Bird watching or birding is a fascinating pastime enjoyed by vast numbers of people around the world. It’s a hobby that’s growing in popularity here in Ireland as more people discover the joy that watching birds can bring. From following the antics of common birds at our garden feeders, to appreciating the birds of the various habitats that criss-cross this island, to participating in nationwide citizen science programmes and searching for rare birds in unusual locations — bird watching has something to offer everybody.
In this — the first in a series of four articles to help people just getting started in the hobby — we take a look at the appeal of birds, why birding makes for such an engaging and enduring pastime, and how it can benefit bird watchers, birds and other wildlife.
There’s something about birds that fascinates people. Birds are active, they’re vocal, and they draw our attention in ways that more elusive or sedentary wildlife rarely does. For many people birds are the gateway to an interest in the natural world. It’s birds that first spark a lifelong interest in nature that extends beyond birds to other wildlife, the places they live, and how we can look after them.
A truly take-anywhere hobby
One thing’s for sure… wherever you find yourself, here in Ireland or around the world, there will always be birds to watch.
Birds are among the most widespread and successful group of animals on the planet, and you’ll find them occupying pretty much every available niche from polar regions to equatorial cloud forests and everywhere in between. So no matter where you venture, bird watching is a hobby that is truly portable.
Most people start birding by getting to know the birds visiting their garden: putting out food for them, learning to identify the common species, observing their habits and behaviour over time, and noticing new or unusual species that turn up occasionally. It’s a great way to learn, and provides a foundation from which your interest can grow and branch out in all sorts of different ways.
Some people become interested in studying particular groups or species of birds in detail, and contributing to national and international surveys and research projects. Others become interested in seeing as many different species of bird as possible within a particular geographical area — some become so obsessed with adding new species to their garden, patch, county, country and life “lists” that they will drop everything and travel the length of the country, often at great expense, to see a new bird that unexpectedly arrives on these shores. All sorts of people consider themselves birders… and it’s an activity that can accommodate them all — from the casual recreational birder to the hardcore twitcher.
One of the wonderful things about birds and birding is that there’s always something new to learn. When you get proficient at identifying common species there are always more challenging birds to stretch your ID skills and drive you to improve. Gulls, waders and some warblers can be incredibly tricky, even for seasoned birders with decades of experience behind them. Common birds often surprise us too. You’ll be amazed by just how often you’ll witness new or unusual behaviour if you just keep watching the birds visiting your garden.
Getting outdoors regularly is good for you
Study after study has shown that spending time outdoors connecting with the natural world has a wide range of physical and mental health benefits. Getting out regularly in the fresh air to watch birds is a fantastic antidote to the hustle and bustle of modern life, and lends a healthy perspective to the trials and tribulations of work and family life. It also usually involves significant amounts of walking — so it’s a great way to keep active and get regular exercise.
Helping birds helps other wildlife
There’s no getting around it… some of our birds are in serious trouble… and that’s bad news not just for the birds, but for everything and everyone. Because they are often our most obvious and most studied wildlife, birds are key indicators of general ecosystem health, and declining bird populations often point to more serious underlying conservation concerns.
Becoming interested in watching birds often leads to a broader interest in their wellbeing, and the conservation of the habitats and ecosystems that support them. Naturally that has a knock-on beneficial impact for other wildlife using that same habitat — by looking after one, you are benefiting the other. Studying birds and providing data for citizen science projects also helps to provide conservation organisations with the information they need to lobby successfully for environmental legislation, and to make informed conservation decisions that benefit not just birds, but all of our wildlife.
Getting started is easy
One of the most appealing things about bird watching is the really low “barrier-to-entry”. As with any hobby you can spend a lot of money on bird watching gear and paraphernalia… but the basic requirements are a healthy curiosity, your eyes and your ears… with those in place you’re all set to get started… for free!
Add a relatively inexpensive field guide to help you identify what you see, and a reasonable mid-range pair of binoculars, and you’re pretty much set for years of carefree birding enjoyment at zero additional cost. You can literally just grab your binoculars walk out your front door and start watching birds.
One of the best ways to get started with birding in Ireland is to join your local Birdwatch Ireland regional branch on one or more of their free outings. The outings are open to everybody, so you don’t have to be a Birdwatch Ireland member (although joining is relatively inexpensive, and is a good idea if you’re going to pursue bird watching), and they will help give you a feel for things, and get help and guidance from more experienced birdwatchers on bird identification, birding equipment, fieldcraft and much more.
You’ll find details of Birdwatch Ireland Branch Outings around the country on the Birdwatch Ireland website here.
Another way to experience the bird life in different parts of the country is to join an organised birding or wildlife tour like our Discover Wildlife Experiences on the West Cork Coast. Other organisations offer a range of bird related outings and activities around the country.
If we’ve whetted your appetite and you’d like to find out more about bird watching, how to get started, bird watching equipment and techniques, bird identification tips and much more besides, join us soon for the next instalment of “Beginning Birdwatching”.
You’ll find the second in our “Birding for Beginners” series, “Getting to know your local birds”, here.
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.