In this feature, the second in our four-part series on beginning birdwatching, we take a look at your garden birds, your local patch, and how getting to know them better can help you improve as a birder.
It’s tempting when you’re just getting started with bird watching to head immediately for local birding hotspots, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Going where the birds, and other birders, are is an obvious thing to do to build your experience with a wide diversity of bird species (for an overview of Ireland’s top birding sites you can’t beat the excellent “Finding Birds in Ireland” by Eric Dempsey), But when you’re keen to hone your fledgling birding skills, don’t overlook the potential of your own back garden or local park.
The garden: your bird watching training ground
The first birds most people notice are the birds in and around their gardens. It’s watching those garden birds, feeding them, putting up nest boxes, and a desire to identify what we’re looking at that kindles a curiosity, that ignites an interest and perhaps inflames a passion for birds that can last a lifetime.
Even after decades of watching birds it still amazes me how much you can learn just from paying attention to our familiar garden birds.
Improve your observation skills
Watching birds regularly in and from your garden — or whenever you’re outside — helps you to notice more. The more you look, the more you start to see. You’ll begin to notice subtle variations in plumage that you may have missed before, will quickly pick out any birds that are unusual or different in some way, and generally become more aware of the birds and other wildlife around you. Before long it will become a subconscious thing — you’ll start to notice birds without even trying — but in the beginning you need to make a conscious effort to focus, to train your attention, and your garden is the perfect place to start and refine that process.
Top Tip: Over the course of a week or two actively pay attention to the birds you see in your garden, or on your way to work… anywhere you go regularly. Keep a list of the species you see and every day try to beat your previous best “score”. You’ll be amazed by how much more you notice when you start to actively pay attention.
Repeat the exercise periodically and pretty soon you’ll find you don’t need to make a conscious effort to look any more, you’ll notice more bird activity subconsciously, wherever you happen to be.
Practise with your equipment
You can start birding without any equipment at all… all you need is your eyes, your ears and a healthy curiosity. But as you progress with the hobby you’ll want to invest in, at the minimum, a decent pair of binoculars and a good field guide (we’ll cover birding equipment in the next article in this series). As with anything else, regular practice with your equipment will improve your skills and make its use more seamless in the field.
Again, your garden offers the perfect place to familiarise yourself with your birding gear. Using your binoculars, your field guide, your spotting scope (if you have one), your camera, etc. extensively in the familiar surroundings of your garden will make their use almost seamless when you reach for them out in the field.
When using your equipment becomes second nature you free up your attention to focus on more important things… like finding, identifying and watching the birds around you.
Top tip: you might think using a pair of binoculars is pretty simple… and it is on the face of it. But locating and tracking fast moving birds, or following a goldcrest or warbler through the treetops can be tricky, even for experienced birders. Practising with your binoculars really can help. Give it a try, you’ll be amazed by how much it can enhance your birding.
Appreciate bird behaviour and interaction
One of the great attractions of bird watching as a hobby is that there’s always something new to learn — and watching the birds in your garden closely can often reveal hidden facets of behaviour and interaction. Even the most familiar of birds, that you may have been seeing for years or even decades, can often surprise you with something new.
By watching local birds extensively you get a feel for how they behave and react in different circumstances, how your presence affects them, how their behaviour and interaction with one another and their environment shifts and alters through the changing seasons. All of this experience adds to your understanding and knowledge, not just of the species in your garden, but of birds in general, and will help to make you a better birder.
Familiarise yourself with bird anatomy and plumage
Look in the front (or occasionally the back) of any decent bird field guide and you’ll find illustrations pointing out the various bits and pieces that make up a birds anatomy and plumage — specifically the terms associated with bird identification.
Some birds, of course, are relatively straightforward. You’re unlikely to confuse that goldfinch on your garden peanut feeder or the robin hopping around under the bird table with anything else. But other birds can be trickier — dunnocks, house sparrows and tree sparrows; and greenfinches and siskins, for example. Then there are the really challenging ones — like working out if that redpoll vying for position with the aforementioned goldfinch at the peanut feeder is our regular lesser redpoll or a much rarer (in Ireland at least) mealy redpoll. That can take a bit more detective work.
The first step of learning to identify birds is good observation — and as we’ve already mentioned your garden is a great place to practice your observation skills, but your garden can also help when it comes to the next key part of bird identification: understanding what the different areas of a birds body are called, and where the different feather types that make up its plumages are found. Studying books and scouring images online will help, but there really isn’t any substitute for finding those features and plumage characteristics on real, live birds in the field. It’s only then that you really start to remember them.
The trouble is that in field situations birds are often further away than you might like, or you simply don’t have the time to dwell on a particular bird and painstakingly pick out the features.
Here again, your garden (or local park) can help. Your garden birds will be at least partially habituated to people, and the fact that you’re probably feeding them means you’ll typically be able to get much closer more detailed views of them for longer than you will with birds out in the field. So its worth spending time with your garden birds and a good field guide picking out the specific features on the bird, cross-referencing to the field guide, and back again until you’re familiar with the key identification features.
You’ll find that the more you practise, the more you’ll be able to pick out the relevant features of birds that are further away and/or only offer fleeting views. You’ll also be able to make accurate notes of relevant identification features for any bird you don’t recognise, making it that much more straightforward to pick out the correct bird in your field guide later.
Top Tip: study the birds in your garden to find the key anatomical and plumage features listed in the front or back of your field guide, familiarise yourself with them and cross reference what you’re looking at with the ID features described in the guide. Then try and pick out the same ID features on other birds when you’re out birding.
Moving on: your local patch
Many birders have a local patch close to their home — a small area (usually only a few square kilometres, or perhaps even smaller) they visit frequently and can get to know intimately over time. Watching one patch regularly helps you to become a better birder by allowing you to become familiar with all of the birds that regularly occur there, their distribution and the type of habitat they prefer, seasonal fluctuations, the arrival and departure of migrants, breeding patterns, intra- and inter-specific interaction and much more.
Your local patch is essentially the logical “step up” from your back garden or local park (although your garden and/or park can, of course, be on your local patch) — it just covers a bigger area, features a more diverse array of habitats and so introduces more birds into the mix. Birding the same area on a regular basis, keeping a “Patch List” and adding new birds to it as you find them, can be very satisfying and helps you to take the skills you’ve acquired in your garden or local park and apply them in different birding scenarios. It lets you take your birding experience to another level.
As your interest grows you’ll certainly spread your wings (pardon the pun) and visit other birding locations locally, regionally, nationally, even internationally. No matter where you roam though, and no matter how great the birding opportunities you encounter, there’s a sense of belonging and ownership that lends a special significance to the birds you find yourself on your own local patch.
It’s the birding equivalent of home.
In the next instalment of Birding for Beginners, we’ll be taking a look at bird watching equipment: the essentials, the sensible additions and the “nice-to-have” luxuries that will help make your birding experiences even more enjoyable.
This article is one of a four-part "Beginning Birdwatching" series, brought to you in association with Austrian optics company Swarovski Optik.
The series introduces the wonderful world of bird watching, and offers hints, tips and advice on getting started in this fascinating lifelong hobby.