How to start bird watching

Kevin Collins

Kevin Collins

Bird-watching is my favourite past-time and it has some great advantages compared to other hobbies. Anyone from age 9 to 90 can do it. You can do it anywhere in the world or you can do it from your kitchen window. Once you get a few basic pieces of equipment, that’s it, you don’t have to pay annual membership fees or green fees. You can take it to any level you like and it will lead you into other fields of nature-watching.

I grew up in a town which was about twenty five miles from the sea. I was reasonably familiar with most wild birds of the garden and town but I knew nothing about sea-birds.

One day in 1981, I was walking on a beach and I saw a bird walking in front of me. It was black and white with long pink legs and a long orange beak. I asked the person I was with what kind of bird it was and they said it was a magpie! Well, I knew it wasn’t a magpie, so that afternoon I bought a book on birds of Britain and Ireland and discovered it was an Oystercatcher. That’s how I got started.

Children from the age of 8 or 9 seem to have a natural fascination with wildlife. Of course, once they reach 14 or 15 they discover boys or girls and that’s the end of any interest in wildlife for about 10 to 15 years usually. Then, when their hormones have settled down they may take an interest in wildlife again. If their interest in wildlife was encouraged and nurtured in those early years, it will stand to them later on.

There are three basic pieces of equipment. A pair of binoculars is a must. There’s usually a pair of some kind lying around in most houses. For children, a pair of 8x30 would be sufficient magnification while still being light-weight.

The next piece of equipment is a notebook and pencil.

Finally, you will need a bird identification guide. For beginners, I recommend ‘The Complete Field Guide to Ireland’s Birds’ by Eric Dempsey and Michael O’Clery. (Published by Gill & Macmillan at €20). I mentioned the notebook second because it should be taken out with the binoculars and the identification book should be left at home. This forces you to make detailed notes of a bird which is new to you, its colours, behaviour, habitat and so on. If you have the bird guide with you, you tend to look at the pictures and match the bird you see to a picture in the book. This is a bad habit and can lead to mistakes. Apart from anything else, it’s very enjoyable to look back at an old notebook and find the details you wrote will bring back happy memories of a great day in the countryside.

This is a great time of year to get started. Put out some peanut feeders in your garden and let the birds come close to you. They get essential food to help them to survive the winter and you get a close-up view of all the action. Usually the first bird to arrive is the Blue Tit.

Of course, you can only learn so much from books. To improve your skills you need to meet up with other like-minded people. By joining BirdWatch Ireland you can meet experienced birdwatchers and learn so much more.