Birdwatching Quick Start

Love birds? Here you will find tips on attracting and identifying your favorite species, whether you are a casual birdwatcher or a diehard birder.

Our bird-related resources emphasize Kansas species and hot spots, but most North American birdwatchers will find useful information below.

Contents

Recent Posts

A Step-by-Step Guide to Building a Bird Life List

Step 1: Start with a Checklist

There are many ways to a keep a birding life list. You can simply write down new species you have seen on a slip of paper kept in your field guide if you want to. However, there are many checklists out there to make keeping a life list easy and enjoyable. Most field guides contain a checklist to get you started.

Read more: What is a Life List? »

Step 2: Invest in Optics

To successfully build your life list, you will need a good pair of binoculars. Most experienced birders recommend 7x or 8x binoculars for the best blend of power, brightness, field of view, and ease of use. However, personal preference does come into play here, so read plenty of reviews, and ideally borrow a few pairs before you make your final decision. Be prepared to spend some money for quality, but don’t assume that the most expensive pair is necessarily the best.

Read more: How to Identify Birds »

Step 3: Study the Field Guide

Get a good field guide—not a pocket guide, but a complete identification aid (we recommend the time-honored Peterson field guides). Then sit down some rainy day and thumb through it from front to back and from back to front. Find out how the birds are grouped so that you will be able to look up any species quickly. Also spend a little time browsing the introductory material. These pages often contain useful information on the parts of a bird, comparing beaks, feet, and silhouettes of different bird types.

Notice that we recommend studying the field guide before actually hitting the field. The field is not the place to study the field guide. Too many inexperienced birdwatchers fall into the trap of pulling out the field guide to identify the bird before them, only to glance up and realize that the bird has flown away before they even had a chance to see the distinctive field marks. Leave the book at home or in the car. When in the field, keep your eyes on the birds.

Read more: Peterson Field Guides to Birds »

Step 4: Watch the Local Birds

Become intimately familiar with your local birds. Get to know their habits, their songs, and their appearance. When a rare species or migrating visitor passes your way, it will stand out to you. Something about it will strike you as different, providing you with the key to identification. You will probably even be able to roughly classify it as a finch, a warbler, a sparrow, etc.

After you have gained some experience with observing local birds, it will become tempting to bypass flocks of familiar specimens in quest of something new. Don’t do it. Many times the best finds are hidden in flocks of regular visitors.

Read more: The Backyard Bird Feeder’s Bible »

Step 5: Develop a Systematic Approach

When presented with a mystery bird, take a good long look at it through the binoculars. What stands out about this bird? Distinctive size and shape? An area of sharp color contrast? A behavioral quirk? Also listen for a distinctive call or song. Try to achieve an overall impression of the bird as quickly as possible, enough to roughly categorize it (dabbling duck versus diving duck, accipiter versus buteo, etc.) and notice anything particularly unusual.

If your bird cooperates, at this point begin a systematic examination. Continue to stare at your bird, searching for field marks and memorizing as many details as possible, until it flies off or you think you have a clear mental image. When in doubt, start at the head and work back to the tail. If, on the other hand, you know roughly what you are looking at, you may want to jump to field marks that can clinch the identification first. For example, if you are watching ducks in flight, you will probably want to check the wings before the head.

Keep a bird journal (a simple pocket notepad will do), and take it with you when you go birding. When you have finished observing a bird as thoroughly as circumstances will permit, draw a quick sketch of it and note its distinguishing characteristics. It may also help to note the date, time, and location of your observation. Some detail you have observed may prove diagnostic when you compare your notes against the field guide later on.

Read more: All-Weather Birder’s Journal »

Step 6: Listen to Bird Calls

There are many sources of bird recordings. Cornell’s online bird guide offers free access to a comprehensive and varied collection, but for convenience you may decide to spend money on an audio CD or a digital birdsong player. Whatever you choose, spend a little bit of time enjoying it. Later, when you hear an unknown bird singing from a tree, you will remember if you have heard it before and can go back and check your birdsong library.

Read more: Online Bird Guide »

Step 7: Hit the Hot Spots

At some point, to see more species you will need to venture farther afield. Every locale has its own hot spots that can be rewarding to work, so be sure to allow yourself the treat of birding outside of your own backyard.

When to go? At a true hot spot, nearly any time will do. However, if there is a particular species that you want to observe, check your field guide or the expertise of other local birders to learn about the habits of your chosen bird. As a general rule of thumb, in advance of a weather front is an excellent time to go birding, as birds will be moving in front of the system and possibly settling to earth for shelter. For waterfowl watching on a larger body of water, the evening is another good option, as there will be flocks of birds coming in for the night.

Read more: The Guide to Kansas Birds and Birding Hot Spots »

Step 8: Research Your Challenge

Do you struggle with sparrows? Worry about warblers? Fume over finches? Spend some time studying the bird species you have the most trouble with. Start with your trusty field guide and your favorite online resources. Learn about the songs, habits, field marks, and pattern of occurrence of each of your trouble birds. Look for simple ways to remember crucial differences—even if your mnemonic is silly (the downy woodpecker is dinky, but the hairy woodpecker is huge). If you are really dedicated (or desperate), you might be able to find a book specializing in your problem birds.

Read more: Birds of Kansas »

Guides

Birds of Kansas

Birds of Kansas

Kansas is home to an amazing array of birds, from the regal red-tailed hawk to the state bird, the eloquent western meadowlark. In this guide, you can find out more about the appearance, best field marks, voice, distribution and occurrence, and behavior of our state’s many bird species. You will also learn how to attract them for viewing or hunting purposes (when applicable) and how to distinguish them from confusingly similar species. Read more »

Kansas State Parks

Kansas State Parks

Kansas is a great place to enjoy the outdoors, and our 26 state parks make it easy! For a small fee, you can enjoy hunting, fishing, camping, hiking, biking, horseback riding, and other fun outdoor activities. Plus, these parks showcase the diverse regions, native plants, and fascinating wildlife of our state. Many of the parks contain sites of historical significance, as well. Read more »

Essential Information

Species Information

Attracting & Feeding

Birding Technique

Nature Journals

Kansas Hot Spots

More Resources