other useful information.
Start With The Basics
I recommend getting at least one book or even a fold up chart to start with. Even knowing basic information can give beginners a feeling of accomplishment, as they see the actual birds in front of them. For example, knowing how to tell the difference between tits and finches, why their beaks are different and other interesting stuff.
What Type of Birding Field Guide Is Best?
The type of guide you choose will depend on how you prefer the information to be presented; it comes down to personal choice. The best bird identification books will cover all the information you need, from the basics to more advanced information. They essentially they do the same thing but in different ways with varying styles and level of detail. You should find something that provides a lot of information without overwhelming you. This is supposed to be enjoyable, not a struggle to get to grips with.
Illustrations Are Better Than Photos
Most bird watchers recommend birding books with illustrations rather than photos. There is good reason for this. Experienced wildlife illustrators are able to capture the true appearance of a bird in any given position. This allows them to show markings and plumage, for both genders of each species, without being affected by poor lighting or any other unwanted obstructions. While photos are often very good, you can’t beat a skilled illustrator for accuracy and presentation.
Ask Around or Check The Library
My best advice is to ask other birding people what they use and what they think works. The responses you get will likely differ but maybe if one particular guide is mentioned more than once its worth a look. You might even get a loan of a recommended book.
Online forums are good for this kind of advice too – they are populated by real people with real experience in the subject who want to share advice and help. I highly recommend joining the RSPB Online Community. I have learned so much from this forum since starting this blog.
Your local library will probably have some birding books to start you off. This way you can have a look and get a feel for what works for you. From there you can find a guide of your own that you like at a decent price.
Size IS Important
Remember, if you intend to go out and about to do your bird watching, the guide you choose will need to be suitable for carrying around. There are many so called ‘pocket guides’ available but check the dimensions before you buy because not all are genuinely pocket-sized (unless you have big pockets!).
Some of The Best Birding Guides You Should Consider
In The Guardian I found a list of the top 10 birding books as of 2008. It was a few years ago but most are still best sellers on Amazon today. I won’t go through the pros and cons of each but you can find out more by visiting the article here.
Below is each book that was listed. I recommend you take the time to have a look at some of them, particularly the RSPB ones.
RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds
Pocket Guide to the Birds of Britain and North-west Europe
Complete British Birds
Collins Gem – Birds
RSPB Handbook of British Birds
Collins Bird Guide
Birds of Europe
The Garden Bird Handbook
Field Guide to Bird Songs and Calls
Birding Guides For Children
For children who want to start bird watching, there are many birding books aimed at younger audiences. They explain things in a more age appropriate way. Some have activities, challenges, stickers and areas in the book to sketch the birds they find.
If you want to encourage your child to get involved and to become interested in birds, I highly recommend the RSPB Children’s Guide To Bird Watching. This book is also on the top 10 list from the Guardian article.
My eldest daughter was given this book for her birthday last year and she loves it. It is packed with colourful pictures and all kinds of useful information for a young enquiring mind.
2. Birding Apps For Smartphones
My mobile phone goes everywhere with me and I cannot live without it. Rightly or wrongly, smartphones have become a massive part of society and life in general. It’s good then, that there are a number of very good birding apps available for download from the various app stores.
Instead of taking a pocket guide or book with you when bird spotting, consider using a phone app instead. The best ones not only provide coloured illustrations and other useful information, they also enable identification by sound.
A slight fly in the ointment with using an app is that you will unlikely be able to use the smartphone’s camera simultaneously. It depends on how you want to record your findings and if you want to use the app to identify as you go, or use it afterwards to retrospectively identify a bird.
Binoculars are the go to piece of equipment for most birding enthusiasts whilst out and about. There are a number of things to be aware of when choosing a pair of binoculars; magnification, objective lens and overall size to name a few.
The Advantages of Binoculars
Binoculars are way more portable and more practical than a spotting scope, when on the move. Two of the biggest advantages of binoculars over spotting scopes are:
- Binoculars offer a wider field of vision.
- The maximum magnification of binoculars is less.
- The close focus can be less.
A Wider Field of Vision
A wider field of vision enables you to see more of what you are looking at and is something binoculars are very good at, compared to scopes. If you are looking at a flock of birds a wider view allows you to see them all and to track them more easily as they move. The field of view decreases as the magnification increases. This means that binoculars with a higher magnification will likely have a narrower field of vision. Its a bit of a trade off between the two.
Now, number two on the list may sound like a disadvantage but it is not. With greater magnification comes greater instability of the image you see. Regular binoculars are designed to be handheld. Unless you have the steady hand of a sniper, you will find that the greater the magnification allows more shake and image instability.
Greater magnification also means less light is let in through the lenses, making your image darker, albeit closer. So, with the wider field of view and a more reasonable magnification factor the image you see will be, crisper, lighter, clearer and more enjoyable.
Close focus is the minimum distance over which the binoculars will clearly focus. This is particularly useful if spotting at closer range, such as in the garden or from a location close to a bird’s habitat. Scopes are a bit rubbish at this because they close focus length is often a minimum of just 20 metres. I am really limited with my scope in the back garden because it is only around 30 metres long.
Understanding The Numbers
When buying binoculars you will see some numbers; 10 x 42, 16 x 56, 8 x 56 and so on. Understanding these numbers will help you to decide which binoculars may suit you best. Here’s what those numbers mean.
The binoculars pictured are from the Nikon Monarch 5 range. These are a mid-range pair of binoculars and they are available in the following specifications: 8 x 42, 10 x 42, 12 x 42, 8 x 56, 16 x 56 and 20 x 56.
Magnification – The first number in each of those options is the magnification, from 8x to 20x. The general advice is that something around 8x or 10x magnification will be best for most situations.
Obviously greater magnification will be an advantage for spotting birds that are further away. Remember, a higher magnification will reduce brightness and field of vision.
Objective Diameter – The second number of binocular specification is the ‘objective lens’ diameter in millimetres. The objective lens is the larger lens at the wider end of the binoculars (the opposite end to the eye piece). The size of the objective lens is important because this is where the light enters the binoculars. The more light, the brighter and clearer the image will be.
Surely it makes sense to get the widest lenses? Yes… and no. As the size of the binoculars goes up, the weight also increases. So, again we have a trade off between magnification, image quality and weight. The idea is to have a pair of binoculars you can carry with you and give you the best results – not too heavy and a clear image of the right size.
How The Numbers Affect The Image
Let’s take the Nikon Monarch 5 binoculars as an example. The table below, from the Amazon product page, sets out a number of technical specifications. I have highlighted the main points mentioned so far to show how each one affects the others. I deliberately chose the higher magnification bins to highlight the significant differences.
See how the lens size stays the same but as the magnification doubles, the field of vision reduces by around a quarter. The relative brightness also reduces quite a bit as the magnification goes up.
The best thing to do is to go to a shop and test some different binoculars. this way you can hold them, feel the weight and get a good idea as to what you will actually see through them. After that, shop around for the best price.
4. Spotting Scopes
Firstly, what is a spotting scope? A spotting scope is a single lens optical device for viewing distant objects across land and sea. They are also good for looking at the moon in way more detail than binoculars are capable of.
Spotting scopes are used across a whole load of different activities – shooting, hunting, birding, surveillance; pretty much anything that requires a long range and stable view beyond that of binoculars.
How To Choose a Spotting Scope For Birding
Similar to binoculars, spotting scopes come in a variety of sizes, weights and they can differ in quality quite a lot. Like most things, the quality of spotting scopes is budget dependent. You will need to try some out so you can get a feel for how they work, how portable they are (or not) and whether you would actually beneift from using one over a pair of good old fashioned binoculars.
Here are some things to consider when choosing a spotting scope.
The magnification is usually greater than that of binoculars, allowing you to see birds from further distances. Spotting scopes that are suitable for bird watching provide magnification of between 15 – 60x.
Again with greater magnification comes more instability as a result of shaking, knocking the tripod or anything else that causes the scope to move. Even a small amount of movement will be enough to affect the image. This is why it is recommended that spotting scopes are used with a tripod. Most scopes will have a built in thread or plate for tripod use.
As the magnification increases the filed of view decreases. It is often a useful to line up a scope with the subject before zooming in. That way you benefit from a wider field of view for tracking, followed by a more detailed view for identification.
What Do The Numbers Mean On Spotting Scopes?
Just like binoculars, spotting scopes have numbers that represent the magnification and size of lens. The first part of the number sequence is the range of magnification. The second number in millimetres is the diameter of the objective lens (the wide end).
The scope in the picture is the Celestron 52248 65 mm Ultima Spotting Scope, which I found on Amazon. It has a the following numbers allocated – 18-55×65 mm. The magnification is from 18 – 55x, which is a good range. The second number (65 mm) is the diameter of the wide lens.
The image from a spotting scope is controlled by adjusting two dials. Firstly, a dial on the main body of the scope is turned to get the subject into focus. Once in focus a subject can be magnified by turning the dial near to the eyepiece. This is where the magnification range comes in.
I have summarised some of the technical detail for two scopes within this product range. Notice how the 80 mm version has a greater range of magnification? Due to it’s larger objective lens the scope also gives a wider field of view. An 80 mm lens on a spotting scope isn’t such a big deal as it is with a pair of binoculars.
Something else worth noting is the close focus distance. It is usually the case that with greater magnification the close focus increases. This means that using the scope in a small to medium garden may be difficult, as you will not get the focus and clarity of image from less than 20 metres away. This is something I have often struggled with when using my scope.
What Is Better – A Straight or Angled Spotting Scope?
The only real difference between angled and straight spotting scopes is how they look and feel; the performance of a scope is not affected either way. It comes down to personal preference and I would recommend you try at least one scope before making a purchase.
I prefer the angled scopes; they are more comfortable to use and I am not having to crouch down to get a view through the eyepiece. It is easier for me to share the scope with others, allowing them to look down into the scope, rather than re positioning themselves to look through.
Something I have been trying my hand at is ‘digiscoping’ – using a camera (or in my case, a mobile phone) to take photos through the scope. This can work really well if you use the right adaptor and an angled scope really helps with this. I often use my mobile phone screen as a viewer instead of looking through the scope.
Another way in which the angled scopes help is to make it easier to view birds higher up in the trees. You can still have a tripod fairly low with the scope pointing up at a higher angle. Even in this position the eyepiece is at a comfortable angle to look through.
Using a Tripod With A Scope
It should be expected that you will need a tripod if using a scope. Using a spotting scope without a tripod will be a challenge. As already mentioned, a spotting scope is capable of much higher magnification than a regular pair of binoculars. Unless the scope is held as steady as a rock, the image will be shaky and unusable.
The other advantage of using a tripod is that once you have the subject lined up you can leave the scope in place. Share the view with others or come back to it after taking photos of other subjects
5. Nesting Boxes With Cameras
A growing feature in many UK gardens is the bird box with a camera inside. In the past we have put up bird boxes (or nesting boxes) and seen birds coming and going through the seasons. However, we cannot see in side to enjoy the wonders of nature. Also, how can we be sure a nest is finished with before we clean out the nest box?
With constantly evolving technology we can now have bird boxes with cameras fitted inside. We can actually watch birds nesting, hatching, feeding right from our TV or smart devices. Some bird boxes come with a camera kit; others come camera ready, meaning you need to buy a separate camera kit to fit in the box.
Wired vs Wireless
There are two types of bird box camera – wired and wireless. At the risk of stating the obvious – a wired camera is attached to audio visual equipment or a router via a cable. A wireless camera uses WiFi to connect to a home network, allowing smart devices to view the image.
There are pros and cons to each type of camera set up.
- A wired camera provides a more robust and reliable signal from the camera to the network or viewing equipment.
- You need to route a cable from the bird box to the network router or AV equipment. This may dictate the box location and may also involve a visible cable both outside and inside the house.
- Cheaper and more affordable than a wireless camera.
- A wireless bird box camera gives greater flexibility and the added convenience of a WiFi connection.
- There is no requirement for ugly cables to run from the bird box around the house and through walls.
- WiFi can be patchy and a strong signal will be required for a consistent connection.
- Can be more pricey than a wired camera.
- It still needs power which may involve at least one cable, e.g. POE (Power Over Ethernet).
One key feature you should look for, whether wired or wireless, is a bird box camera with night vision. Even at night with limited light, a camera with night vision can see what is going on inside the box. They have non-intrusive, completely safe infra red lights that allow the camera to do this.
There are two best sellers on Amazon currently – Garden Secrets Cedar Bird Nest Box & Bird Nest Box Colour Camera with Audio
Here is an example of how clear a bird box camera can be. I love this video clip, it is quite captivating.
What Type of Bird Box Can I Fit a Camera In?
You can buy a bird box with a camera kit included but if you’d prefer to just buy a camera kit for an existing box, you can. By purchasing a box with a camera you know the camera will fit and everything should work together. If you buy your own camera kit to fit your own box it is down to you to get it right.
Things You Need To Know
A camera can be fitted into any bird box as long as it physically fits and leaves enough room for a family of birds. Therefore, it is only recommended you fit a camera into a sufficiently large bird box, so as not to become intrusive.
If you want to use a wired camera kit, don’t forget to leave a large enough hole or groove that allows the cable to pass through.
Consider how your camera is powered. Ideally, you will use a camera powered by the mains or a POE cable. If you use a battery powered camera, will it have enough stored energy to last a whole nesting season? The last thing you should be doing is returning to the nest to change the batteries!
The bird box must allow enough light in, so the camera can produce a good quality image. Most purpose made bird boxes designed to receive a camera have a hole cut in the side. The hole is covered with a clear plastic or other lightweight material that allows light to pass through. With no light the camera will not be able to produce a natural image in the day time.
6. Online Forums
I have already mentioned online forums and as you are reading this post I can safely assume you have the internet. Simply searching the web for answers is often the best way to get the information you need. If you hadn’t landed here, the chances are you may have followed a link to a birding forum that provides the answer.
The benefit of becoming a member of an online birding forum or community is that you can ask questions and usually get answers. The thing with forums is that most people frequenting them know something about the subject and love being asked their opinion. The chances are that whatever you ask, someone has been there and done it – several times! They love being able to share what they have done and to give back to the community.
No Such Thing As A Silly Question (sort of)
Don’t be afraid of asking a silly question; people will want to help if they can. My advice would be to check the forum first to see if you question has already been answered. This is easy as most forum websites have a search facility. Some topics have been done to death over the years and people can get a little annoyed at questions being asked that are easily solved with a simple search.
Online communities are also a great way to interact with like minded people; sharing and discussing ideas in a safe and friendly environment.
There are two really good birding forums that I use and recommend:
Both are free to join and once signed up you can say Hi and start a discussion.