Bird watching, or birding, is a wonderful hobby, loved by millions of people across the globe! It’s a great way to connect with mother nature, learn about different kinds of birds, and just soak up the beauty of the outdoors, whether you go birding in the city or the country.

However, if you’re new to birding, you may not know where to begin. You may be overwhelmed, wondering if you need special equipment and if there is a “proper” way to start birding.

Learn how to start birding with this beginner’s guide. Discover birding hotspots, refuges, courses, and tours. Learn about the equipment you will need, and how to identify birds. Go birding at dawn, and during migration. Outfit your backyard with native plants, feeders, and water to attract birds.

This beginner’s guide is perfect if you are a new birder and may even contain a few new tips for experienced birders as well. It’s the guide I wish I had when I was in the early stages of my bird watching journey. Let’s begin!

How to start birding

1. Begin by Calling Your Local Audubon Society

To learn the specifics of birding in your area, begin by calling your local Audubon Society! Your local Audubon Society is a wealth of information! They will be thrilled to hear from a new birder as they love building the birding community.

Ask your local Audubon Society about local birders and birding groups you can meet up with, as well as bird watching courses. Inquire about the best places to view birds that are within driving distance of your neighborhood. They will be super excited to help you!

Even if you live in a rural area and the nearest Audubon Society is a few hours away and located in a city, that’s OK. They have members who live across the state in small farming communities as well as big cities. You will soon learn that birders are everywhere!

2. Learn About Local Birding Hotspots and Refuges

In preparation for birding, learn about birding hotspots and refuges in your neighborhood, or within close driving distance. These are places that birds love to visit.

Like birds, birders also love to visit birding hotspots since they can see so many different kinds of birds, and large numbers of them. They may be birding habitats with ponds, lakes, or swamps. They may be parks that you have been driving by for years, never suspecting that they were places that birds flock to.

One of the best ways to find birding hotspots is by using the website eBird. Go to the eBird Explore Regions section and type your area into the “Enter a region” field. You can also click on the Explore Hotspots link below the Explore Regions photo – you can search for hotspots by name and also enter your address. Hotspots are denoted by light green teardrops. (eBird has a great “eBird Essentials” course that is free!)

Bird refuges are also fantastic places to view birds. They are different from hotspots because they are specifically designed and constructed as bird sanctuaries. These lovely bird habitats cater to bird safety and provide a place for them to build their nests, breed, forage, and take shelter. Google “bird refuges near name of your community“.

3. Get a Field Guide and Bird Identification Apps

To go birding, you will also want a field guide and apps that will assist you with identifying birds. I suggest using a combination of both. I think a great combination is the Merlin ID app for iOS and Android and Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America.

Merlin is probably my favorite Bird Identification app! I use it every day with my Peterson’s Guide close by. I stand out on my deck with my binoculars and when I hear bird songs and calls I don’t recognize, I turn on the Merlin Bird ID recorder. Within a second or two it accurately identifies the name of the bird and shows me a photo as well!

Screen grab of Merlin Bird ID's Song ID feature
Merlin Bird App screenshot

I then spot the bird with my binoculars, observe and study it, and get out my field guide to learn more about it. It’s easy for me to find the bird in my field guide since Merlin already told me its name.

Merlin Bird ID is available for: iOS, Android

4. Learn How to Start Birding With Binoculars

If you want to be a casual bird watcher and enjoy birds without the desire to view them up close, that is fine! The great thing about birding is that you don’t need fancy or expensive equipment to enjoy their beauty and their songs.

Nikon Monarch M7 8×42 Binoculars

However, that being said, if you have never looked at birds through a great pair of binoculars, you will be delighted when you do. It takes birding to a whole different dimension.

You can check out my top mid-price binocular recommendations as well as my top budget-priced binocular recommendations. All are perfect for those who wear glasses and those with perfect vision due to their long eye relief. If you are not yet ready to buy binoculars, try borrowing them from a friend or relative.

5. Wear Comfortable Shoes and Attire

This probably goes without saying, but when you are birding you should wear shoes that are super comfortable and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Depending on where you do your birdwatching, you may be walking across muddy fields and down dirt paths.

The legs of a birder where she wears jeans and hiking boots

You should also wear comfortable clothes – jeans and tee shirts work just fine. If the weather is a little nippy, you can dress in layers – maybe a flannel shirt thrown over your tee, and a light jacket. I also wear clothes that don’t make a lot of sounds when I move! I have one jacket that is made of a fabric that is very loud when my hair brushes against it, or when the strap on my camera moves.

Lastly, don’t forget sunscreen and maybe a cap. I have gotten sunburned when birdwatching – it’s easy to forget about the sun when you are doing something you love!

6. Go Outside, Look Up, and Listen

Now that you have probably learned about some of the best places to view birds in your area, have purchased your field guide, installed your Merlin ID app for iOS or Android, borrowed or bought binoculars, and are comfortably dressed, it’s time to start birding! Bring a small notepad and pencil as well!

To start birding, go outside, look up, and listen. If you don’t yet know where the best bird-watching locations are, just look for a water source, trees, bushes, and/or native plants since birds are very attracted to all of these. This might be a park, a wetland, or an area where vegetation is abundant.

A new birder in the park looking up for birds

Now sit and wait. You may have to wait for a while until you see or hear a bird. If you hear a bird singing before you spot it, you can quickly grab your phone and use your Merlin ID app to record the sound and identify the bird and show you a photo of it. Now you know what you are looking for!

Grab your binoculars and try to spot the bird. When you spot it, observe it for a while and study it. Notice its behaviors, and features, like the shape of its tail and beak, its coloring and patterns. Take note of where it is and what it is doing. Say the name of the bird to yourself several times.

Now use the name of the bird to find it in your field guide. Read about it to learn more. Make a few notes about the bird – its name, where you spotted it, and what it was doing, so you can record it in a bird journal when you get home.

7. Use a Birding Journal To Track Birds You See

I wish I had used a birding journal to record the birds I saw when I was just starting to bird watch. Now that I have been doing it for a while, I get a lot of pleasure from looking back at the initial sightings and seeing how the numbers and variety of sightings grew as my knowledge and experience evolved.

Birding Journal to record bird sightings

When you record a sighting, you can record the name of the bird, what it looked like, what it was doing, where you saw it, and the date and time. You can also record who you were birding with at the time.

There are many citizen science projects like eBird and events that occur at certain times of the year, where you are asked to record the birds you see at certain hours of the day, and in specific locations. It’s fun to contribute to these as well as record your own sightings. There is a real-time submission checklist at eBird where you can watch as people across the globe submit their sightings.

8. Learn Bird Songs and Bird Features

You can always rely on your Merlin ID app for iOS or Android and Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America for identifying birds by their songs and features. However, learning how to identify and spot birds by their bird songs and calls, as well as their features, is part of the joy of bird watching.

Think of learning bird songs and calls like learning the voices of friends or relatives – each has a distinct sound, rhythm, and pattern. They may all sound somewhat similar at first but when you know how to break the sounds apart to learn them, they start to sound very distinct.

Young jay singing in a tree
Immature Blue Jay Singing in Tree

You can think about learning to identify birds by their features in a similar way: Like people, many birds have similar features. But when you start to break bird features down by things like patterns, color variations, tail length, eye color, and beak shape, it becomes much easier to identify them.

9. Use Social Media to Find Birding Groups

Now that you have gone birding on your own, you may want to join some birding groups so you can go birding with groups of birders! You can find them via the Audubon Society and by looking on Facebook.

Just for fun I just went onto Facebook and searched for “Birding groups in Iowa” and numerous groups came up.

Go on Instagram and search for “Birding in Colorado” for example – there are so many birders who post great photos. Reach out to the ones in your area to ask about local birding groups as well, or if you can go birding with them.

10. Take a Birding Tour Led by an Expert

I find that guided tours are an excellent way to learn. There is nothing better than learning from an expert. The other great thing about tours is that you will get to meet other birders in your area who can show you the ropes!

Man and a woman on a guided birding tour with their guide in the forest

When you take a guided birding tour, you will learn about different kinds of birds in your area, the best places to see them, tips on how to identify them, and the best time of day to see them. Birders love to share their favorite apps, and equipment like binoculars, tripods, clothing, accessories, and field guides.

You can typically find birding tours in both rural and city areas. In fact, If you live in the city, don’t be surprised to find amazing birding tours – just check out the ones in New York City here.

Just google “Guided Birding Tours in your area“.

11. Go Birding With Experienced Birders

As you start taking tours, and courses, joining clubs, and attending birding events, you will meet tons of other birders. Find the ones in your area and make friends with the ones you click with. Make plans to go birding with them during the week or on the weekend. Learn as much as you can from them.

I find birders to be an exceptionally lovely and welcoming group of people who are always excited to pass on their knowledge to new birders. Taking new birders under their wing is something they do quite well!

12. As You Learn, Take a New Birder Under Your Wing

Paying it forward is a feel-good activity. As you grow in your knowledge of all things bird watching and make friends and connections in the birding world, you will no doubt meet a novice birder, just like you once were.

An experienced birder mentoring a new bird watcher

Take him or her under your wing. Show them how much fun birding is, introduce them to other birders, accompany them on tours, and go birding with them.

Teaching someone a skill is also a great way to solidify your knowledge. Numerous studies have shown that one of the best ways to practice a skill is to teach it to someone else.

13. Make Early Morning Birding a Routine

It’s great to go birding with others and take tours but it’s so nice to go birding on your own as well. I enjoy going out in the early part of the morning when the birds are at their most active. At this time, they are waking up, hungry, and looking for food. The sun is warming all of the insects and the birds are out in full force, searching for a yummy breakfast.

Early morning birding is a beautiful way to begin the morning – so much so that it is nice to build it into your early morning routine. Mine consists of meditation, walking, and exercise – and birding when the weather cooperates.

Bird flying over river in early morning
Bird flying over the river in the early morning

Birding is so good for mental health and a wonderful way to clear your mind and get ready for the day. Birds are singing and calling at this time as well. The beauty of the woods, the sound and sights of the lovely little creatures, the crisp air, and a gentle breeze is an amazing way to begin the day.

Since birds become active towards the later part of the afternoon as well, if I miss my morning walk, I try to sneak in a late afternoon birding walk to compensate. It’s the perfect ending to the day.

14. Learn Where to Go Birding During Migration

It’s a wonderful thing to go birding during spring and fall migration! Migrating birds that pass through your area as they journey to better breeding grounds or warmer climates are a sight to behold. The first time you go birding during this time, you will see birds you have never seen before.

They pass through for a short time so there is a small window of opportunity to observe them as they rest up in your area, looking for food and shelter before they alight again. When the migrating birds come passing through and I see bright yellow warblers, I am so excited and thrilled!

Huge flock of flying migrating geese over wetland in Sacramento, California

Many birding tours take place during this time. Again, if you call the Audubon Society, they will give you tons of information. Also, there is a fantastic website called BirdCast that will tell you when the birds are passing through your location and the different birds you may be able to see.

15. Create a Bird Sanctuary In Your Backyard

You can build a bird sanctuary on your property virtually anywhere – whether you live on a big piece of property in a rural area, a lot in the suburbs, a small patch of green in the city, or even an apartment balcony.

The size and extent of your bird habitat project, and the variety and numbers of birds you can attract, will differ according to the size of the area you are working with, but you can still attract birds!

Backyard bird sanctuary with multiple birdhouses and plantings
A bird’s home in the park.

To create a habitat, the main elements are feeders filled with feed, native plants, and a water source. There are many accouterments you can add – like bird houses, roosting and nesting boxes, etc. – but these are all add-ons (albeit wonderful ones that will draw more and different kinds of bird species)!

One of the benefits of attracting birds to your yard or to your balcony is that you get to go birding from the comfort of your home. You can observe and study birds in your pajamas while sitting outside, or watching from a window inside your house. You can set up a BirdCam to watch the birds feeding at your feeders.

16. Consider Photographing Birds You See

I like to take pictures of the birds that I see and use the camera on my iPhone for this. I have an older iPhone and admittedly the pictures are not the greatest quality. For this reason alone, I am seriously considering buying the latest and greatest iPhone.

I am also considering upgrading to a DSLR camera for bird photography. A friend has one and her bird photos are amazing. She also lives on a bird habitat, about 2 hours from me on the North Carolina coast, and can just sit in her garden on the water’s edge, snapping the most incredible photos.

Bird photographer standing at edge of lake looking for bird to photograph

One thing to keep in mind is that if you don’t have the luxury of lazing about on your deck or in your garden to do bird photography, you need to consider the combined weight of a smartphone, camera, binoculars, and whatever else you decide to bring along. When I bird, I try to keep things light without excess weight, especially on hot days.

17. Take A Birding Vacation

In my experience, once beginner birders have evolved into experienced birders, they want to venture further afield. You can do this by visiting hotspots and refuges outside of your area, or you can take an actual birding vacation.

Many fantastic multi-day birding tours across the world are led by experienced guides and researchers. There are also one-day tours that you can take, sometimes stringing these together so that you can go on different tours on subsequent days.

Colorful Scarlet Macaw on branch in Corcovado National Park in Costa Rica

These tours are amazing opportunities to see birds you have never seen before and to expand your birding knowledge by learning from some of the top birders in the field.


What is a birding hotspot?

Birding hotspots are locations that birds love to visit since they provide the ideal habitats, food sources, and shelter for birds. They are typically populated with many different kinds of birds, and large numbers of them. They may exist in various forms, such as parks, gardens, wetlands, and forests. Birding hotspots are popular with birders since they can see a large variety of birds in a relatively small area.

What is the best season to go birding?

The best season to go birding is in the spring, during spring migration. Male birds at their most colorful at this time, and you will be able to see birds not normally seen in your area. In addition, the weather for birding is mild, and the days are longer. The second-best time to go birding is in the fall, during fall migration.

How do you create a bird habitat?

To create a habitat, the main elements are clean feeders filled with fresh feed, various native plants, and a water source filled with clean and preferably moving water. To attract more birds, you can install additional items such as birdhouses, roosting boxes, and nesting boxes.