Birding basics for Airstreamers: 10 tips for getting started

Looking for more things to do on a hike or in a natural area? Want to learn something new about wildlife and get a bit of exercise too? Interested in adding something to your next Airstream trip?

Birding (bird watching) is a great answer to all of these.

Birding is one of those hobbies that people at every age and fitness level can enjoy. You can go birding anywhere, any time of year, with minimal equipment, and just a few simple skills. You can look for birds during a hike, while visiting a National Park, or as you relax in the campground.

Because bird species vary by geography, elevation, and season, birding is a great hobby for Airstreamers. In no time, you'll be looking for birds everywhere you tow.

Here are 10 tips if you decide to give birding a try.

 

1. Go for a walk.

It may sound simplistic, but getting yourself outside is the first step to birding. Birds are literally everywhere, and all you need to do is look around and listen to begin your adventure into birding. Whether you go for a walk on a trail or just down the street, you'll notice birds foraging for food, taking flight from a tree, or sunning themselves on a wire.

Once you become aware of the many colors, species, and interesting behaviors of birds you'll quickly understand why 47 million people around the world geek out about this hobby.

2. Dive into a few birding resources. 

Check out the online resources offered by leading birding organizations. Audubon has great getting started resources, as does the Cornell Lab of Ornithology  The American Birding Association offers all kinds of information about spotting identifying birds, as well as places to see them. Cornell Lab's Bird Academy videos are excellent and Bird Watcher's Digest is filled with information as well. 

If you like having a paper book to flip through, get the famous Sibley Field Guide to the Birds. The drawings are extraordinary and the information is clear and easy to follow. The Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America is another good choice.  

3. Seek opportunities to meet and go birding with others.

When you're new there's so much to learn. Connecting with a local birding club or birding expert is a great way to do that. Like your fellow Airstreamers, birders are a welcoming and interesting bunch who enjoy sharing their knowledge with others. Most of them travel regularly to see new birds. If you join a local bird walk you may even have the opportunity to borrow or rent binoculars.

The American Birding Association (ABA) maintains links to local clubs across the US. Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy have local and regional chapters. Sign up for a local birding event or a local Christmas Bird Count

4. Buy a great pair of binoculars. 

The only piece of equipment you absolutely need for birding is a pair of binoculars. Invest in a high quality brand. If you buy a cheap pair ($100 or less), you will regret it. You won’t be able to spot birds easily, especially if they are in leafy trees, and you won’t get enough clarity or brightness to identify many of the birds you spot. 

How do I know this? When I started birding years ago, I bought a pair of cheap Celestron binoculars, reasoning that the low price was "good enough" to get going. I was volunteering alongside experienced birders at The Nature Conservancy's Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve back then, which is known for its 300 species of birds. Every time I went birding with those guys, they could find birds that I could not see through my binoculars because the view was too dark, or I could not locate the bird in my field of view.

True, great binoculars are expensive. But they will make your birding much more fun and rewarding. If you are new to birding, keep your binocular-buying simple by focusing on just two technical specs: magnification power and objective lens size.

Binocular models are described using two numbers, for example 8x30 or 10x42. The first number is the magnification. Higher number = higher magnification versus your naked eye.

The second number is the size of the objective lens – that's the lens at the far end of the binoculars. Higher number = bigger objective lens =  more light. Most people will be just fine with an objective lens of 30mm or 32, which is great for viewing under virtually all conditions. Only if you plan to bird in dim conditions would you consider a larger objective lens. 

To shortcut all the technical analysis you could spend weeks agonizing over, here's my suggestion for a new birder:

  • Choose 8 or 10 magnification. Magnification of greater than 10 makes it too challenging for a beginner to spot a bird. (Even 10 may be too high for some beginners.) A greater than 10 magnification is so high that when you look through the binoculars, the view will appear shaky, unless you purchase a tripod or forehead rest. 
  • Get binoculars with 30mm-32mm objective lens.

If you are wondering, I go birding with Swarovski CL Companion 8x30 binoculars and Rich uses Swarovski NL Pure 8x32.

5. Get these two great birding apps.

When you are a beginner it can be frustrating to identify what you're seeing. Here are two free apps that help you do that:

  • Merlin - bird identification app. You tell Merlin the approximate size, colors, and behavior of the bird you are looking for and it gives you photos and recordings of actual bird calls and songs to help you identify the bird you are looking at.
  • eBird - bird sighting app. Using Cornell’s database of academic and citizen birder submitted data, eBird gives you a list of the birds commonly found in the area you’re birding in. Using your mobile device’s GPS it compiles a “bird pack” as a checklist you can use to tick off and track the number of birds you spot.

These apps are integrated, so after you identify the bird in Merlin, you can automatically add it to the list of birds you’ve got in eBird. You also have the option of uploading your list of bird sightings to Cornell Lab, which uses it to power new data-driven approaches to science, conservation and education.

6. Go birding in the morning for the best sightings.

Just after dawn until about 10am is a good rule of thumb – although this will vary by season. For example, in colder months birds don't get moving until the sun warms the air. Birds are most active in the morning, with an additional spate of activity in the evening, but at that time they are more difficult to spot.

Set your alarm and get out there early for your best opportunity. If you truly loathe mornings, you might look into "owling," which is done at night

7. Wear colors that blend in with nature.

"Natural" colors will keep you from appearing like an intruder to the birds you are trying to spot. Generally speaking, subdued shades of brown, green, or gray are the best choices.

Avoid wearing white or bright colors (like the ones used for running or cycling apparel). White in particular is a color many birds associate with danger.

8. Stop, look, and listen.

Birding is a multi-sensory experience that requires you to pay attention. After you hit the trail or forest, walk slowly and stay aware of any movement you see or sound that you hear.

  • Look first at the easy-to-see places birds can sit: an exposed branch, power line, tree top, fence post. Zero in on any interesting shapes or movements. 
  • Always stop and scan natural spaces and "edges," such as a meadow or field that's lined with trees, a creek edge, or a forest road that splits two sections of forest. These are likely places for birds to congregate as they move from one section of trees to another, or stop for a bath or drink.
  • Look down at trail edges and forest floors, which are good spots for seeing birds hopping around and foraging. Listen for the rustle of leaves or crunch of a nut in a bird's beak and it might make spotting a bird on the ground easier.
  • Don't forget to look up! New birders often forget just how much is flying overhead pecking on high trunks, or hanging out on branches. The tops of tall trees are great places to point your binoculars.

9. Use these two simple steps to spot a bird.

When you think you see or hear a bird, raise your binoculars, look in the general direction of the bird, and try to spot it with your naked eye. Once you've got it in your sights, carefully move the binoculars to your face while keeping your sight focused on the bird, and use the focus knob to bring it into view.

Step 1: Hear or see something? Try to spot the bird with your naked eye.

Spotting a bird

Step 2: Without moving, bring the binoculars to your eyes and focus.

Spotting a bird

This two-step spotting technique takes a bit of practice. But pretty soon, you'll be able to spot a bird quickly before it flits or flies away. Good binoculars make this easier.

10. Start a "life list."

It's fun to keep a list of all the birds you've seen and where you've seen them. eBird and Merlin automatically maintain lists of the birds you've seen – along with the date and place. Some birders prefer to keep the list in a paper journal or spreadsheet.

Serious birders will join birding expeditions and go to the far reaching corners or the content or ocean to get a hard-to-find-bird on their life list. For some, it's a true obsession.

For me, having a life list is about the enjoyment I get knowing that I saw a new bird and learned something about it. Perhaps I'll see that bird again during a migration period in the future. Or, as in the case of the Resplendant queztal I saw in the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica, it will be the memory of its beauty and the story of how I "got it" on my list. 

 

Once you get started, you'll find that it's easy to include birding as part of every Airstream trip. Take your binoculars when you walk the dog in the campground or hike in a National Park. Or consider hanging a feeder at your campsite so you can sit on the patio and observe who comes to eat. You might also start planning future Airstream trips around seeing a specific bird for your “life list," or attending an annual birding event. Two options are the Sand Hill Crane migration through Willcox, AZ or the Biggest Week in American Birding event in Oregon.

Once you embrace the hobby of birding, there's no end to the places you'll want to go to see new birds.

If you're interested in birding with other Airstreamers, we'll be hosting Airstream Life bird walks in Tucson and various locations in southern Arizona, beginning later this year. Each walk will be hosted by a birding expert. We'll also be sponsoring bird walks next summer at the 2022 WBCCI International Rally in Fryeburg, ME

 

1 comment

Dave & Martha Cochrane

Dave & Martha Cochrane

We are Canadians and have overwintered in Tucson for several years and thorough enjoyed bird watching through the region. We are very disappointed that the American side of the border remains closed to snowbird travelers. If you see a campsite around Tucson with an Airstream and lots of feeders that might be us stop in and say hello.

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