In preparation for spring (and our upcoming Birdwatching for Beginners workshops!), the team here at Treeswift have compiled a list of our top tips for those diving into the world of birdwatching!
1. The Early Birds Catches the Worm:
Birds are usually most active during those first few hours of the day, so increase your chances of seeing more by setting that alarm clock a little earlier than usual. Follow the calls of the dawn chorus to help track down the various whistles, trills, and twittering that you hear. Remember, most of these birds are up getting started for the day which means lots of singing, feeding, and activity!
Can’t get up at 7.00am? No worries! Try going to a wetland or lake instead where waterfowl such as ducks, cormorants, spoonbills, herons, etc are usually active right through the day.
Bonus tip: The earlier in the day, the less chance of big crowds, picnickers, and other bird-affecting human things. Plus! Aussie summers can be tough, so getting up early means you’re out in the coolest part of the day, just like the birds!
2. Binoculars (or bins/binocs!)
When people think of birdwatchers they usually think of binoculars. These are the most important tool is a birdwatcher’s arsenal. They allow us to get up-close and crystal-clear views of our feathered friends even when they’re on the other side of the lake. Not only does this help us identify and enjoy the species, but it also allows ensures that bird remains undisturbed by our presence. A win win situation!
Most birdwatchers used either 8 x 42’s or 10 x 42 binoculars, a powerful magnification which works well for both high soaring or distance species, as well as the occasionally friendly robin hoping only a meter or so away. For the uninitiated, those numbers basic translate as the first number representing the magnification (8 x – eight times magnification). The second number refers to the objective lens in millimetres. So above listing is 8 x magnification of 42 mm. Priorities should be lightweight, easy to use, and of good enough quality to let good light in. Too many budding birders are lost to the common struggle of investing in inferior binoculars that just don’t cut the mustard. Probably the best and most widely recommended starting model is the Nikon Monarchs (10×42) which depending on mark ups, pandemics, and Harvey Normans bottom-line retail from $400-$550 or so.
3. Not ready for binoculars yet…
Not ready for binoculars or a camera? No worries! You don’t need a big lens to see many species. Whilst you find your groove, try identifying more common birds such as Crimson Rosella, Rainbow Lorikeet, Little Pied Cormorant, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and even Common Bronzewing. These medium-sized birds are easily identified by their striking plumage, abundance (so you’ll get lots of practice with spotting them!), and larger sizes. They are also found in a variety of habitats, so different spots still means you’ll regularly bump into them!
Birds have both better eyesight and hearing than us, so if we want to find them we need to set ourselves up for success by practicing a little fieldcraft. Fieldcraft is the big old encompassing terms which basically includes any techniques and skills we utilise to help us when looking for birds. Here are some of the basics:
- Walking slowly and quietly. Try shifting weight from foot to foot, or stepping on dirt or grass instead of crunchy gravel or dry leaves
- Feel free to talk if you’re out with friends, but remember that keeping quiet will help you to both hear more species and give off less of a warning that you’re approaching the more timid birds yet unseen up ahead.
- Once you’ve found something and you want to get a closer look, don’t walk directly towards it. Try going in direct and wide circles as well as using cover such as leaves and trees.
- Stand on the opposite side of the path. You will have a higher chance of something popping out to tweet at you if you’re not standing immediately next to the scrub
- Learn a little about the species you want to see. If you want to see a Spotted Pardalote, learning that they feed on lerp in eucalyptus is going to greatly increase your chance of finding one when wandering around aimlessly in a massive park. Now you can go straight for the right habitat
5. Key your eyes open!
Birds come in a variety of shapes and sizes, same as they appear in a variety of habitats. For example, when walking through the rainforest there are species throughout, but are you watching for all locations? Right up high in the canopy there are White-naped Honeyeater and Spotted Pardalote. Flying overhead, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and White-throated Needletail. Then in the midstory, Golden Whistler and Grey Shrikethrush. On the open ground, Bassian Thrush and Superb Lyrebird. In the thick brush and bracken, White-browed Scrubwren and Eastern Whipbird. Everything has its place, which means you’ve got to be looking everywhere all at once. Easy right?
6. Visit new locations
A little like above, there is usually different set of birds at different sets of habitats. Some crossover, like you may find a Red Wattlebird in the wet forest, open woodland, along the coast and even in your backyard. Others, such as Hoary-headed Grebe you will only ever find on a body of water. Visiting a variety of different locations and habitats will not only help you see new species but will improve your understanding of habitats and different ecosystems.
7. Consider keeping a list
Most birdy people keep a list. Whether this is a list of all the species they’ve seen in their backyard, a list of the species they saw on holiday, checklist that they’ve slowly ticked off in the back of their field guide, or a detailed (often obsessive!) list of every species they’ve ever seen at every location for their entire lives. Everyone has a different reason for listing (or not), and if you haven’t tried it yet, we recommend giving it a go! If you’d like a checklist of all Australian birds, send an email to [email protected] and we’ll send you our 2022 up-to-date checklist!
8. Do I need to know the bird calls?
Recognising bird song is an impressive field skill and can certainly help you to track down more species quickly. However, it is important to know that it isn’t the be-all and end-all when it comes to bird watching. Having said that, recognise a few songs, trills, woofs, shrieks, and squawks can also be rewarding. So how do you learn the calls?
When more experienced birders are asked how they can recognise so many calls, the answer is usually the same. Field experience. As much as there are wonderful apps and websites with scores of high-quality recordings you can listen to at home or on your smart device, most people learn by observing and listening when in the field. So, if calls are your thing, a great place to start can be jotting down notes or trying hard to listen and take-in the sound when outside. Next time you have a Gang-gang Cockatoo, really listen to that famous creaking door sound, or stop and admire the twittering of a Superb Fairywren next time it pops up on a fence post. These (visual) memories will help trigger your brain with the sound you locked and saved away somewhere in your head. Trust us! One day, the calls you experience the most will start to become familiar and be greeted like when a favourite tune comes on the radio.
There’s a reason that birdwatching is often touted as the fastest growing hobby in the world. As our lives become more indoor and sedentary, we long for the outside and nature. Birdwatching is inexpensive, comforting, and rewarding. It’s convenient – you can be in your backyard or 10,000km away in the deserts of the outback or the middle of the Indian Ocean. It keeps your mind sharp, your mental state healthy and relaxed, your body fit, involves you directly in nature and conservation, and most importantly, we guarantee it will make you happy!
Here at Treeswift Wildlife & Nature we are big believers in helping people connect to the world of birds and birdwatching! So if you like what you’ve read, consider getting in touch and coming along on one of our Beginner Birdwatching Workshops! We run these several times a month all over Melbourne, so grab your walking shoes, a hat, (maybe a pair of binoculars) and come along!