Birdwatching: tips for beginners


I am particularly interested in garden wildlife which is why I did my Master's degree with a focus on "animal ecology". I am convinced that beneficial insects and wildlife are a sustainable and effective alternative to many of the products we use on our plants. I am also a passionate birdwatcher and rarely go for a walk without my binoculars.

Favourite fruit: kiwi, apple and redcurrant
Favourite vegetables: tomatoes and green beans

Birdwatching is an increasingly popular hobby. If you want to try your hand, look no further. Here are ten tips for budding ornithologists.

A girl uses binoculars to bird watch
Birdwatching is increasingly popular, and is wonderful hobby for young and old [Photo: trattieritratti/]

Birdwatching has a long history in the UK. It is an exciting and diverse hobby, a wonderful way to spend time in nature, and helps the British Trust for Ornithology monitor fluctuations in bird populations. Be it at home or out in the country, there are birds everywhere. And with over 550 species native to the UK, you’ll never be short of new discoveries. For bird enthusiasts and new starters, here are some tips on entering the marvellous world of ornithology.

Tip 1: Start small

Hearing an intermingling of birdsong on a morning walk is delightful. However, it can make distinguishing individual birds a daunting task. As such, it is best to start with a few, easily identifiable species. Garden birds are best, as they are so well known. Think: blue tit, great tit, blackbird, robin, magpie or chaffinch.

Tip 2: Use the right equipment

Birdwatching requires two things: binoculars and a bird guidebook. For the binoculars, it is best to have at least 8x magnification and a 40mm lens diameter. A new pair will set you back around £150, but second-hand models are just as good and a fraction of the price. In principle, however, try before you buy, especially if you wear glasses.

Close-up of binoculars
Binoculars are the most important piece of equipment for an ornithologist [Photo: Alexander David/]

There are many good birding books, but we recommend The Collins Bird Guide by Peter J. Grant and Lars Svensson. The birding guide presents all the important, species-specific characteristics, includes detailed illustrations, and offers extra information on the habitats and distributions of the birds.

Tip 3: Listen out

Listening makes up a large part of ornithology. Birds can be shy and are best left undisturbed. Luckily for us, their unique songs will give them away, even if they are not in sight. The easiest way to learn a bird’s song is to watch it singing. Since this is not always possible, you can listen to recordings of birds singing on CDs and apps. In fact, BirdNET, a free app, identifies bird species from recordings you make – give it a try!

It is easiest to start learning bird songs in the colder months, as there are fewer songs to distinguish. By spring, the number of voices will continually increase and allow you to incrementally add to your repertoire.

Tip 4: Take notes

When birdwatching, it is always good to note down the birds you have seen, when and where. This forces you to really identify the birds, and provides a diary of the species you have already seen. In spring, migratory birds gradually return to our islands and your diary will provide a great overview of any seasonal changes you see.

Tip 5: Offer food

Feeding stations are a simple way to attract birds to your garden. Birds can take some time feeding, which allows even children to watch them from afar. To prevent mould, however, be sure that any food you put out, be it self-made or a fat ball, is moisture-free. Also, your feeder should be out of reach of cats and, to prevent the spread of disease, constructed in such a way that birds cannot sit and defecate in their feed. Finally, the feed itself should be diverse, as different species have different requirements.

Tip 6: Learn from a professional

Experienced ornithologists can give you a great head start in your birdwatching journey by highlighting the distinctive sounds you should listen out for.

Tip 7: Use the twilight hours

You don’t need to be an early bird to go birdwatching. Although loudest in the morning, many songbirds, such as the blackbird, redstart and great tit are active until dusk. And because there are fewer sounds, twilight is well suited for beginners. Once it is completely dark, most songbirds fall silent. But if you hold out a little longer, you may discover some nocturnal species, such as the field warbler, partridge and owl.

Tip 8: Use nesting aids

Nesting aids are another great way to attract birds to your garden. Like a bird feeder, you can make it a family project and build your own bird box. Birdhouses give you the opportunity to observe your birds’ breeding behaviours: from building a nest to raising young. But be sure to build the right birdhouse for the right bird!

Birds at a birdhouse
Birdhouses offer a unique insight into the lives of garden singbirds [Photo: Ian_Sherriffs/]

Tip 9: Plan outings

To discover even more birds, why not go on a little trip? Rare species often have certain demands that cannot be met in urban environments. In many bird sanctuaries, these rarer species find refuge, so you can watch them in their natural habitat.

Tip 10: Show consideration

However fun birdwatching may be, it is always important to leave birds undisturbed, especially during breeding season and near their nesting sites. Avoid opening birdhouses, except to clean them in late spring. And in protected areas, it is best not to leave the paths to chase down animals. Normally, sanctuaries have special vantage points from which to observe the birds while they go about their business.

If you would like to learn more about how you can assist garden birds, have a go at designing a bird-friendly garden.

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