9 tips for birdwatching in wildlands

Bird watching at Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey

flickr, USFWS Northeast

Ever wonder how to spy a spotted owl or downy woodpecker?

About 46 million Americans observe birds every year, according to a 2011 U.S. Fish and Wildlife survey. It's no wonder that 84% of wildlife watchers choose to enjoy the activity referred to as "birding" because it is fun, relaxing, inexpensive, easy to learn and offers endless challenges.

What is surprising, however, is that of those 46 million, only about 17 million travel away from home to do so. This is shocking because America has many wildlands that offer opportunities to see some of the continent's most unique birds, like the greater sage-grouse, California condor and whooping crane.

Wildlife watching supports these habitats and the birds that call them home, and it also bolsters economic growth. About 71 million wildlife watchers spent $55 billion in 2011, thereby supporting local economies.

If you are looking for the basics of birding, or for more ideas on how to improve, here are our nine tips on how you can find your favorite birds in wild landscapes:

1. Timing is everything. Birds are the most active in the early morning, so be outdoors by dawn if possible. You will see different birds depending on the season, so consider how migration will affect your adventure.

2. Get the gear. For birders, this means simply binoculars. Usually there are two numbers on binoculars - the first is the magnification power and the second number is size of the lens - and the higher the ratio between them, the better for birding. Optimal magnification is between 7X  and 10X, and the larger the objective lens, the sharper the image and the larger the field of view will be. If you want to carry a camera too, check out our tips for photographs.

3. Blend in. Avoid wearing any brightly colored clothing and instead dress in natural colors, like light browns or pale greens. You can also hide behind trees and bushes to be less conspicuous.

4. Listen. Birding is the ideal activity for those seeking the peaceful quiet of the outdoors. Keeping silent allows you to get nearer to birds and it also allows you to hear for bird calls which can help you locate and identify birds. 

5. Go slow.  Move very slowly, avoiding sudden movements or noise that may frighten birds away. If you want a closer view, you will have to make very slow movements towards them in a zig-zag direction. If the bird spies you, remain silent and still and do not stare back at them. Do not approach birds directly, especially during summer and spring mating times, and steer clear of nests. 


Here are some photos of birds you may find at a wildlife refuge near you:


6. Be informed. Get a good field guide or bird identification book for the area you will be birding in. This will help you identify birds by their colors, sizes, tail shapes, wing markings, beaks and habits. There are also some very helpful apps for convenient mobile use.

7. Take the kids. Pick a destination where you are basically guaranteed to see birds - large ones like the California condor, if possible - and look at pictures ahead of time to be better able to identify what you may see there. Although they may not be able to stay still for even a short while, bringing children with you will introduce them to this fun outdoor activity, one that could last them a lifetime.

8. Reach out and learn more. Talk to a ranger at your local wildlife refuge. Join a birdwatching club. Research rare and endangered birds that may live or migrate through your area.

9. Get outside! Only practice can improve your birding abilities. Common birds like finches, sparrows and robins, which are more used to people, are the easiest to begin with. 


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