Thursday, December 14, 2006

A Beginner's Guide To Bird Watching

By Simon Woodhouse

I don't know about you, but for a hobby to work for me, it needs two vital ingredients. First of all, I like a hobby that involves being in the great outdoors. Fresh air and exercise usually go hand in hand with being outside, both of which we could all probably do with more of. Besides taking place outdoors, I like a hobby that doesn't cost a fortune to be involved in and doesn't need a lot of expensive equipment. Bird watching fits this bill perfectly.

Unfortunately, bird watching seems to be one of those hobbies people look down their noses at. But it's not all about spotting the birds, just as fishing isn't all about catching fish. It's about relaxation; it's about interacting with the natural world in an unobtrusive way. However, there is a little more to bird watching than just sitting outside and waiting for a bird to fly past.

The first thing to do before stepping outdoors is get yourself a good bird identification guide. When choosing this book, you want to use a bit of common sense. It won't be a lot of help if your book is full of exotic bird species that live on the other side of the world. A book that concentrates on birds in your local area has to be the best bet. Identification guides are usually arranged according to a set system, a bit like the words in a dictionary run in alphabetical order. Knowing how your identification guide is laid out will save you a lot of time when you're out in the field. Most guides are arranged in a phylogenetic order, this means birds of a similar type are grouped together, i.e. all types of sparrow on one page, all types of hawk on another and so on. You'll find, while flipping through the guides in your local bookstore, that most of the pictures will be artists impressions of the bird, and not photos. There's a reason for this. No matter how good a photo might be, lighting conditions and the orientation of the bird will mean that not all of its most distinguishing features will be visible. However, if an artist paints the bird, they'll make sure to include everything that's necessary for a successful identification.

After you've got your guide, and you've spent some time reading it, you're probably going to want to think about binoculars. Though bird watching is a relatively low-cost hobby, a decent pair of binoculars is a good investment. What you need to consider here is weight verses magnification. You can tell the magnification power of a pair of binoculars by what's written on them, i.e. something like 7 x 35. The 7 denotes the magnification, and in this case means what you see through the binoculars will appear 7 times nearer than what it would with the naked eye. The 35 is the width of the lenses in millimeters. A good rule of thumb is to always go for binoculars that have a second number roughly 5 times that of the first. 7 x 35 are ideal bird watching binoculars. They'll give you adequate magnification and aren't too heavy.

Ok, so you've got your identification guide and your binoculars, now it's time to get out there. To start with, you don't need to go very far at all. Your back yard or the local park are excellent places to start bird watching. What you'll find, as you begin to take notice of the birds around you, is just how much you've taken them for granted.

Bird watching isn't just a matter of watching. In fact, it could almost be called bird listening. Bird calls offer a great way to identify what's around you. However, trying to decipher the various calls can be a bit tricky at first. Not to worry, start with what's most common, the ones you hear a lot, and then work your way up from there. Joining a local bird watching group is a good way to find out what's happening in your area. You'll also be in the company of experienced people, so you're bound to learn a thing or two.

When you are out and about watching, make sure you do so in an unobtrusive way. Watch the birds, but don't disturb them. They're not there for your entertainment. As the old saying goes, take nothing but photos and leave nothing but footprints.

After a while, you'll start to develop favorites amongst the birds you watch. You'll also come across certain locales that are a joy to be in, regardless of whether there are birds there or not. And equipped with nothing more than your trusty identification guide and your binoculars, you'll find yourself becoming absorbed in a relaxing, invigorating pastime.

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