Birding 101

Over the past few years I’ve led a lot of bird watching trips. More than 100 Nicholas School students, novices almost all of them, have joined me on outings around Durham (see here for example) or coastal North Carolina (see here for example).

Nicholas School students birding with me in Duke Forest


This fall I got a request to give a talk on “birding 101” for newbie birders who want classroom instruction before venturing out into the field.

Could new birders benefit from a powerpoint presentation with some slides of local birds? I’m not sure about that.  I’ve always thought that the best way to get into and get better at birding is to get outside and give it a try.

But, as a little experiment, I’m going to present my ideas for how one might approach birding who hasn’t given much thought to the cardinals and sparrows.

Birding can be fun for anyone.  If you haven’t given it a shot, read on for a crash course!

What is birding?

Any time you pay enough attention to birds to wonder what they are and what they are doing—any moment in which you are both observing birds and are curious—you are birding.

With a little knowledge and experience, this inevitably means identifying birds and building up the visual and aural skills to do so, and then further, writing or recording bird observations in some way.

For me this means sending reports to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s, the most important crowd-sourced bird data base in the world, from which hundreds of scientific publications have already sprung. A great side benefit to ebird is that it maintains detailed personal records of bird observations. For example, thanks to ebird, I can tell you that I’ve seen 219 bird species in Hyde County, North Carolina, and 937 birds in the Western Hemisphere this calendar year.  Not everybody cares about keeping species lists at any level of detail, but for those who do, it can be a nice reward for submitting valuable data.

Why go birding?

Apart from the obvious reasons—for the enjoyment of birdlife and nature in general—birding is a way to contribute to scientific discovery.

Not only does birding take you out into wonderful natural landscapes, but it also turns every hike into a treasure hunt for a rare species and a scavenger hunt to assemble a long list.

Since birds occupy all ecosystems across all seven continents (except the deep oceans), birding is something that can be done anywhere and everywhere, from your remote field site in the antarctic, to right here on Duke’s campus.

It has also been said that birding is for environmental professionals like what golf is for the world of business. Spotting a life bird for the right person might just help you land the job or seal the contract with that employer or client. And birding puts you in the company of luminaries, such as former Dean of the Nicholas School Bill Schlesinger; Nicholas School Professor Stuart Pimm;  actor Steve Martin; former US President Jimmy Carter.

Do I need binoculars?

Yes.  Birding is way more enjoyable with a decent pair of binoculars. Other than this small initial investment birding is a very inexpensive lifestyle, especially compared to sexier hobbies, like golf or SCUBA diving.

Most birders use binoculars with 8 to 10x magnification and 35 to 50 mm objective lenses.  I use Nikon Monarch 8x42s (8x magnification and 42 mm objective lens), which are like the Honda Civic of binoculars—they’re reliable, durable, great value for money, and you’ll notice tons of other people using them. But check out Cornell’s recent comprehensive binocular review if you’re thinking about buying a pair. There are many excellent options for a wide range of price points.

Whatever you buy, make sure you get comfortable using them before heading out to the field. A little practice with aiming at and focusing on stationary objects can be surprisingly helpful preparation.

How about cameras?

Bird photography is difficult. If you want to do it at the professional level, you’ll need to invest in a lens that might cost as much as your car.

I’m not a real photographer because I don’t use a single-lens reflex (SLR). Instead I exploit the technological loophole known as mega-zoom, or ‘bridge,’ cameras, which offer the reach of a telephoto lens, while being relatively compact, lightweight, and absurdly inexpensive.

I was able to publish this Black-browed Albatross photo in the American Birding Association magazine, Winging It, taken with a cheap Panasonic Lumix FZ35.

Black-browed Albatross off Cape Hatteras, first photographic record for NC
Black-browed Albatross off Cape Hatteras, first photographic record for NC

After 4 years and thousands of captures, the playback button broke, so I donated it to my niece and upgraded to the new FZ70, which has about 3 times better range. With these cameras you rarely get a real trophy shot, but you often get something that can show identifiable field marks on a distant bird, which is often all you need.

Field Guides

The final piece of “gear,” is a field guide. There are a lot of good choices, but my recommendation is the Sibley guide. It has the best illustrations, the most helpful and concise text, and if you get the Eastern North America split version, is both cheap and light.

How do I identify birds around Durham?

Deluging you with a slideshow of several dozen common bird species probably wouldn’t be all that helpful. As I said already at the start of the post, the best way to learn is to join a birding group.

nicnats saws dnh group april 2012
Nicholas School students birding at the Duke University Wetland Center SWAMP site

Don’t be shy about asking questions. There’s little room for pride at any level of birding. The day you get cocky is the day you begin misidentifying birds.

Nicholas School Naturalists offers a lot of free or cheap nature outings. If I am listed as the leader, expect to learn about some birds. But if those aren’t enough or you want to branch out a bit further, there are also events organized by the Chapel Hill Bird Club and the New Hope Audubon Society. If you should go, expect to be the youngest in attendance by a good margin, which will make you an instant celebrity!

Where should I go look for birds on my own around Durham?

Will Cook, of Nicholas School Professor Dan Richter’s lab, maintains the excellent Triangle Birder’s Guide web site, which among many helpful features, describes essentially all the accessible local birding areas.  It’s an awesome resource.

One worth highlighting and right here on campus is the Stream and Wetland Assessment and Management Park (‘SWAMP’) by the Al Buehler Trail, a 20 to 30-minute walk from the Environment Hall will get you to this restored wetland area where more than 100 bird species have been observed.

Was this crash course helpful?  If you are a new or beginner birder and read this, please fill out a course evaluation (i.e. leave a comment)!


5 thoughts on “Birding 101

  1. Haven’t read through the content of your blog-post yet, but I am delighted with the whole notion of it. Biological science, art, and our relationship with our avian fellow travelers is something that will awaken and stir the best qualities in those of us that are inheriting this challenged world.

  2. I am so glad you are doing this for students at Duke. I had always been a backyard birder but when I started working as a volunteer with youth at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City did I start to get serious. I realized how much our youth did not know about the nature around them. I am now retired in Pamlico County, NC. It is a mecca for birding! The southern boundary for northern American birds and northern boundary for Southern birds.

    I was so fortunate that there was an avid birder here wanting to help us know what wealth we had. She is now teaching birding classes at Pamlico Community College. These are field trips with one class on campus to let us know what we should see. Even though I have taken the full seasons of courses covering the birds of the seasonsI am still involved because I love the birding trips and helping new birders.

    Important things to cover are etiquette of birding such as what to wear and noises, etc and what binoculars to have to make the most of trips. When to use those apps with bird calls…

    Yes, I am often getting up and getting out earlier more often than I want to but it has been so worth it.

    We would welcome you from Durham down to Pamlico County to look at our bounty of birds. Just two days ago I was at a favorite birding place and spotted Tundra Swans flying over and the local Bald Eagle whose nest is nearby. I am eagerly waiting to look at a new Eagles nest on Green Creek to see if there is any activity.

    Go for it!


    1. Thanks so much for the kind words, Diane.

      You are right to bring up birding etiquette. I’m always hesitant to lay down hard rules beyond the unspoken expectations of respect for birds, other people and laws while out enjoying birds. And yet every birder has stories…

      Glad you are enjoying the birds of Pamlico Co., NC. I am embarrassed to admit that I have observed birds in essentially every ‘down east’ county EXCEPT Pamlico. Really need to fill that hole! I know I am missing out.

      Please keep these constructive and encouraging comments coming.

      1. Come on down! Maybe you would be interested in our Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 16. I can get you in contact with Liz who is organizing it. We have great birders and even greater birds.

Comments are closed.