If you’re new to birding, the Birding Basics page is for you. If you’re a seasoned pro, please let me know what I’ve missed!
Update: I’ve added a Store page that has Amazon links to all the books I mention below, plus some versions of birding binoculars and such. Disclosure: If you buy through the store I get a dinky finders fee.
Birding, or bird watching, is a growing sport in the United States and most emphatically in Arizona. It’s easy to get started doing birdwatching since birds are all around you. You can choose how enthusiastically you pursue birding, from backyard watching to tours of Costa Rica or the Amazon. You can buy a pair of $30 binoculars or spend thousands on high-end optics and photography equipment. It’s fun to do in a group and most birders are very welcoming to “newbies” (although I have found a few elitists, too). For most birders, it’s non-competitive, so sharing information is good for everybody. They’ll tell you where to find the rare and unusual and also why birds act the way they do.
I’m fairly new and not as dedicated as many. My choices below should be considered a starting place for casual birding. Birding does require at least a little preparation if you’re going to get very far, and I hope this discussion helps. So, on to books and binoculars…
Books are available that target just Arizona and New Mexico birding (or anywhere else you might find birds in quantity). I’ll tell you below what I chose, but I’ve learned that everyone is different about picking field guides and reference books.
Kaufman’s Birds of North America is fun to read. It has sections like “Waders With Odd Bills” and “‘Zebra-Backed’ Woodpeckers”. It’s a little large for a pants pocket, but not bad for a backpack. Each left-hand page has several birds listed with images that have been “digitally edited” from photos.
The National Audubon Society’s Field Guide to Birds, Western Region is much different. It has color photos up front and a description section in the back. It is harder for me to use but is a nice complement to the Kaufman’s. I like to switch back and forth when trying to figure out what my own photos have captured.
My favorite field guide is National Geographic’s Field Guide to Birds: Arizona and New Mexico. It is small enough to fit in a cargo pants pocket and yet complete enough for my non-expert eyes. It has a color photo on the left-hand page and a description on the right. There are field notes at the bottom of each description with information on other birds of a similar nature, nesting habits and so forth. In the back is a color index so you can quickly look up a mostly brown bird and have a chance to find it in the book before the bird is gone.
Arizona and New Mexico Birds, by Radamaker, Radamaker and Kennedy, is a thin book with drawings and a description on each page. It’s a little too big around to stuff in a pocket easily, but light for a backpack. It has the smallest list of birds and I find that it’s missing some of the ones I see, but it’s still a good complement for the others.
For Hummingbirds, I have Stokes’ Beginner’s Guide to Hummingbirds, which has information not only on identifying hummers but also on attracting them. The section on each bird is multiple pages, with several pictures for each.
I also have a quick guide that’s handy for a glove compartment or backpack outside pocket. Southwestern Desert Birds, from Waterford Press, is part of the Pocket Naturalist series. It has drawings for common Southwestern species and a small guide to birding hotspots in the Southwest.
The equipment you need for bird watching is heavily dependent on what you want to do and how serious you are about doing it. The most basic tools are your eyes and ears, but most folks will want to have a pair of binoculars, a hat, good shoes and some field references. Some people go with the big lens cameras and spotting scopes, with tripods or monopods for support. The field guides are often supplemented by big reference volumes and/or computer programs and/or recordings of bird calls in one format or another, so you can get deep into book and electronic expenses, too.
Binoculars can and do fill up whole sites by themselves. I have several pairs, but none of them are the classic binoculars for birding. I’m also not going to go into the deep dark depths of what 7X21 means because I frankly don’t remember long enough not to bungle it.
What I can and will say is that it’s nice to have a pair of pocket binoculars handy in a purse, glove box or cup holder so that you can quickly pull over to the side of the road or out of the way of the shopping mall patrons and check out the passing birds. It’s also nice to have a larger set for birds that are farther away or in dim conditions. I have a set of zoom binoculars that are great for that, but they begin to feel quite heavy after a while. For a smaller person than I am, they would not work well at all for birding. Try holding up a pair of heavy binoculars for hours at a time and you’ll see why people pay big bucks for the light-weight ones!
There’s all kinds of issues about quality of lenses versus cost, eye cups, optical coatings, whether they are “ruggedized” or waterproof and so forth. This is one place where it really pays to go do some comparison shopping and talk to birders generally.
Birdwatching.com has a discussion of binocular basics available.
If you want to get closer and have the money, you can also get into spotting scopes, which are telescopes designed for birding, and sometimes for backpacking as well. They are very helpful for those bald eagles that refuse to come down from the cliff or out of that tall tree so you can see them. We were at Morro Rock in California trying to see a Peregrine falcon high up in the rock. My camera would zoom enough to see that there was a bird there, but a guy with a spotting scope could practically count the bird’s feathers.
Then, of course, you can marry those together and do digiscoping, which is using a digital camera to take a shot through a scope. By then you’re way past basic birding!
Once you have your books, binoculars and other gear, you need to know where to go. I think it’s obvious that I thoroughly enjoyed taking a class and going on short trips with the group. Birding is a fun group activity because having several sets of eyes will make a huge difference in the number of birds that you spot. Not only that, but it’s fun and educational to hear the experts in the group debating whether that really was a juvenile this or a female that.
Online links are another great resource for finding out the best places and times for birding.
A festival is, well, a festive way to immerse yourself in birding. Arizona is blessed with several of them. Two of them that I’ve heard a lot about are Wings Over Willcox and the Verde Valley Birding & Nature Festival, but there are tons of them around. Basic birders can get classes, seminars and tours to help them get started or further in the sport.
Once you have the fever for birding, you can go on tours throughout the world and get involved in things like Christmas bird counts. You can also give back to the birds by working on conservation and environmental issues, or by helping out a rescue organization.