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Your advice for a first time birder.


Game Warden
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So much inspiration from the posts in the previous big years and already this year with a flock of new images and sightings.

 

So, for someone wanting to start their own "Big Year", what is your best advice? In fact, for someone wanting to jump into this absorbing hobby, where do they start? 

 

Do you have recommendations for area specific reference books?

 

What focal length lenses one should be looking at? Including value for money options...

 

Likewise, binoculars or spotting scopes?

 

In fact, how did your interest in birding develop and what made you get started?

 

Your photos have been an inspiration to me, and if they help others get involved too, it's great.

 

Matt

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I was totally inspired by following the Big Year threads on ST.

 

The best thing I did last year was join the RSPB with which I got a copy of their Handbook of British Birds.  This book has found a permanent place on the kitchen table where it is constantly referred to and is already starting to look rather tatty.  For a beginner in the UK I think it is perfect.

 

If you do not already own good photographic gear then I wouldn't rush out to buy it.  I have been managing reasonably well with my bridge camera so far.  It's all about learning to recognise the birds and finding out the best places to look for them.

 

Obviously binoculars are a must although I just use a little monocular and am fine with that.

 

Start exploring your local area, it is amazing how much you will see when you actually start looking for it.  We are avid walkers and spotting birds adds another dimension to an activity we already love.

 

But the best advice of all is READ THE BIG YEAR THREADS. :D

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The Big Year was the inspiration (and still is!). I began to get an interest in birds while on safari and other travels, but I started from a very low base in terms of knowledge. Getting into birding in the UK means we can see wildlife every week rather than just on safari!

1. Get a bird identification book for your country. We also got the Handbook of British Birds (RSPB) for the UK. It is available quite cheaply from Amazon (or other suppliers. I recommend getting a book with drawings rather than photographs as they are generally easier to use to pick out key features. I do sometimes follow up with Google if I am not sure.

2. Get some binoculars. They don't have to be really expensive, but I would find birding extremely difficult without any. We don't have a spotting scope.

3. CIty parks can be surprisingly good for birds, and they are often used to people so you can get closer.

4. There are probably local internet forums or international ones that (eg Birdforum.net) that cover local areas. Twitter can also be very good for some sites.

5. In the UK, RSPB and WIldlife Trusts run a number of reserves and there are often useful websites that give information on what has been seen.

6. The more you are out looking, the more you will see. You will also learn what birds are around at different times of year.

7. If you see people with binoculars or cameras, go an have a chat with them about what they have seen or are looking at. They are usually friendly!

8. I agree with @Zim Girl don't rush out and get expensive camera gear

9. If you have a garden put out some food and water and it is amazing how many birds will come. We have a small city garden and get lots of visitors, and the birds provide a great deal of pleasure throughout the year.

10. If you have a go at the Big Year I think you will find the people encouraging and helpful

Edited by TonyQ
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Well @Game Warden@TonyQ and @Zim Girl mentioned most of what I would have said.

 

In addition:

 

- Now many field guides have "app" counterparts, that you can download for your iPad, iPhone, Android, etc.    These apps have the illustrations/photos, text, range maps, etc. that field guides contain.   But they also contain SOUNDS of most of the bird species represented.  This can help you learn bird calls so you know what it is in the field.    There are also websites like https://www.xeno-canto.org/    where you can listen to (and download) recordings of just about any bird species.

 

- Like other endeavors, you can learn birding more quickly through a mentor or group outing.   Instead of puzzling species out by yourself, you can hear the correct identification and get tips and pointers for tricky IDs.   So go on local bird walks or bird club outings as a great way to learn birds, meet fellow birders, and become familiar with good birding locations.

 

- A good strategy is to learn your area's common birds first.  Learn them well, including their vocalizations.  Then when something unusual shows up, you will know it is something to be locked onto and studied.   

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Not much to add to the sage advice here.

UK birders can do little better than to get a good field guide. I am currently using a 'free gift' version of Collins Bird guide 2nd Edition that covers Britain and Europe. Available on the App store (whatever that is :o)

Also available for UK users is the RSPB "where to discover Nature" which is a great guide to all their reserves. Location, likely species and entry details. Very useful.

If you have a Garmin GPS you can also down load a 'Points of Interest', POI, that will help you find any reserve by just telling your car to go there.

By all means approach and obvious birders but approach warily. Most are only too willing to help but some may bite.

Avoid getting hung up in jargon and quasi scientific mumbo jumbo. You are meant to enjoy the hobby not sit a bloomin exam but some basic knowledge is a help.

The folks on Big Year seem friendly enough and I have found them all helpful on both ID and technical stuff.

 

As others don't splurge on the finest kit you can find. Yes certain brands of Bins have truly awesome qualities but cost an arm and a leg. Buy a less costly pair until you are really sure the hobby is for you and even then think carefully. You can buy plane tickets to a couple of exotic destinations for what a pair of top notch Bins cost.

Much the same for Cameras. Like @Zim Girl I have got passable results with my trusty Bridge which weighs (and costs) a lot loss than some exotic Digital SLR. (In case you don't know that stands for Single Lens Reflex) that undoubtedly produces great photos at the risk of a hernia from carrying it.

Most Bridges (a camera that 'bridges' the gap between Point and shoot basic and  the full blown DSLR,) have a focal length (the magnification of the lens is often measured as a length in millimetres) that is useful for birds. Try and get one that is higher than say 600mm. Too big a focal length can be a mixed blessing as it brings problems such as camera shake, depth of field (how much of your shot is in focus) and even heat haze distortion as part of the trade off.

Big Year is not about producing prize winning images but of getting passable photos of as many species as you can. EBC. Every bird counts!!

To all who enter here the very best of luck.

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So much good advice above.

Your country may also have a bird tracking website where you can add your sightings and see the records of sightings from other people.

This can be a good way to find out which birds to look for if you visit a specific area.

Personally I also believe that birding is good preparation for going on safari as your eyes/brain gets used to looking for any movement or unusual clour or shape in the landscape or air.

 

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I would add that most of us big year veterans eschewed the label of “birders” to start off with, of course @Galana and @offshorebirder are notable exceptions. I think i got into it like a lot of STers, from times on safari when not much game was about, or after a couple of safaris, being less interested in the big stuff and looking at what else was going on. Despite having a growing collection of camera kit, it was never used at home, until the BY started. I now know local RSPB sites and am more aware of migration seasons etc. I suppose like any hobby/obsession, it just creeps up on you. :ph34r: My OH claims not to know about birds, however, he is exceptionally good at spotting new ones (meaning that he does have an internal database) and when pressed, can usually name the family, if not the exact bird. So it rubs off, even if you actively resist it!!!

 

as I carry a DSLR with a 100-400mm lens (minimum lens length requirement I would have thought) I do not have a spotting scope, so would need to defer to a serious birder to know the advantages of this over a pair of bins...

 

i would certainly echo echo looking closely at your local area. I am amazed how many UK birds my fellow STers have spotted and I think @Kitsafari was very shocked this year to see how many birds she could find without stepping foot on a plane. When we first moved in, there were probably 5 species that visited the garden, but having a good ecosystem and putting out a variety of extra food sources has increased this to 21 (22 if you count the owl that I hear but never see...).

 

so in summary, just do it, but beware, it is addictive :blink:

 

 

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3 minutes ago, Tdgraves said:

big year veterans eschewed the label of “birders” to start off with

Interesting thought. I profess to not be a birder but it is hard to find what we are exactly. Definitely not "twitchers". Birdwatchers is too long a word for our American cousins but we DO watch birds. Either through the bins or on here through the viewfinder.

Most occupations use the job with the suffix 'er' such as Builder, Banker and Joiner but not Steeplejacks thank heaven. Wildlife enthusiasts we all are but there is no such thing that I have heard as Mammaler or Butterflyer but birder seems to fit as one who birds!

Anyway, I blame @Game Wardenas it's his thread and he is to be obeyed.:lol:

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@Galana I think that we are all birders now, but at the beginning you’ll see that lots of us were professing not to be....some still are ;)

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as @Tdgraves mentioned, i was quite stunned at the variety of birds that land on our tiny 720 sq km island. Before I started the BY last year, we would only notice the common birds like the mynas, doves and sparrows around our garden. But the BY participation sharpened our attention and we suddenly saw oriole, tailorbirds, sunbirds, parakeets, woodpeckers, etc flapping around around our home!

 

My OH and I were already interested in birds as we had birds given to us by my FIL, and those caged birds had attracted a fair number of lost/escaped birds tired and looking for food. But the greatest inspiration was seeing all those gorgeous and the huge diversity of birds in all the excellent BY threads in this forum, and the friendly and warm banter that the BY-ers would trade. 

 

I can attest to the massive encouragement and support that first time BY posters will have in the ST birding community. I echo all the great advice given above, and would add: 

1. join the local FB birding community. we've found so many tips and information on local/Asian birds from friendly bird enthusiasts on the FB groups;

2. get to know a few of the experienced birders personally as they will share with you the etiquette of how to bird, and you will know early sightings of new birds 

 

and yes, birding is not only addictive - it can become an obsession! it's a good excuse not to have shared vehicles in safaris, although I haven't tried that yet. :rolleyes:

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18 hours ago, TonyQ said:

Getting into birding in the UK means we can see wildlife every week rather than just on safari!

 

This is a great reason to get into this hobby, the fact that it gives you a reason not only to explore local nature areas, but to research local wildlife - and you may be lucky to see other animals on your explorations. I think it frustrating at times that when on safari your eyes are peeled for anything, but back home, once into the routine and rut, perhaps wildlife takes a back seat. Now with only an odd hour or two to spare each week, you can fill it with birding travels, coupled with a bit of planning, and a bit of prior research, turns that couple of hours into a mini safari :)

 

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Some things I have learnt on my way from being a "birding illiterate" to "ha, that is a bird of prey":

 

1. start with joining the Safaritalk's Big Year immediatelly

2. connect with one of other poster's to become your personal mentor

3. start taking photos of each and every bird

4. took photo first ask book (or mentor) later (the stage I am still at)

 

From technical point, a budget 70-300 lens on a crop body will do, however the fun starts at 600 mm FL. For beginners best camera would be a bridge camera with superzoom.

 

Buy a birding guide book for each country you are visiting.

 

Aove all, have fun!

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Some people can identify birds through binoculars, some can't. I find it virtually impossible to identify birds I don't know if I don't have a photo or two to refer back to.

 

Therefore, my recommendation is that the camera is more important than binoculars or a spotting scope. If you don't have either and only want to buy one, get a bridge camera with a relatively long lens rather than binoculars or a scope.

 

And if you are coming to Southern Africa, the identification aid to get is the Roberts app. Probably better than any book, and cheaper than many.

 

Lastly, if you don't know where to find birds in the area you are in, start looking for water. Ideally, a dam with an inaccessible island and some dense reeds.

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16 minutes ago, Peter Connan said:

 

Lastly, if you don't know where to find birds in the area you are in, start looking for water. Ideally, a dam with an inaccessible island and some dense reeds.

 

so that the birds know that you can't see them eh @Peter Connan ??

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Birds certainly do their best to frustrate those who have an interest in watching and/or photographing them, but mainly because that's where most birds hang out @Tdgraves.

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43 minutes ago, Peter Connan said:

Lastly, if you don't know where to find birds in the area you are in, start looking for water

 

Or a sewage plant eh Peter? :)

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1 hour ago, Peter Connan said:

Therefore, my recommendation is that the camera is more important than binoculars or a spotting scope

 A camera is definitely extremely useful to look at the bird again at leisure and find it in book or app. For me personally bins remain very important, though. Even when weather is not good enough for decent photography I still enjoy going out with the binoculars and do birdwatching. A few years ago I switched form small (8x23) to bigger (8x42) bins and that's a world of difference. The image stays very clear even when the light is fading and with a simple 'harness' they are very easy to carry even on longer walks.

I agree about the Robert's app for SA: superb!

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Interesting that of all the contributors to last year's BY only one has warned that some birdwatchers bite!

Yes, the current crop of BY contributors are friendly enough but out in the real world, especially the UK from my experience anyway, there is very much an  "us and them" mentality whereby bird photographers are often seen as something you might pick up on your shoe by some birdwatchers.

Why is this so? A lot has to do with behaviour, especially by novices who lack experience and so called fieldcraft.You also have to realise that for some folk birdwatching is a solitary experience, an opportunity to be at one with nature and they might resent any form of attempt at conversation. I have experienced it loads of times when visiting RSPB reserves. A polite "hi" passing someone going the opposite direction or even entering a hide can be met with a stony silence.Maybe carrying a camera can actually exacerbate the situation too because I usually get a more positive response from a photographer. Each to their own.

Going back to advice for newcomers to the hobby as a birder or bird photographer, don't be put off by the superior attitude you might find amongst some either. We all start somewhere.

Remember that birds are more likely upset by movement than noise although the latter is important too. If you try to get inside a birds comfort zone it will fly.That comfort zone will differ amongst different species. If you sit perfectly still and silently, especially if you are well hidden, the birds may well come close to you, especially if baited with food or water. Having a lens or bridge style camera with a long reach may help you get in to the comfort zone too. Patience is your best friend. It's interesting that most experienced photographers probably spend far more time studying their subjects than your average bird watcher. That's because they have to figure out what their likely behaviour is to capture that special shot. Birders very often just want to create tick lists but there again new to the hobby bird photographers display similar traits and are often too keen to expand their portfolio with a lack of consideration to both their subjects and others that might be watching too.For some good manners are not a natural instinct and selfishness rules their behaviour. If you are all alone you have far more freedom than if you are sharing the experience. If I'm sat in a public hide I get irritated by someone who takes endless non stop high frames per second exposures of a bird sat on a stick. There is a limit of how many you need so consider others in such a situation.Use silent shutter mode if you have one too.

Personally I avoid "twitches" if I can. A "twitcher" is someone who chases rarities to create a bigger list, but for many photographers it's a magnet to expand their portfolio too. It's a potentially explosive mix as the birdwatcher will be happy to see the bird from hundreds of yards away with their 60x zoom magnification telescopes, most photographers need to be a lot closer.

 

As an aside though, if you do decide to join in the BY don't be put off by those images of frame filling fine detail that those of us who have expensive equipment can achieve. Develop your own style and to be perfectly honest a scenic shot has often got more appeal than one that simply fills the frame with a single bird ( and always avoid giving the subject no room to move within the picture either. )

Finally, as mentioned by others get yourself a decent bird guide, either book or app ( and yes the latter might have sounds as well as pictures which is an advantage too) and don't ask for help on identification until you have checked it out for yourself. It's the only way to learn.

 

Now get involved!!!!

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@Dave Williams - here in the USA, bird photographers have had a (somewhat deserved) bad reputation for unethical behavior and harassing of wildlife.  Many of them lurk around birder Listservs, scour eBird for info, and use it to harass wildlife unethically.    For example, Snowy Owls that make it this far south are not around for long before photographer harassment begins. 

 

It is somewhat the case that the bigger the lens, the more they are deemed guilty.

 

This being said, the bad rep is dissipating a bit as more and more birders become photographers as well. 

 

 

 

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@offshorebirder I guess the bigger the lens the more obvious you look too.

 

Yes, social media sites and mobile technology have a lot to blame for when it comes to gathering crowds.

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9 hours ago, PeterHG said:

 For me personally bins remain very important, though. Even when weather is not good enough for decent photography I still enjoy going out with the binoculars and do birdwatching. A few years ago I switched form small (8x23) to bigger (8x42) bins and that's a world of difference. The image stays very clear even when the light is fading and with a simple 'harness' they are very easy to carry even on longer walks.

 

I am not saying that binoculars are not useful tools, I am just saying that to my mind the camera is more useful as an identification tool.

I love a good pair of binoculars. I personally started with binoculars (and good ones) before I got a camera.

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7 hours ago, Peter Connan said:

 

I am not saying that binoculars are not useful tools, I am just saying that to my mind the camera is more useful as an identification tool.

I love a good pair of binoculars. I personally started with binoculars (and good ones) before I got a camera.

We agree on all points ! :)

 

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17 hours ago, Dave Williams said:

Interesting that of all the contributors to last year's BY only one has warned that some birdwatchers bite!

Twas I me lud. I cannot deny it. As you go on to say it takes all sorts and whilst most folks, with or without a large lens are only too happy to help a tyro there are some with a different attitude who look at us as they would something the cat brought it. As the late great Al Read said. "You've met em!)

There is no doubt that the advent of increased leisure time has brought problems with it. I blame the BBC!

Never been on a twitch and never will. Not my scene and possibly outside the remit of this thread.

 

A further piece of kit gets mentioned. A Harness for your bins. It really helps in many ways. No more irritating swinging to and fro as you walk and when you need to grab the camera, just let go the bins and they fall in place quite safely. No more 'dings' as they hit the floor from where you carelessly put them in your haste. Great for in cars too. (I should really practice what I preach. I dinged my camera on the first day of my trip in December. Happily I could extract the smashed filter with a knife and keep going.

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1 hour ago, Galana said:

 Happily I could extract the smashed filter with a knife and keep going.

:wacko: My tip is carry a back up camera too!

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