How to watch birds: a beginner's guide

BY: Saartjie Kidson

There is no right or wrong way to watch birds - over time each birder will develop his or her own methods and strategies, so I can only tell you what works for me.
Birds are either spotted when they are moving around or when they make themselves known through their song.

A bird in the open, feeding, walking or singing makes it easy to estimate the bird’s  'giss'  ( an abbreviation for: general impression of the bird's size, shape and behaviour).  Here are a few guidelines that will help you to accurately identify an unknown bird in the open:
1. Keep your eye on the bird at all times and follow its movements while you make mental notes of the following:

  • Is the bird's shape compact or slim?
  • Does it have a large or small head?
  • What colour or shape is the bill? 
  • Does it have a long or short neck?
  • Are the legs long or short?
  • Does it have a short or long tail?
  • What is the bird's general plumage colour?
  • Does it have any prominent markings such as stripes or spots?
  • What habitat is the bird in and how does it move or feed (later you can add flight pattern as well)?

2. In addition to the points mentioned above, a bird's size is another vital clue to its identification. Developing a mental picture of common bird sizes is a useful tool to identify an unknown bird. We can use the following well-known birds to categorise bird sizes: 

  • Very small – comparable to a sunbird
  • Small – comparable to a sparrow
  • Medium – comparable to a dove
  • Large – comparable to a guinea-fowl

Observing a bird sitting, singing, preening, feeding or arriving in a tree or bush is usually much more challenging. Be alert to the merest movement, as birds have a habit of moving in behind a leaf or branch and sitting still for a while until it feels safe. Train your binoculars on the spot where you have seen the movement and if you cannot find the bird, lift your binoculars just a fraction, a technique that usually works for me. Alternatively, return to the spot where you have last seen the bird move to check whether it hasn't taken off. Birds are extremely wary of movement and simply bringing the binoculars up to one's eyes can sometimes  frighten a bird away. It is often suggested that one should not try to find birds through one's binoculars, but I have often spotted birds by just scanning with my binoculars into trees or shrubs, water edges, grasslands or rock formations. 

After successfully watching the bird, record your observations in a notebook and compare it with the information in a field guide. Also note down the date, place and habitat in which you have observed the bird as this can be useful for future reference. Reading up about the bird you have identified will give you the bigger picture of its characteristics, feeding behaviour, habits, breeding and greatly expand your knowledge of birds. Why not keep a permanent record of your observations by creating your own 'life-list', 'place-list', 'holiday-list', etc. 

On a final note, I cannot stress the importance of birdsong enough. It is of tremendous help in locating a bird in a tree, or on a wire, rock or post. A good time for bird-watching is early in the morning when birds are searching for food and starting or ending their day with bird song. Not only are they advertising their presence, but they are also inviting you into a fascinating world which might have been unknown to you at this point.

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