ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT FOR BIRD WATCHING
Welcome to the wonderful world of bird watching, or birding, if you prefer. Let’s start off your new hobby by getting all the things you’ll need to have maximum enjoyment. Birding mainly involves patience, careful observation, and a willingness to let the wonder and beauty of the natural world overtake you. One of the great attractions of birdwatching is its simplicity. There are no set rules for birdwatching, no minimum requirements to meet and no real expectations other than spending some enjoyable time with the birds and your friends. Well, the good news is that the equipment necessary to enjoy a day out with the birds is minimal and compared to many other hobbies or sports, the cost is low. The bad news is that once you get hooked on birdwatching, you will want to get the fancy and expensive equipment. Here are some tips on how to get started
- Good, comfortable shoes
- Dull color clothes to walk around in comfortably
- A good attitude
- A good daypack for carrying stuff
- A jacket or windbreaker for when it cools off
- A water bottle to stay hydrated
- Mosquito repelent
- Don’t forget your hat!
- A good, basic pair of binoculars
- The rest — scopes, guides, cameras, etc — can all wait until later. Go out and bird, learn what you enjoy, and let that enjoyment and your curiosity dictate when you upgrade your gear. For birders what matters is the birds not the gear. A basic equipment includes:
A good set of binoculars is an absolute requirement for birdwatching. It is possible to go birding without them, and some people do. But leave home without them and, unless you are an expert birder and can identify every bird by sight and sound, it won’t be long before your hands wrap themselves around a pair of binoculars. Your enjoyment of birds depends hugely on how great they look through your binoculars, so make sure you’re getting a big, bright, crisp picture through yours. In recent years excellent binoculars have become available at surprisingly low prices. But, as with binoculars, brand matters if you want high magnification with a clear image and a relatively small and light scope.
You don’t need an expensive pair of binoculars, especially if you are a beginner. The best way to start out is to borrow a pair, use them for a day and see how you like them. There are many styles of binoculars to choose from and finding a pair you are comfortable with will mean the difference between an enjoyable outing and a frustrating one. So while binoculars under $100 may seem tempting, it’s truly worth it to spend $250 to $300 for vastly superior images as well as lifetime warranties, waterproof housing, and light weight.
It is possible to spend over $1000 on a state-of-the-art pair but it’s best to stick with the reasonably priced pair, at least until you get a better feel for what kind of binoculars you like. They will last you for several years, longer if you take really good care of them.
Two great models for beginning birders are Nikon Monarchs, Bushnell Legends, and others. The 7-power or 8-power binoculars are a nice mix of magnification while still allowing you a wide enough view that your bird won’t be constantly hopping out of your image. One of our all-time favorite mid-priced binoculars for birding have been the Nikon Monarch 5 ATB 8x42 binoculars.
Birders use binoculars within the range of 8×40 to 10×42. The higher the numbers, the better the magnification and light absorption are. However, the higher the numbers, the larger and heavier the binoculars are, and the higher the quality of your binoculars, the less you have to sacrifice when you want those higher numbers. Magnification is important for observing fine details and light absorption is important when you are birding in the early dawn hours under a heavy canopy, which are normal birding conditions. If you have shaky hands, opt for the lower magnification (8x). Some popular and favorite models of binoculars are:
- Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10x42 binoculars
- Nikon Monarch binoculars
- Budget Nikon Action Binoculars
- Vortex Vipers binoculars
- Zeiss Victory 8x42 among the best for bird watching
- Swarovski SLC HD binoculars (one of the “Best of the Best”) over $1000 dollars
Spotting scopes serve a very specific purpose—watching birds that tend to stay in one spot, such as ducks on a lake, a perched raptor, or shorebirds on the roost. Spotting scopes beat out any binoculars in terms of magnification but they don’t have the maneuverability of binoculars so don’t bother using a scope to search for birds in motion, such as warblers, wrens, and flycatchers.
Though they’re not cheap, spotting scopes are indispensable for getting those last few clues about a species identification—or to simply revel in intricate plumage details that can be brought to life only with a 20x to 60x zoom. And scopes, like binoculars, are coming down in price while going up in quality. Carrying a heavy scope and its tripod on a long hike can be cumbersome when you need to use your binoculars too. Experts recommend an angled eyepiece when I am birding with friends of different heights but it’s up to you whether to choose a fixed-magnification eyepiece of 20x or 30x or a zoom eyepiece that provides amazingly close views.
As you get more serious about birding, you’ll find yourself wanting to look at more birds farther away, and as you run into birders in the field, you’ll see many of them carry spotting scopes. Spotting scopes are single-eye devices and look a lot like small telescopes, because in reality, they are. They are a lot bigger than binoculars, a lot more powerful than binoculars, but you need to put them on a tripod to use them so they’re a lot less portable. They’re also fairly worthless for close up birds, so they supplement binoculars; you end up carrying both.
Once you’re outside and surrounded by birds, experts recommend practicing a four-step approach to identification. First you judge the bird’s size and shape; then look for its main color pattern; take note of its behavior; and factor in what habitat it’s in. Practice each of these skills and consult manuals for increase your knowledge.
Choose a guide that is regional or national in scale. Guides specific to one region are usually photographic guides. The Field Guide to the Birds of Colombia by Miles McMullan is a complete and beautifully illustrated guide that includes descriptions and maps. Other good guides to have as supplements are the Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and the National Geographic in terms of the quality of the illustrations and information provided. Illustrations are much more instructive than photographs. Illustrations highlight all of the distinguishing characteristics of the species and show the birds from the front and side, in flight, and in all plumages, including male, female, juvenile, breeding, and non-breeding. Raptors are shown from below since we often see them soaring overhead rather than just perched.
If you have a smartphone, you can carry a bookshelf in your pocket. Most of the field guides mentioned above are available as apps, and most of them add in sounds you can listen to as well. We recommend the ‘All Birds Colombia’ ($25) that can be very useful as it contains nice photographs and descriptions of Colombian birds and their songs.