Tuesday, 6 January 2009

How can I start birdwatching?

Taking part in the Bird Challenge this Festive period and generally while I'm out and about, people (it has to be said mainly ladies or families out for a walk) often ask; What are you doing? when I tell them, they say; how can I learn about the birds I see? often in the garden.

I love it when someone in a hide asks me what that bird is, after all we all started out with zero knowledge, so helping someone to enjoy wildlife is a pleasure. Sadly though there are a small minority of birders out there who remain stony faced and look aghast when someone dares to get a bird guide out and look at it... use a book, shocking!!! There is no shame in using one, honestly!!

This ignorant behaviour of the minority just doesn't help the image of an aloof exclusive hobby, practiced only by men. I remember talking to a lovely elderly couple a few years back who'd taken up birdwatching after retiring. They told a sad tale. Struggling to identify a female Mallard, a birder in the hide, dripping with kit and cameras shouted at them to bleep bleep shut up. Not helpful in the least, and surely his shouting was worse than their talking? All he had to say was what the bird was and they'd have gone home happy (maybe he didn't know himself?) Needless to say this couple nearly gave up birdwatching, and were very nervous of being in a hide with other "professional looking" people.

Joining societies such as the RSPB or a local bird club are excellent for starting out, but mainly wildlife watching is a solitary activity. So how would you start? There are thousands of bird books on the market, a bewildering array of titles. Many of you will read this posting and disagree, or have others to suggest, but the 3 books I would recommend to start out in the UK and then improve are.........

I just think this is a brilliant book to start with. Just covering British birds, ignores rarities and all the difficult stuff and just concentrates on the premise, "what will I see if I'm out there and looking at a bird". The paintings aren't the best in the business but cover key features and the text by our National Treasure Bill Oddie is simple to read, states the obvious (which many guides fail to do so) such as "you'll not see these birds in the winter"

So you've read Bills book, but it's a bit heavy to use out in the field. This pocketbook lives in my car, and is always there for a reference check. I used to have the original version of this but it fell into a river and for years couldn't find a replacement. What I like about this book is again it's simple and the excellent illustrations are complemented by helpful pointers such as "white rump when flying"

So you want to know more? This is the book I'd recommend. One could begin with this book, however once you have some knowledge, this can expand that as it lists all European birds, not just in the UK. Covers sub species, races, vagrants, and life phases. Text is very informative, well laid out and given that 2 World class birders I know who write bird guides themselves carry this book with them when birding, need I say more.

Go on, New Years resolution..... put your wellies on, pop on a bobble hat and see what's out there.


  1. I watch the birds from the kitchen every day - I keep the bins on teh draining board LOL. OH asked on Sunday how I could identify so many of them - no unusual birds, just the usual ones that visit, but some had stumped him - I said if I see one I don't know I'll go and look it up in the book and find out more about it, look on the net, etc. As you say, everyone starts with zero knowledge, and it's amazing what you learn, and how you can retain the info to pass on to others.
    I watched the Three Men thing last night where they went to the Scillies, birdwatching - that was quite interesting too. I just pick up bits of info as I go through life - it's fascinating to try and understand a little more each time about what's out there for the looking.


  2. Good point well made, I still squint at Collins in hides if I need to, especially with gulls and waders. I don't care if anyone gets sniffy about it.

    Everyone's got to start somewhere.

    The biggest tip I'd give new birders is people with the biggest kit don't necessarily have the best skills. I've seen some serious-looking types kitted up in Leica and Ziess optics make some horrific ID errors in the past!


  3. Thanks for this post Andrew. I started with zero knowledge of birds about 4 years ago but I'm not easily intimidated, so I must admit I just ignore the snooty people in the hides at Arne or Middlebere. I ALWAYS carry a book with me, and ALWAYS get it out in the hide and flip through it or ask someone what a bird is. On the whole people have been very friendly to me (and let me look down there scopes or through there high-powered bins at interesting birds). I've had some lovely afternoons chatting (quietly) to people in hides! (some with all the kit in the world, some with just a small pair of binoculars). I even shared one guys coffee from his Thermos! Thanks for the book tips (I have the second one as an old edition but the others are new to me). Jane

  4. Thamks Andrew,both for your comment on my blog and this blog. I have been using the RSPB book by Rob Hume for ID which I haggled for when we joined the RSPB and got it free! But...I think today I will go and spend some Christmas money on a pocket book guided by your blog.
    I have watched birds for years but not very seriously, brought up in the country I learnt alot around the farm and now I live in the town which is not so great but still lots to see.


  5. Hello there Andrew, excellent post! Well put too and helpful book tips :-D

    Just like Mrs L, I built up my ID’s (2yrs) by looking up a book or the internet. I still refer back my original book The RSPB ‘BIRDFEEDER’ GUIDE by Robert Burton. It met, and still does, my needs for garden bird ID’s – although I have picked up other larger books since. As it was a feeder book I would consider what foods brought a species into the garden and provide a bigger selection. I then found the bigger the variety of foods I put out the bigger the number of species found there way to my garden – and so birdwatching began :-D

    Books, knowledgeable people and hides? I too am not intimidated by what l see as birding experts. I respect their need for quiet but I too will ask questions and chat to people. I'm not in hides that often but have found most people in them to be helpful and friendly :-D

  6. Hi all,
    Andrew you've missed my favourite guide - Lars Johnsson's Bird of Europe. He is still the best bird artist in the world.

    Another thing to all, try and take notes and descriptions of a bird you dont know while watching it. Even if you get the ID wrong at first you will learn much more by doing this. It etches features in your mind.

    As for hide experts, can I flip the coin. I too love to help beginners, but on occasion have offered and been given the push off because they wanted to do it themselves. Now, I am as afraid of helping beguinners as you all are of approaching experts!

    Best thing I think is to just behave as freely as you like around birders. Chat and ask questions if you like. If they don't like it thats their problem... I reckon the reason these people dont like questions is that they are not quite the expert they think they are...

  7. My own fave is the RSPB Handbook of British Birds. It seems to have the right number of species and I like all the "other" info it contains.

    The one I carry though is the Pocket Handbook of British Birds by Kightley et al. And I have been no to refer to it in hides. Stuff the snobs I say.

    I like the new Mitchell Beazley guide as well.

    Collins ? Oh its brilliant BUT I've sat in the hides at Rye Meads and heard people go right that's a red head. When of course it was a Pochard.

  8. Excellent topic Andrew, the Pocket guide and Collins are two books i often recommend for beginners.

    Sadly there is a growing trend by some established birders to look down their noses at newcomers.

    And it does worry me that so few youngsters now enjoy the hobby.

  9. Thank you all for the comments. Good to get other recommendations too of books to take in the field.

    A many of you have hit the nail on the head, forget what others think and just go out there and enjoy the hobby. and of course encourage others to take it up, if nothing else its fresh air and exercise.

    I just wish it was a little warmer, minus 9 here last night, brrr