in 2 years I have learned more than most and the fact that I'm constantly learning and things are fresh in my brain that some of this may help anyone who reads this.
Tip 1: Bird with experienced birders
Birding with someone more experienced forces you to push your "game" to a new level. It forces you to learn fast and to pick up on very specific details that "give away" a bird's identity. However, make sure you QUESTION their identification. ASK WHY! And remember - everyone makes mistakes. Don't just take their ID's for granted. Learn from them. Learn about migration patterns, historic records, etc.
Tip 2: Bird with less experienced birders
Yes, this may seem like a contradiction. However, birding with less experienced people is
equally as critical to becoming a good birder. You never learn as much when you are forced to teach. An inexperienced birder will ask questions you may never have thought of and its a great opportunity to learn more yourself and share that which you have learned. Also, the excitement of showing someone a bird they've never seen before but is regular or rare reminds you not to
take any bird for granted.
Tip 3: Spend time on confusing birds
Take time to work out details of shorebird molting patterns, take time to work through fall
warblers, take time to study female birds, and just spend time on the finer details of common birds - especially gulls.
Again, don't take people's ID's for granted. Learn why. Learn things like head shape, get a feel for the general impression of shape and size of birds. Sure when plumages are vastly different in the spring things may be easier - but often rare birds show up in the fall (at least in NH) when plumages are not as vastly different.
Shape, size, and impression can help you identify birds quicker and can help you pick out the
thing that is different faster - which may be the deciding factor if you have limited time in identifying a bird - particularly if it is flying by.
Tip 4: Use multiple field guides
Each field guide offers different tips - look at them all. Don't just buy the dummy bird guide - rare birds show up. Knowing what they look like is essential. Why should someone else find them for you? Be prepared to find them yourself.
Tip 5: Be aware of local patterns
Learn where to find information - Audubon, Universities, and of course other Birders! Talk to people who have been birding the area for a long time. They know what's happening. They
know history, they know patterns, they know where to look.... everything. From that you
should learn when to expect birds to arrive, where to expect them to arrive, and where to look for them. Being prepared puts you in the right mindset for when you are in the field. You are less likely to be thrown by a bird that is unusual if you know the most likely unusual things to show up.
Tip 6: Know your Goal
Have goals. Know what they are. If you're trying to set a big year record, if you're trying to see
life birds, if you're trying to understand backyard bird patterns, if you're trying to watch
migration, if you're trying to do a big day... your strategy should be different! Knowing what you want to see or do changes how you approach your time in the field. You have to budget your time out in the field because there are only so many hours of light in the day and you can only
visit so many places in a day/month/year/lifetime.
Tip 7: Get good optics
They make a difference. Trust me. They make a world of difference. Spend at least 200$ and
ideally about 5 times as much on binoculars. It's an investment.
The celebratory 300th life bird cake after I spotted a Grasshopper Sparrow for my 300th life bird. I'm now at 398 on my life list - stay tuned for what 400 brings!
Tip 8: Keep a list
A lot of people seem to not like lists because it makes a bird a checkmark. However, making a list is good for data and good to see what you've seen and where. It doesn't have to be official. You don't have to compare. It's helpful to know what you've seen and where. It puts things into
perspective - and its a good way to track your progress. Record everything. It may just be the scientist in me - but it pays off in the long run. You never know when you'll stumble on something new or when you're notes will make a difference.
Tip 9: Don't just identify - watch
Don't just identify a bird and move on (unless it's a big day). Spend time watching birds and
their behavior. You never know what you'll find. Also, certain behaviors like tail pumping can become very helpful in identification. Watching birds feed can also be fascinating - if you don't believe me just watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTSvvEk4_H4&feature=related
Tip 10: Be patient and have FUN!
People will second guess you... You'll get things wrong. You'll be unable to identify birds. Do not get discouraged. Stick with it - it takes time. It's not about being the best.... its about having FUN! Be aware that your attitude about birding can affect those around you. Do your best to remain positive. I've had my fair share of moments where I've been too negative and
discouraging to myself and others. I regret every one of them.
Have fun. Birds are awesome. 3/4 of all birds are in decline. Birding is really a great opportunity to understand the world around you in another way. It is a fun way to get out, see something cool, to learn, to be connected, and to gain a better sense of place. There are birding competitions, but birding is not a competition. It is a fun experience that anyone can enjoy.
Jessie and I having fun when the Thick-billed Murre showed up in Hampton, NH