Birdwatching for beginners: change your life a feather at a time

You don’t need to spend lots of money or grow a beard to appreciate birds

Starter binocular options at about €120 can greatly enhance your observations. Photograph: ZenShui/Odilon Dimier/Getty Images

Starter binocular options at about €120 can greatly enhance your observations. Photograph: ZenShui/Odilon Dimier/Getty Images

 

Very few people are entirely indifferent to birds, and most of us find them an occasional source of some brief wonder and delight.

Even the most common birds can surprise us with their beauty, when the light suddenly catches the tail of a magpie or the breast of a starling, and reveals an unexpected prism of iridescent colours.

Part of the fascination lies in the fact that they are so familiar on our earthbound world, and yet are also so completely at home on the water, and in the skies. Their ability to take wing has inspired the imagination of all human cultures; the sudden rush upwards of a flock of birds from our feet can still make us catch our breath.

Rural people have always known that birds are as finely tuned to the turning seasons as the leaves on trees. Even today, many city-dwellers find joy in seeing the first swallow of the year, and sense a deeper connection with the rhythms of the world when a flock of geese first plummets down to their local sports ground in autumn.

But what is needed if you would like to deepen these mild pleasures and learn a little more about the birds in your area? The good news is that birdwatching is a much more accessible recreation than you might expect.

You do not need to learn a lot of arcane language, or to compete obsessively to add another rarity to your “life list” of bird records. The twitcher, so beloved of the popular media, does exist, but most birders enjoy their pursuit in a much less frenetic fashion, combining it with general outdoor pleasures and new friendships.  

Nor, despite the stereotypes often bandied around, do you have to wear a woolly sweater, grow a beard or be drawing a pension to watch birds.

Gender equality

BirdWatch Ireland has not done a strict gender breakdown of its 15,000 subscribers. But the development officer, Niall Hatch, reckons it’s almost 50-50 now. And while 28 per cent of individual members are indeed retired, 38 per cent are between 18 and 65.

You don’t even have to get cold and wet to go birding, although a tolerance for inclement weather is certainly an asset. You can learn a great deal about birds simply by attracting them to your garden, or even your window sill, using feeders, or by leaving seeds and fruits on garden plants.

With a little patience, and the cheapest bird guide, you will easily distinguish four or five species of finches, and you will quickly add the buff-brown coal tit, and the cute fluffball long-tailed tit, to the more familiar great and blue tits.   

And from just these basic home observations you can plug into the worldwide network of citizen science, aiding conservation by contributing data essential to analysis of bird populations.

The easiest way to do this is via BirdWatch Ireland’s popular Garden Bird Survey, at birdwatchireland.com.

But the rewards of stepping beyond your own garden to look for birds are enormous. Not only will you see many species that will never visit your home, you will find new ways of engaging with familiar landscapes, and motivation to visit new ones.

Exciting species

Wetlands in winter are the best place for a beginner to find a range of exciting new species close up, mostly wading birds with remarkably long legs and bills, and waterfowl like ducks and geese. You may find that birds just as dramatic and colourful as a toucan or macaw are quite common close to home. Check out the oyster-catcher, shelduck or shoveler on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’s excellent online A-Z guide to birds to whet your appetite.

 The mudflats on estuaries are the easiest places to observe such species, especially in the hours when a rising tide is driving them towards the shoreline in great concentrations. And when they finally fly to roost elsewhere, you will often find flocks of different species, each hundreds or even thousands strong, weaving the air into vibrating kinetic tapestries, and filling the sky with their haunting calls.  

If you live far from the coast, local bogs and riverside marshes may also yield concentrations of waders and wildfowl, but they will be harder to find and harder to approach.

To find the best sites for birds near you, Finding Birds in Ireland (Gill & Macmillan), by Eric Dempsey and Michael O’Cleary is very useful, providing detailed information on 280-plus locations, North and South.

Cheap cheap start

You don’t need spend much money or acquire much clutter to get started. Binoculars are obviously an invaluable aid to bring the birds closer to you without disturbing them. Starter options at about €120 can greatly enhance your observations. Digital cameras with a good zoom lens can also add to your pleasure.

A telescope – don’t stint on the tripod, its steadiness in wind is as critical as the optics – will be your next step if the birding bug really bites you.

Even before that, you may want to have a guide that will show you every species you are ever likely to see in Ireland and Europe. There is still no match for the classic Collins Bird Guide, with beautiful and exceptionally accurate illustrations by our own Killian Mullarney, now also available as a smartphone app that includes bird calls.

The best sources of general guidance are undoubtedly BirdWatch Ireland (or the RSPB in Northern Ireland). The BirdWatch Shop online will help you with ideas for equipment and books, starting with a Beginning Birdwatching Gift Pack at €199, including basic identification books and binoculars, plus a year’s membership.

And you don’t even have to join BirdWatch to attend local meetings and outings, where you will generally find members delighted to help you start a journey that can add unsuspected riches to every day of your life.

WHY DO YOU ENJOY BIRDWATCHING? 

Birdwatching for me is a state of mind rather than “going birdwatching”, so all walks or glances into the garden have an expectation of seeing everyday birds, aspirations of spotting local and visiting rarities, and appreciating nature in all seasons and weather conditions. Eleanor Keane, retired nurse

Birdwatching connects me to my Dad and our shared love and respect for nature; we always went out on Christmas morning for an hour or two. Arthur Lappin, film producer/arts consultant

I have always been fascinated by birds and watching them in their natural habitat. Tim Sullivan, schoolboy

Watching birds in all their beauty and variety in south Wexford on a regular basis keeps me sane, or so my wife says, until the next time. Dáithí O’Ceallaigh, former ambassador to UK

I’ve watched birds from the age of five, out on the farm pulling weeds and beet; all farmers are into nature, because we see it; I’ve taken it to a different level. It’s a natural progression, and now it’s a distraction from farming. Paul Moore, farmer

I go birdwatching because it is such a different experience to my day job as a politician; my interest (obsession) has taken me to places throughout Ireland where I would never have set foot otherwise; I meet people that would have never crossed my path; birdwatching knows no boundaries and many of these people have remained good friends. Jim Wells, DUP MLA

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