How to start birding? Intro1.

Bins, notebook and field guide.

by Gunnar Engblom on September 7, 2012

Old school birding vs birding in the digital age.

Don’t listen to the old school to in for of birding! You don’t need a field guide, you don’t need a mentor to guide you and you don’t even need binoculars to start birding. You just need a point and shoot camera and an internet connection to get started.  Everything else is secondary and comes later. Chances are that you already have a digital camera and access to internet, so you can get started right away.  What are you waiting for? Just do it.
Everything is right there at your fingertips, but it is not yet organized for the 21st century.  Pick up any book, read any blog post, check out any video on Youtube about birdwatching for beginners, and they all repeat the same mantra from yesterdays.

YOU NEED Binoculars, Field guide and notebook. And join a birdwatching club!

We are here to show you, that to get started you don’t need any of all that. That is why we are doing this blog. We want you to understand that it is easy to start birdwatching. This blog leads you into a wonderful and rewarding hobby, which has never been easier to get started with, than today.  The blog presents the new resources on the internet where you can share your photos of birds and learn as you go along. You’ll become a member of the birding community from the start, without membership fees and without physical access to birdwatching clubs or leaders who mentor you.

Birding has never been cooler than it is today. It is certainly not a hobby for nerds, but one for active people who enjoy nature and outdoors and want to share their passion with others. Birding today compares less with trainspotting and stamp collecting, but more like the fine subtleties of wine-tasting and photo-hunting.

This blog will give you a multitude of tips from the best birders in the world. It will teach you to become a birder.  Eventually, we shall also talk about the same mantra, but then you are already a birder and you probably want to step up a pinhole.  You will find joining a bird club, subscribing to a birding magazine or visit a birdwatching festival will be a natural outcome and very awarding.

Follow us from the beginning by subscribing to this blog.


Gunnar  Engblom
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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Peter Lobo September 7, 2012 at 6:37 am

A very helpful blog you have started ! a lot would certainly benefit from it.


Gunnar Engblom September 7, 2012 at 10:12 pm

Thanks Peter. I guess birdwatching in India already is very photography based considering all Indian Nature Photography friends I’ve got on Facebook.
Would this work in India? Should we do a version in Hindi?


Jose V. Padilla-Lopez, M.D. September 10, 2012 at 9:27 pm

This may be a different approach; but what is the advantage of a camera and Internet connection vs. binoculars and a guidebook? I think the latter are a lot less expensive and easier to use to a beginning birder. I agree that you don’t have to join a club. Most cities in the US don’t have one.


Gunnar Engblom September 10, 2012 at 9:44 pm

Hi Jose
The main advantages are three. And we shall be covering those in the blog series. Firstly, chances are you already have a camera and an internet connection. Thus, you can get started right away. Secondly, you can use the camera and the internet for other purposes than solely birding, thus if you invest in a new camera it will not be a waste if you are not sure you will not like birding that much. Thirdly, the sharing possibilities through Facebook and blogging will get you positive feedback as you get better at it.


Dalcio Dacol September 11, 2012 at 1:34 pm

Since I have not yet read your other suggestions I probably should not comment, but I can’t help myself! Digital Camera plus Internet help seems to me a prescription to create “eternal beginners”, people that photograph a lot of birds and cannot ID them. We see this in the Bird ID thread in Birdforum, in the Brazilian site Wikiaves (Brazilians have taken to heart your suggested approach). And the reason people using this approach will, most of them, get stuck as beginners is because of the primary focus of this approach: photography. Thus the IDing of the live bird in the field becomes secondary and the observation of the bird in the field is neglected. This kind of beginner gets instant rewards from the photos even if s/he has no idea what it is they photographed. No doubt an enjoyable activity involving birds, but is it birding?


Gunnar Engblom September 12, 2012 at 5:52 pm

I urge you to read the rest and the following posts. We will address the fact that people tend to forget to check fieldmarks and behavior when photographing in a future post. Now regarding the phenomenon in Brazil and the photo-birding revolution are you sure you would really want it another way? Had it not been for the masses interested in photographing birds, would there be so much infrastructure for birders and bird photographers in Brazil as you find today. I think it is OK for people to be stuck as beginners as you say, but I am also much aware that beginners will be moving on and learn little by little. There will be a recruitment of new beginners and thus it may seem that they are stuck.
It is our duty as birders to embrace them and teach them to start looking for the details and become better birders. If we close the door and call them hopeless, it will certainly only create antagonism which will not help anyone, and certainly not the birds.


Michael Retter September 11, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I fear that this “no field guides, no binoculars, post digital photos online for others to ID without even trying first” is literally the “dumbing down” of birding, and I thoroughly discourage promotion of this lazy method. For one thing, it’s not any cheaper. A digital camera good enough to take photos of birds is comparable or more expensive that a set of binoculars, and a good field guide is $20 or less.


Gunnar Engblom September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm

The “lazy” method is already there, Michael, whether you like it or not. And the sharing opportunities and the multitude of possible uses one gets from a point and shooot camera, will make it a first choice for many who start getting interest in nature. It is up to us birders, whether we want to convert these masses to true birders as you define it, or not. It is not “dumbing down” if serious birders take on the mantle to be educators. In fact it will be a great recruitment ground do shrinking membership organizations – if you want to.


Michael Retter September 12, 2012 at 6:25 pm

Gunnar, I completely agree that it’s up to birders to “convert” these beginners into birders. But that’s where my agreement ends. You’re advocating this method as the beginning of birding. It is, by the very definition of birding, not birding (see below). It is bird photography. And that’s fine. Neither is better than the other. But posting photos online without having a clue what they are of is not birding. If you replace the word “birding” with “birdwatching” in this first post, I would have no quibbles whatsoever. The semantics of language are important. Otherwise, you get into discussions about what you MEANT to say, as is happening right now, rather than getting your message out.


Brian Allen September 11, 2012 at 8:32 pm

I’m preaching your sermon here Gunnar, it seems to help with the younger crowd.


Gunnar Engblom September 12, 2012 at 5:59 pm

Thanks Brian!


Peter L September 11, 2012 at 8:35 pm

I got into birding as a pre-teen. I didn’t own a pair of binoculars for 12 years and got my first guide book after almost 10 years. Photography leveraged the whole process and I’m not a crappy birder due to that [though I have trouble imagining it working with a point-and-shoot; I was hauling around an industrial triopd, SLR and 1000mm lens into the boonies].

But there’s a reason I bring binos and sibley everywhere with me now. Nothing beats clearly seeing a live dynamic bird in person. So while I take plenty of pictures, if the conditions aren’t ripe for great photos I’ll always choose the binos.


Gunnar Engblom September 12, 2012 at 6:00 pm

How is your back Peter? Thanks for your comment.


Linda Rockwell September 11, 2012 at 8:48 pm

I started out as a photographer, and I began photographing birds for fun. I started sharing my photographs with other photographers who knew more about birding than I did. Pretty soon I bought binoculars and a Sibley’s. Don’t you who are dismissive of “lazy birders” realize that when you take a snobby attitude toward non-traditional birders you are reinforcing the attitude that birding is exclusive rather than inclusive? If you want to spread the joy of birding, perhaps you should be inclusive, welcoming and helpful to new birders rather than exclusive, superior and dismissive. It’s no wonder that I generally like photographers better than I like birders. Birders need to get over themselves. Just one woman’s opinion.


Michael Retter September 12, 2012 at 1:40 am

Linda, I don’t think you understand what we are saying. Photographing birds is great. I do it myself. Like you, I also own binoculars and a field guide. I can’t speak for the other like-minded folks, but in my opinion, if you’re only taking photos of birds and posting them online for others to identify, you’re definitely not birding. You’re photographing birds and, marginally, beginning to watch them. When photographing birds, you miss out on a lot. Behavior is a big one. I also take issue with calling this “camera and internet” route “beginning to bird”. In North America, at least, the semantic difference between birding and birdwatching is well documented. It’s nothing to do with whether one is an expert, but rather, it’s based on one’s intent and level of interest. One method is not better than the other; they are just different. To read about the difference, see here: A major problem with the “camera and internet” route is that it will surely annoy other birders when photos of incredibly common, easy-to-identify birds are posted for others to ID. I’m all for encouraging people to start birdwatching, but with binoculars and field guide. Rather than seasoned birders having to teach the same lessons over and over again in internet fora, the beginner can easily teach themselves by taking the time to read a $17 book. Another problem with this method is that, in many cases, the ID is just blurted out by someone, with little or no explanation to the reason behind the ID. And the beginner has no clue what the other possibilities are because s/he doesn’t have a field guide. The beginner doesn’t learn, and–in some cases–the well-meaning expert is discouraged and stops commenting. The beginner is being given a fish rather than taught to catch it him/herself. I’m not saying that the “camera and internet” route cannot spark an interest in birds. It surely can and does. And that’s wonderful. But once that interest is sparked, the beginner should be encouraged to get a field guide and a pair of binoculars. Otherwise, s/he’ll be spinning his/her wheels. I don’t understand what’s elitist about wanting to help someone down the path of better birdwatching–and maybe even into birding. And I don’t see how encouraging someone to get binoculars and book is dismissive at all. If you’re looking for someone who needs to get over him/herself, I think you may be looking too far afield.


Gunnar Engblom September 12, 2012 at 11:45 pm

Michael, we will encourage the newbies to get binoculars and field guides eventually. We are just starting in another end of the spectra of entry points. It is there and it may be used as a novel approach to make more people into birders. Give me some time and you will see.

As for the definition on birding. I am still struggling with this.

“A sport and/or hobby in which individuals enjoy the challenge of bird study, listing, or other general activities involving bird life.”

You wrote that in the Birdwatching-Wiki you link to. Why can’t that involve birdphotography? Where does it say that birdphotography is not birding?


Gunnar Engblom September 12, 2012 at 6:01 pm

Linda, you are a good example that this “birdphotographer converts to birder”-strategy works. Thanks for your comment.


Larry Woods October 24, 2012 at 2:45 am

As a person newly interested (for the nth time but now retired with enough time) in bird-{ing, watching, photography}, or whatever it may or may not develop into, I think Linda has it exactly right. I hope I don’t meet anyone during the indefinitely long period of learning about and enjoying this hobby who discourages me because I didn’t have an orthodox first step. This argument definitely shouldn’t happen on the blog for new birders, lest they all immediately unsubscribe. I question if it needs to happen at all. I’m doing this for my enjoyment, not to satisfy someone else. Thanks.


Gunnar Engblom October 24, 2012 at 3:43 am

Thanks Larry. I think the discussion got to concentrated on semantics. Let’s just just enjoy birds in whatever way. For me birding almost meant something broad and inclusive, but it is obvious that this in the case among the hard-core birders in North America. I will keep on using the word birding for this route to take, in spite that it starts with photography and an internet connection, because it could well lead into some higher state of bird identification skills. All need to start somewhere, and right now this is the easiest albeit unorthodox way to get started.
I have been away (birding yes) and sick for week but feel inspired now. I will get started posting some more intros, and shortly the true blog series will start.


Rick King January 3, 2013 at 8:56 am

I completely agree with you Gunnar. Why is birding only valid if you’re out in the field with a waterproof notebook making sketches? This, BTW, is a criticism I’ve heard of birders using just a field guide!


Gustavo Bautista January 3, 2013 at 6:00 pm

Interesting post, nevertheless in my oponion both modern and old-school birding should merge and not compare them to know wich is best?. I guess the best way to start birding is just to have the eager wish to do so. I started birding right in my neighborhood, on the second floor watching birds outside of my window, we had a papaya tree, where Hummingbirds and Bananaquits came to visit, at that time I was 19 years old maybe?, I already have heard what Birdwatching means, by looking on the internet and I studied ecotourism, but in the begining I was around 10 or less interested in insects and moving animals easier to see, then at the age of 13 travelled first time to meet the Amazon where got shocked of the extraordinary beauty of nature in Tambopata-Madre de Dios, at the TRC, when move back to Lima, the jungle of concret I realize the value of the small green patches and started birding. What I think is that we treat as unimportant something until the time we haven’t see or understand how valuable is that theme. Greetings Gunnar. P. S.: Would be best also to express this in Spanish and other languages.


Gunnar Engblom January 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Hola Gustavo. Perhaps some day we can do a similar manual in Spanish. In fact, the original idea to this project was to make a birdwatching guide to Lima, which gave both the new techniques in the way that they shall be covered here as well as a field guide. All available on line for free. For that project I figured we would have needed some 30-40 people to cover 10-13 species each.

Then I met Jeff Gordon, president of the ABA, and mentioned the idea for Lima, and said to him, that ABA could do something similar to get people involved in Birding in the US, but a new manual focused on what is already available. The ABA never picked up on the idea, and perhaps not so strange considering the resistance I have come across from some prominent ABA members.

Then I thought, and it scared me a bit, maybe I can lead this. After all, it is my idea, and I have a vision what I think it could look like. I started inviting some Blogger, Twitter and Facebook friends and now there is a full team. Just a few empty spots to cover now.

We should definitely pick up the project for Peru. Originally, for Peru I had not thought of a blog, but perhaps that is what we should do to gain momentum. At least this way we make the accounts little by little.

Voy a anunciar mas adelante una vez que se complete esto, de comenzar el proyecto para Lima tambien. Un abrazo. Gunnar


Neil Fifer January 18, 2013 at 5:32 pm

I started photographing birds without bins and a guide, although I realised very early on that I needed a guide. After more than 12 years of wandering the world photographing birds I realise that I’m still not a “birder” in the purist sense. I don’t keep lists or mark sightings in field guides, or chase across the country to see a rare sighting, or sit on clifftops trying to separate seabirds at 1 km in the rain. I spend most of my time photographing birds I’ve seen before , just trying to capture them in better light, better pose ,different behavior, to show a better “essence” of them.
As an avid collector I now have 4 scopes, 3 bins and over 30 bird guides and many books on birds.
But if the hobby of birds in nature is to be introduced to the younger generation or the newly retired then a new approach is needed , so I applaud this effort and wish it all the best.


Gunnar Engblom January 23, 2013 at 9:44 am

Thanks very much Neil. I am getting more and more testimonials that photographing birds is the way into birding.


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