First Steps in Birdwatching

by Jill Whiter
(Eurobodalla Natural History Society)

First encounters in Birding

First encounters in Birding

Presuming that you already enjoy looking at and listening to birds and you own a pair of binoculars and an Australian field guide that describes bird anatomy and the diagnostic points of identification, your next move is to learn to differentiate one species from another and begin learning their calls.

The virtue of a field guide is that it contains all the information you need to identify the birds of the country, in pictures and text.
In modern field guides, each species is accompanied by a distribution map. Use it diligently. It is well to acquaint yourself with the birds to be commonly met with in the area where you live or where you intend to visit.
You will save hours wasted in dithering over similar species that have a continent between them. For example, a Gouldian Finch is not going to be in the Broulee bushland; think about a European Goldfinch instead. And resist strongly any desire to see rarities ... just enjoy the bird in its own environment, till you know what you are doing.

Your first step is to buy a notebook and pencil that fits comfortably in your pocket. After more than 60 years of birdwatching, it still surprises me how many people rely on memory. It is a poor tool. A few notes, a quick sketch and the job is done.
When you are puzzled about the identity of a bird, make a note of its features, activity and the surrounding habitat. Making notes will soon become a habit and your eyes will go straight to the salient features: size, bill, eye, wingbars if any, chest, belly, tail and legs. Estimate the size then let you eyes wander from the bill along the body to the tail and legs. In nearly all cases the bird's identity can be linked to the habitat in which you found it: a Royal Spoonbill is highly unlikely in the woodland and a Laughing Kookaburra won't be paddling on the mudflats. But you might find a Magpie Lark in bushland in the breeding season, though it favours open lands in other seasons. Remember, there are always exceptions and, if you think about it, you can usually find a reason for the exceptions.

There are many tapes of bird calls available from Bird Observers Clubs of Australia (BOCA) or other outlets and they are extremely useful but don't rely on them entirely unless you know where the tapes were recorded. Try to find one that was recorded in your area or pretty close to it. Birds, like us, have accents and dialects. And nothing beats familiarity with your own patch and its birds, for their songs and calls vary with the seasons and their activities: courting, foraging, fighting, warning of danger, keeping in contact or just warbling for the fun of it.

Go birdwatching by yourself; your eyes alone will find the birds and you alone will determine their identities. You won't always be right but you will not be depending on another to spot the quarry, you will be developing your own spotting skills instead. Once you feel confident of your ability to distinguish birds in their natural habitats, by all means join a birdwatching group and learn from those who are more experienced than you. But first of all, learn the fundamental skills and learn to trust your own judgement.

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Contact the author ...

This article was submitted by Jill Whiter, founding member of the Eurobodalla Natural History Society (now available on and author of the Eurobodalla Naturalist's diary.
To contact Jill phone 02 4471 7007.

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