Birdwatching for Beginners

Natural World: So you want to go birding?<br/><br/>The RSPB's Tony Whitehead gives some hints and tips on taking up birdwatching

Devon is a fantastic place for birds. From the high moors, through our rich farmland and down to the estuaries and coasts, the county overflows with all manner of feathered creatures. Since records began last century over 300 different species have been seen in the county, which makes it one of the best sighting places in the UK. So, if you’d like to take up birdwatching, or ‘birding’ as it’s sometimes know, then Devon is a pretty good place to start.

The most important ‘tools’ are your eyes, ears and brain!

Whether you’re watching small birds coming to your bird table, or big birds of prey soaring hundreds of feet above your head, birds are everywhere – they are innately interesting to watch and provide pleasure for so many people, whether or not they know their reed warblers from their sedge warblers, or pipits from larks. So don’t get too hung up on identification.However, it’s a natural progression to go from simply enjoying watching a bird going about its business to asking yourself what kind of bird it is. If you flip through the pages of a bird book you’ll see there are many different species in Britain (and more than 10,000 worldwide!). You don’t need expensive equipment or expert knowledge to start putting names to birds. The most important ‘tools’ are your eyes, ears and brain! All the other things are optional.

Every bird you see is different in some way. But you do need to spend time looking. And the more birds you look at, the better you will get at identifying them. Visit somewhere where you can see birds easily. Many RSPB reserves provide excellent opportunities to watch birds at close range and to get advice from staff, volunteers and other birdwatchers.

Try visiting our reserve at Bowling Green Marsh near Topsham. In the hide there you can sit comfortably and watch all manner of birds out on the wetland. And there will usually be other birders around who can help out. Remember, the vast majority of birdwatchers enjoy sharing their sightings and their knowledge with others.

Better still, find someone experienced who you can go birdwatching with and learn from. Here in Devon the RSPB has local volunteer groups in Exeter, Plymouth and Torbay. They regularly hold walks and talks that are ideal for those new to birding.

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Here are a few points to remember:

Firstly, birds don’t always look exactly like they do in the books! Every bird is slightly different. Most books illustrate birds at one or two times of year, but birds replace their feathers at regular intervals and so are often in an ‘intermediate’ stage, which won’t be illustrated. Dull or very bright light can also make birds look different.

When you are trying to identify something, assume it’s common. Rare birds are just that – rare! As tempting as it might be to settle on a subalpine warbler for the small brown bird flitting about your local hedge, ask yourself ‘is that likely’ and then eliminate all the other possibilities. Nine times out of ten you’ll find it’s something much more plausible such as a dunnock.

Bear in mind that in cold weather, birds can fluff out their feathers and appear much fatter and more rounded (they also do this to make themselves look bigger to a rival). Birds with long necks, such as herons, can coil them up next to their bodies and look quite different, and a bird alerted to the presence of a predator might stretch its neck out in order to see it properly.

Use your ears. The noises that birds make are a great help to birdwatchers; one birder wisely told me a long time ago that birdwatching is actually 70% listening. Some species would be very hard to detect if they didn’t call or sing. Tawny owls are secretive during the day but can be very vocal after dark. Nightingales are famous for their loud, beautiful song, but like to sing from deep inside thickets and dense bushes. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers look similar, but their songs are poles apart.

Watch out for fugitives on the run. Many different species of birds are kept in captivity, including a vast number of species of duck and goose. Sometimes these escape and join wild birds in parks and on lakes. So, if you see something very exotic looking, it might not be wild! Also domestic ducks and geese can interbreed with each other and with wild birds, producing funny-looking offspring.

Remember, if you can’t identify it, don’t fret about it – put it down to experience. There are always birds that ‘get away’, they just don’t hang around for long enough to enable you to identify them. 

Equipment The only essential pieces of equipment are your eyes and ears (and there are plenty of hearing- and visually-impaired people who enjoy birds, too). However, here are some of the basics.

NotebookA small, hardback notebook which fits in your pocket is usually the best kind. Remember that, if it gets rained on, anything written in ink will run, but pencil won’t.If you come across a bird which you can’t identify, make some notes about it there and then so you have an accurate description of what you saw and heard. First impressions are important.

Note down the bird’s shape, what its beak and legs are like, and its habitat and behaviour, as well as the main colours. If it makes a noise, try to describe it. Sketches can also be useful, though you don’t need to be a wildlife artist!

BooksHundreds of bird books are available; those designed to be put into your pocket when you’re out and about are often called ‘fieldguides’.

To avoid confusion, a book which contains only birds which occur in Britain is the best type to start with. Books with illustrations (paintings) are better than those with photographs, as light conditions and camera settings mean colours can vary enormously.

BinocularsYou don’t need to spend a vast amount of money on binoculars to get a decent pair. Compact binoculars can be very useful as they can easily be slipped into a pocket. Full-size binoculars need not be heavy or awkward to use, or expensive. Always try before you buy – and speak to people who know!

At the RSPB’s shop at Darts Farm in Topsham there are expert staff to advise and the profits from what you buy will go directly to help birds.

Support your local conservation organisations They rely on public donations to do this work. So for just a few pounds a month you can help make sure birds have a safe and secure future in this wonderfully rich county. For more information on joining the RSPB visit

The Darts Farm RSPB shop and Exe Estuary Visitor Centre at the River Barn, Darts Farm, Topsham is open Monday to Saturday 9am-5.30 pm, Sundays 10.30am-4.30 pm. 01392 879438

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