This page is intended to improve the birding experience for recreational birders. Many of our members are professional ornithologists and advanced birders, but we also welcome novices and anyone else who wishes to learn about the beauty and wonder of observing birds in the field. The purpose of this page is to provide information and pointers on all sorts of issues which can be shared. We can all learn from the shared experiences of all our members. We are continually trying to improve the education feature of your VSO membership. Check back regularly for news and new content. -VSO Education Comittee
For New Birders
What does it take to become a birder?
Birds are nature's ambassadors, and birding is an exciting and enriching hobby that can add a new dimension to your outdoor activities. Millions of Americans identify themselves as recreational bird watchers. Along with simply enjoying and studying birds to satisfy their own curiosity, birders are invaluable contributors to citizen science and conservation efforts and help to stimulate local tourism-based economies.
All you need to become a birder is a field guide, a good pair of binoculars, and your fascination with birds.
- Field Guides: Today's birders have access to a wide array of field guides published by different authors and covering different geographical scales and containing information at varying levels of detail. The best strategy for selecting your first field guide is to visit a book store and peruse the selection. Choose the one with the illustrations, organization, and informational content to match your needs and preferences. Traveling the country? Take a look at some guides with North American coverage. Staying close to home? Several guides to Eastern North America and more narrowly, the Mid-Atlantic, are also available. Also consider how portable and field-worthy each field guide is. Periodically purchasing an updated field guide is also a good idea. As the science of bird classification advances, birds’ names and the way they are grouped with other species sometimes change. The American Ornithologists' Union, North America’s flagship ornithological society, makes decisions about official names of birds and how they are arranged in field guides.
Click here for a helpful review of field guides by Harry Armistead.
How do I use my field guide? Most field guides begin with an explanatory "preamble" section which describes its features, contains diagrams showing parts of birds’ external anatomy that are useful for species identification, explains range maps, etc. Take some time to read this introductory section. Additionally, familiarize yourself with the overall arrangement of bird groups in your guide. Birds are grouped by family, and if you can narrow a bird down to family by studying your field guide in advance, you can efficiently flip to the right section and avoid dead ends. This process will take some time, so work on it at a pace that is effective and enjoyable for you.
When trying to identify a bird, pay close attention to its overall size and field marks (e.g. plumage color, bill color and shape, leg color and length). Some birds’ plumages differ in very subtle ways, so note whether it has bars on its wings or has an eye stripe or ring. Does the bird you spotted closely match more than one species in your field guide? More than one birder has been frustrated by this conundrum! One way to eliminate candidates is to check their range maps. For example, Carolina Chickadees and Black-capped Chickadees look nearly identical. If you see a chickadee on the coastal plain of Virginia, though, it is almost certainly a Carolina Chickadee. Black-capped Chickadees are found north of Virginia or at high elevation along the West Virginia border. Range maps are also useful in that they indicate when birds are present at a given location at different times of year. You may see a bird during late June that you suspect is a Hermit Thrush. However, Hermit Thrushes are generally winter residents in Virginia, and most spend the breeding season farther north. On the other hand, birds are sometimes seen where they are "not supposed to be". So, keep an open mind, but with a healthy awareness that the most likely identification is probably correct!
Another way you may be able to distinguish two or more identically looking species from each other is to listen to its songs or calls. Some flycatchers (the somewhat “infamous” Empidonax flycatchers), for instance, are nearly indistinguishable in appearance, but produce different calls. Most field guides contain a short verbal description of each species’ main vocalizations.
Be aware also that a juvenile (a bird in its first year of life) or an immature (a bird older than one year, but which has not yet reached reproductive maturity) bird can look quite different from a breeding adult. For example, an adult Little Blue Heron is slate blue-gray, but a juvenile is white. Furthermore, a Bald Eagle does not attain its iconic white head and tail until its fifth year of life.
Many birds can be heard, but rarely seen: After a little experience in the field, you might notice that you can hear more birds than you can see. Forest birds may remain hidden in the canopy's foliage, and grassland species may rarely pop up, and then only for a quick glance. Anyone who has participated in a bird survey can tell you that knowing bird sounds is critical to obtaining accurate data. Therefore, an audio guide is an indispensable companion to any field guide. Some audio guides, such as the Peterson audio field guides, contain instructive narration (e.g. a narrator explains the differences between similar songs). Others, such as the Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs, consist of comprehensive inventories of bird vocalizations without explanation. In addition, mp3 files, smart phone apps, etc. are available.
Birdwatching.com contains a trove of information for new birders! Check out their bird watching tips, guide to birding optics (with useful instructions!), and reviews of field guides.
Blogs and websites for young birders
- National Zoo's bird page for kids
- National Geographic's bird page
- Loudoun County Wildlife Conservancy's education page
- Home Hobbies: Bird-Watching (Thank you for the suggestion Alyssa, we hope you continue to enjoy your backyard birds!)