For a number of years I have been writing a monthly article for the Outside Section of the Montana Standard on birds I have found and photographed in southwest Montana and the Upper Clark Fork River Basin.
Beginning with this article, I will have an additional monthly article about birding, not just a particular bird. Over time I will share with you where to bird in Montana and the Pacific Northwest and the different tools that are available to make birding a better and more enjoyable experience.
This first article in this new series is “how to get started birding.”
Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor hobbies in America, and Montana in a recent study has more birders than any other state. Why is this true? Birds are easily watchable wildlife and the varieties of birds are spectacular, with 431 species seen within Montana’s borders. Granted, some call themselves birders if they put out a feeder and only watch birds through a window. For this article I am assuming that a birder is someone who leaves home and deliberately goes to an area to specifically look for birds.
Birding can become addictive, as my wife well knows. I bird about 100 days a year, and drive around 10,000 miles a year doing so. You don’t have to be that serious about it, but a couple of outings a month will provide you an active hobby, get you out into nature, and perhaps see some areas you have never been to.
So what do you need to get started?
First, you need a quality pair of binoculars. I have seen beginners using binoculars worth less than $50, and they quickly become discouraged as they don’t see the details of the bird with poor quality optics. You don’t have to spend $2,500 or more as I have, either. Fortunately, there are several models of binoculars in the $400 range that are excellent. Choose a “roof” model (two separate barrels); they are easy to use, resistant to damage, and light.
The “roof” models' prisms direct the light in a straight path allowing for a more compact and lighter binocular with a brighter image. The older “poro” designed binoculars use prisms that bend the light several times resulting in the eye piece and lens not in a straight line and a dimmer image. This construction makes the design larger and heavier than “roof” models.
If your hands and arms are steady purchase 10 x 42 models. If you are a little shaky buy 8.5 x 42 or 7 by 42 models. Practice finding objects with your binoculars. Many beginners cannot find a bird that is being pointed out to them because they are not used to looking through binoculars. You should be able to instinctively bring binoculars to your eyes and see what you are looking at. To learn to do so, practice with a branch on a tree. Stare at it with you naked eye, and then slowly lift the binoculars into place without taking your eyes off the branch and see if it is still in view.
Many beginning birders complain of a sore neck from carrying binoculars after several hours. Some of this soreness is from cocking your head upward, but much of it is the weight of the binoculars on your neck. Considering buying a shoulder strap for better weight distribution. With shoulder straps the weight of the binoculars is shifted from your neck to your shoulders. I often wear my binoculars all day and forget I have them on because the weight is distributed to my body, not my neck.
Next you need a good field guide. Do not buy a regional bird book. Almost immediately, you will observe a bird that is not in the book. Purchase a North American Field Guide. A word of caution, some North American Field Guides come in an East and West Version. I have seen people in the field in Montana with an eastern version, bad idea. I also would only consider art drawing field guides that can be put in a vest or large pants pocket.
Pictorial guides might be pretty to look at but a single picture or two does not represent a bird accurately. Most field guides with art drawings have as many as 5 to 10 images of a single species. Also, make sure the distribution maps are on the same page as the bird. Some guides have the maps in the back, and that is too inconvenient. I would recommend Sibley Guide to Birds, Second Edition, or Field Guide to the Birds by National Geographic, Sixth Edition. If you have an old field guide, replace it and leave the old one of the shelf in your bird book library. Many names have changed over time, and the maps will be outdated.
LEARN FROM OTHERS
Finally, you need to start by going out with people who know birds. They can teach you a lot on field trips that will make the sport easier and more enjoyable. Many communities have Audubon clubs. Unfortunately, the Butte, Anaconda, Deer Lodge area does not. However, there are a number of birders in the area who are willing to take you out. Call the Helena Office of Montana Audubon, and they can tell you who is in your area. Of course, you need to go out on your own as well.
Once you identify a bird, make a list or check the bird off in your field guide. When you are home and not birding, get your list out and see if you can mentally identify the bird by its field marks. That is how you become a better birder. You build a mental list of birds that you know and add to that list each time you take to the field. Over time you will know several hundred birds mentally. You still take the field guide on an outing, but you are not dependent on it for identification.
In future articles I will go into more detail on binoculars, bird books, and a lot of other equipment and techniques to enhance birding.
By the way, starting in September, I will be teaching a basic birding class as part of the Adult Education Program of the Butte Public Schools. Watch The Montana Standard or call the Butte Public School’s Adult Education Program for more information. A birding class is a great way to get the basics and meet other birders in your area.
Good Birding until next time.