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Cardinal Bird Watching TipsBluebird

Getting Started in Bird Watching
If you are a beginning bird watcher it is helpful to start going out with experienced birders to learn what to look for.

There are many bird groups you can join. The Audubon Society, and American Birding Association are probably the best know.  These groups offer birding information in the form of magazines, newsletters, and guided trips.  You can find birding books, recordings, binoculars, and other equipment in local retail stores. The clubs should also have lists of birds in your area.

Here is some top rated birding software used by many people.  This is like an electronic Field Guide - that sings! You can identify birds by entering color, size, habitat or song. Compare birds side-by-side, record your sightings ... and more!

Keeping a birding log can be fun.  One benefit of keeping track of birds and the sounds they make is that in a short time you will be able to identify them by their shape or song.  This makes bird watching more fun.

Where and When to see Birds
Luckily for us many popular song birds visit backyard feeders, and birdbaths.  This makes a yard designed with birds in mind one of the best places to watch birds.   Watching the entertaining antics of birds feeding, and bathing from your lawn chair or a window can be very enjoyable.

While it is possible to go bird watching any time and any place, it is helpful to know when, and where to look.  Learning the habitats of birds in your area will increase the number of birds you see, and make your birding more enjoyable.  If you know that Meadow larks are likely to be in open grassy areas, and dippers are forage along stream beds, you may be looking for them if you are in those types of habitats.  Ecotones, or edge areas where different types of habitats meet will likely have more species in them.  You are more likely to see specific birds at certain times of the day.  For example songbirds are easier to see two to three hours after dawn, or just before sunset.  This is when songbirds are most actively feeding.  Many small birds will be silent or even hidden during the rest of the day.  After sunup is the best time to see eagles and hawks.  Visibility is best for hunting at this time, and they can soar on the thermal currents from the warmed air.  Birds like owls are more likely to be seen in the evening.  Many shorebirds and waders rest at high tide and feed when the water rises or falls.

One good place to start bird watching is in your own back yard.  There are many things you can do to attract birds to your yard.

Bird Food
All birds need food, water and shelter, but needs or habits will vary with each species.  Crossbills natural food comes from conifer trees.   Cranes need to be around water.  Red-winged blackbirds fasten their nests to reeds such as cattails.  A meadowlark’s nest is a grass dome built on the ground.   Nuthatches, woodpeckers and Brown creepers are more likely to be seen on tree trunks.  Dippers will be found in mountain streams hoping from rock to rock, or diving for aquatic insects.  Learning what needs a specific bird has will tell you what their natural habit is and where to look for it. You are more likely to find certain birds if you look in their normal habitat.  Sometimes staying still for a while will put them at ease, and you may be able to get close.   For information on feeding birds and types of food see Feeding-Birds.

Birds In The Garden or Backyard
Many songbirds are attracted to seeds. There are many good feeders or you can just design your own. It is best to provide a mix of sizes. Niger, billet, and sunflower seeds make a good mix. Certain birds like robins will be attracted to a piece of fruit on a stick or spike. Tree-climbers like Woodpeckers and Nuthatches like suet. Peanut butter is an old favorite and will attract a large variety of birds. Hummingbird feeders can be filled with sugar water.  For more information on types of food see Feeding-Birds.

It is great to watch birds splash in a shallow birdbath.  You are more likely to attract birds to your backyard if you have trees and bushes they can rest or hide in.  If you have a birdbath put it near the plants.

Seasons
There are advantages to each season. To see birds in full colorful breeding plumage the best time to watch is in spring when they migrate to their nesting grounds. Most birds breed in the summer so that is when you can watch them build their nests and raise their young. This is also when they will be the most visible.   Later in the summer when they are molting they remain more concealed.  The fall migration is the hardest time to identify birds because of the change in plumage.

Birding Technique and Skills
It goes without saying that watching birds in the wild takes more patience than watching them in your back yard.  If you are walking it the woods, try walking a little ways then stopping for a few minutes to look around.  Scan the forest from bottom to top.  Some birds prefer to stay in the underbrush, some prefer the middle, and still others will remain in tree tops.  You might want to just sit for a while on a stump or log.  Often birds that might be spooked as you walk through might reveal themselves if you are still for a while.  Birds have a comfort zone they will not let you enter.  For each species this zone is different.  The way to learn this zone is with practice, and experience.  Birds are likely to be alarmed by noise or sudden movement, so move slowly and quietly.  Watch the vegetation for movement that may give away a birds location.

Birds have sharper senses than we do so they probably know you are there, but they have to see you as non-threatening.  Watch for signs of alarm in birds; a freeze in posture, a cocked head, or half raised wings.  These tell you to stop moving until the bird calms down, or to back away if necessary.  If you are walking, and you see birds flee into bushes as you approach try staying still for a few minutes.  When birds perceive that you are not a threat they may come out of hiding.  Often their curiosity will bring them quite close to you and you can get great pictures.  Study an unfamiliar bird thoroughly before consulting your field guide. Many birders take extensive notes.

Bird Identification Clues
There are some basic clues you can look and listen for. 1) the bird's silhouette, 2) its plumage and coloration, 3) its behavior, 4) its song or calls, 5) its habitat.

Silhouette - Shape and Size
Most experts learn to identify birds by their shape and posture.  Each bird family has a certain shape and size.  Many birds are even identifiable to species by outline alone.  By placing the bird you see into a particular family, you will narrow down the number of possible birds. 
See silhouettes.

Plumage
Most people get into bird watching to see the beautiful colors.  The marks that distinguishing one bird form another are called field marks.  These include such things as breast spots, wing bars (thin lines along the wings), eye rings (circles around the eyes), eyebrows (lines over the eyes), eye lines (lines through the eyes) and many others.

Bird Beaks
Look at the shape of a bird's bill in low light. Cardinals, finches, and sparrows have short conical bills. Woodpeckers have rigid powerful bills to chip away at wood. Hawks, Eagles, and Owls have sharp, hooked bills for tearing meat. Shorebirds have slender bills of all lengths for probing at different depths into the sand. Birds such as Ducks have flat bills useful for filtering. Everyone is familiar with the long thin beak of a Hummingbird.
See Beaks, Bills and Feet.

Bird Watching Equipment
Some items that might make bird watching more enjoyable are binoculars, a camera, some kind of system for keeping notes, and maybe a back pack.  Birders often keep lists of the birds they see along with notes about the habits. There is some great bird log software that will let you keep records on your computer.  One option for binoculars is the binocular-camera combination. For more detail on choosing binoculars see our Binocular - Optics page.

Bird Song recording

Recording the songs of birds you encounter can be fun.  Learn about different types of bird recording equipment here

Clothes
If you are walking through a wooded area just wear clothes you would wear on any hike or field trip.  You are best off wearing clothes with dull colors that blend into the background.  Muted greens, browns, and grays are good.  Avoid fabrics that squeak, rustle, or snag easily.  Depending on the birds you are watching you may want to get rain gear, rubber boots and warm clothing. For birds such as Owls that you might look for in the evening a strong flashlight is also handy.

Bird Songs and Calls
To start learning birdcalls there are many recordings you can by. Bird clubs or bookstores, can help you find tapes for local birds.

Choosing a Bird Field Guide
Take a good field guide to identify birds. Look for clear color pictures that make it easy to recognize one bird form another. Next to each picture should be detailed descriptions of each bird's anatomy, habits, and what it eats. The guide should have information about what habitat each species uses. Many guides have maps showing the range of different birds along with their migration patterns.

 
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