10 steps: How to be a birdwatcher (hobbyist)

Before I tell you ‘How’, let me ask you ‘Why’. Why do you want to be a bird watcher? What is it that interests you about this hobby? Where did you hear about it?

You got inspired looking at wildlife/bird photographs on social media?

Your last hiking group had some birdwatchers, and their hobby fascinated you?

A family member or a friend who tells tales of birding adventures has got your attention?

Well for me, my first official bird watching trip was with my then girlfriend, now wife Varnica to the docks of Sewri, Mumbai. Every year hundreds of Mumbaikars gather to watch flocks of the migrating Greater Flamingos – feeding far away into the marshes, looking like pink blobs to the naked eye. We used one of the scopes set up by BNHS and that’s when I could actually see these beautiful birds in more detail. Their pink wings, big weird shaped beak and long legs amazed me. It was a different experience for me to see so many people come to this muddy, swamp area just to see these beautiful birds.

Since then with every trip, from mountains of Chail to thick forests of Kerala and Goa to marshes of Sundarbans, this hobby of watching birds has grown over me.

Greater Flamingos

Every birder has a different story of how they became birdwatchers. I am not at all talking about professional birdwatchers and wildlife photographers who study in depth the biology of the birds and their environments. I am just a hobbyist, who loves to be out in the wild, watching birds for enjoyment and love to learn about them through observation.

Looking back, I realize that my journey can be broken into the following phases.

A startup guide for New Bird Watchers :

Step 01 : Observe Different Type of Birds:

For birding too, education begins at home. I used to look outside my window and observe the birds visiting my balcony or sitting on the trees closest to my home and within my locality. While going out for walks, I learnt even more and got better in identifying birds. I started observing the differences between the birds based on their size, the sound they made and the colors on their body and much more.

House Sparrow enjoying its mid day snack at our window.

Step 02 : Tag along with other Bird Watchers

To up your game and try out your skills (and patience), its best to go on the field. Tag along with the best birder you know or join a group of hobbyists online. For me, I was lucky, my wife was my best guide and helped me grow better at this hobby. I learnt so many things while going on our early morning trips along lakes and sanctuaries. (Yeah!! Getting up early is the part and parcel of this hobby. There is no other way!)

Bird watching and Hiking at Singalila National Park

Step 03 : Invest in a Good set of Binoculars

Observing birds can be a lot of fun. They are such tiny creatures and it can get really difficult to spot them up in the dense trees. That’s where a good set of binoculars can come in handy.

Looking at them through these optical devices, you will be amazed to see the colors and details of the bird. You can observe and enjoy their behavior when they are nesting or feeding their young. It’s fun to watch smallest birds like the Weaver birds making their beautifully designed nest to impress their female mate or a woodpecker ‘head banging’ early morning in search of insects in between the cracks of the tree barks.

There is so much you can learn from these tiny beautiful creatures. I love to keep watching them, they can be quite entertaining. My current Binoculars are great for beginners.

Step 04 : Get a Bird Book

Once you have made frequent trips to many different locations, I’m sure you would have developed better understanding of the birds living in those areas. That’s a good time for you to invest in a bird book of the State or Country you are in.

Bird books have lot of important information about bird species which help you gain so much knowledge about them. Nowadays there are so many e-books available on birds online. They make it easier to birdwatch anywhere and everywhere. For me, to read about the bird’s details, of its habits and migration is part of the fun of the hobby.

I started with the book “Collins Handguide to the Birds of the Indian Sub-Continent“. Borrowed from my wife (her first childhood  birding book), it was great for me as a beginner. Simple write ups, big pictures and has the most popular birds in my country – India.

The illustrations in this book are amazing. It easily helps us distinguish between the similar looking birds out there.

Later, on my father in laws suggestion, the whole family started using the Ebook version of ‘Birds of the Indian Subcontinent‘ by Carol Inskipp. This book has a humongous collection of all Indian birds, with variants and deep details. My father inlaw, being a seasoned birdwatcher, has a lot of bird books in his collection but this Ebook was a great tool for our spontaneous bird spotting moments. 

Somewhere in between we invested in “A Pictorial Field Guide to Birds of India“. It’s not a field guide but can be used as an IDing guide. Unlike “Birds of the Indian Sub-Continent” this has more realistic photos and is helpful in differentiating one tiny brown bird from another. It’s well researched and is a very attractive book with lots of very interesting information about birds and that’s why it’s bulky and not easy to carry around.

A couple of years back I shifted focus from only watching the bird to photographing the bird. The “The Cornell Lab Merlin” app has now become more important than ever for me as it uses its vast database and helps identifying the birds easily by scanning my photos.

My own reliable Bird Guides

By seeing more birds and using these/books and apps, I have learnt a lot of bird names and behavioral properties of each species. Now I don’t have to use them so frequently, as I am able to identify many species with their characteristic features.

Step 05 : Maintain a Bird Journal

It’s fun to have a record of the birds you see on a trip on a given date. There will be times where you would not see more than a couple of birds (or zero!) but there would also be other days you will see so many birds that memorizing them will be impossible. That’s when a Bird Journal will come in handy. Make sure to carry one always with you to quickly jot down birds you see.

This practice is extremely helpful if I plan to revisit the place. If I am going in the same season, next year, I know what I should expect to see and what else I need to look for. If I am going in a different season, I know which birds have migrated in for the season and which are repeats from last season – those maybe residents. It helps me learn nesting and migration patterns of any location.

This can be done in a small notebook or online, like on The Cornell Lab, Ebird app.

My Bird Journal

Step 06 : Develop your Skills

Every day is a learning experience when you are on field, birdwatching. Observation is the key. Even though you have seen the bird a couple of times, studying its behavior will help you improve your skills. I like to study different habitats and locations. How do they find food? What are their habits and how do they make nests and feed young. I observe the size of the bird, study their wing patterns, how long or short its tail is. Sometimes, listening to the sounds of the birds help me identify them even without looking at them.

The fastest bird on earth, the Peregrine Falcon eating its prey under the Zuari Bridge in Goa.

Step 07 : Invest in a good Camera and Lens

After you have started understanding the different species of birds and you are serious enough to take this hobby to the next level (the fun part begins!), it’s time for you to treat yourself with a good camera and a decent lens.

You will find a wide range of options available in the market. Choose wisely as this will stick around with you for a long time. Of Course, as you get better at it, you can add many more lenses and cameras in your collection.  It would give you the advantage of capturing the birds you have seen digitally (and also show off your photography skills with friends and family!). I keep my gear simple and love my current Camera, Lens and Tripod

Never hesitate to get down and dirty to capture the shot you want! This is me trying to get a photograph of a White Wagtail at the entrance of Kaziranga National Park, Assam.
And this is the photograph I got!!

Birds are very photogenic, they can give the best, and sometimes most  hilarious  poses you can imagine. You can see some of my collection here.

This is what happens when you wake a little Spotted Owlet at 07:00 am in the morning.

Step 08 : Get efficient! Choose your own digital guides and apps

These days, there is a huge competition in the online industry. Like shopping on one of your favorite places like Amazon or apps for ordering groceries. So why should we birders stay behind?

There are so many apps just for bird lovers where you can get tons of information about birds with their detailed photographs. They also have a map system where you could find your favorite bird. eBird, Merlin, Vannya are leading the market right now.

I personally use ebird to list down the birds I have spotted in any particular location along with their count and actions. I use Merlin regularly to ID birds from my photos especially when I click similar looking brown tiny birds which are actually different species or a juvenile bird which does not have a photo in the bird book. So keeping a few of these apps is definitely a good idea..

Step 09 : Book a Guided Tour

By this phase, I was able to spot and ID most birds in and around my city. But what about when you go to a new habitat for a vacation? You have limited time, and don’t know the birding spots or bird perching/feeding grounds etc.. In such a situation, it’s always best to book yourself a guided tour for the best experience. There are many guided tours available which you can choose from based on your location and time of the year. These guides will help you see many birds you would have never seen before and you can learn so much from them and get inspired.

It’s always best to let your guide know what level of bird watcher you are, if you are a beginner or advanced and are you a photographer or only a watcher or researcher? It would be ideal to carry a list of birds you have already learnt about which live in this particular location, it would give the tour a target. A good guide will add the missing birds in your list :). These guides are generally locals who have lived in the area all their lives, observing the flora and fauna of the area. It’s best to trust them and be respectful. No one can guarantee spotting birds in the wild, and that’s half of the fun of this hobby. Its the best kind of treasure hunt!!!!

With our Bird Guide Loven (center) at Backwoods Camp – Goa.

Step 10 : Most importantly – Don’t Stop!

Practice makes Perfect! Yes it does. After getting yourself to this level, it’s really important to stick with it. In other words, Don’t stop! And if you are passionate about this hobby, I guarantee, you wouldn’t.

There are many factors which might make you feel discouraged, like:

Walking around a hot dry forest for 4 hours and not spotting a single new bird and your list only has pigeon, crow, mynah, bulbul and shrike!

Even after clicking 20 photos of a bird, none of the photos are sharp! or don’t look like those million amazing pictures on the internet or magazines.

You spotted the rarest bird perched happily on a branch hanging over the river, you set up your tripod, camera and focus – all set!! and the bird flies away across the river to the next thickest of trees – thanks to the loud noisy college gang jumping into the water!!!!

At such times, it’s important to remember and count the amazing experiences that you had when you were out there, those are – priceless.

In conclusion, birdwatching as a hobby is easy but needs a lot of patience! It’s a slow paced activity so anyone can pick it up at any age.

It’s rewarding as well as relaxing at the same time. The quiet forest helps all individuals to reflect upon themselves and get away from their hectic everyday schedules.

Can be clubbed with other activities like Hiking, Camping, Nature walks and much more.

You don’t have to plan a bird watching trip (obviously that is better but not compulsory!), you can most probably enjoy it anywhere and everywhere. Each type of habitat attracts some kind of birds. In Himalayan towns, every dumpster hosts flocks of Leothrix and variety of thrushes where as here in Mumbai Crows, Pigeons and Kites are the dumpster kings! Birdwatching can be enjoyed from comfort of your home, like how I enjoyed capturing a few moments of the pigeons in my garden during ‘The Lockdown of 2020‘.

It’s a relatively cheaper hobby unless you start spending on expensive photography gear. Looking at those big lenses being used by professional bird and animal photographers on birdwatching trips make me drool too. but I know I still have a long way to go before I reach that level. 🙂

Blue Throated Barbet posing for us with a Palash flower (Flame of the Forest) in Gangtok, Sikkim.

Leave a comment here if you found this post helpful and if you have decided to pickup birdwatching as your hobby! 😀

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