Earth-toned clothing is best. Birds have a highly-developed sensitivity to color, as evidenced by females choosing brightly-colored mates. This means that brightly-colored clothes are visible to birds. Shoes should be comfortable, closed-toed, and waterproof depending on your conditions.
Birdwatching doesn’t exactly require much physical exertion; in fact, it requires stillness. Therefore, dress warmly.
During the winter, wear thin or fingerless gloves that keep your hands warm but still enable your fingers to operate the focus wheel on your binoculars.
But don’t wear ear muffs—much of birdwatching is listening for songs.
When learning to identify birds, train yourself to immediately notice field marks, such as eye rings, wing bars, and beak type. You often only get a few seconds to view a bird so you need to be an expert at automatically checking for distinguishing characteristics. Birders use the acronym, GISS (pronounced “jizz”), to remember to notice the General Impression of Shape and Size; Is the bird robin-sized? Finch-like?
After observing the bird, jot down the field marks into your journal and include any behaviors, habitat, song type, and even a sketch. Do this immediately while you are still in the field. Trust me— you will forget the field marks by the time you get back home, and looking through illustrations of similar species will cloud your memory.
If you didn’t think there was controversy in the birding world, then take your camera with you and measure the response. Half of the birders will talk to you all day about aperture and who has the longest lens, and brag about their digi-scoping skills. The other half are birdwatching purists who will turn their nose up at you. I am of the ideology that taking pictures takes away from my viewing pleasure.
I’ve tried to take my camera but by the time I’ve arranged myself for the best lighting and zoomed my camera out all the way, the bird has flown or I have missed interesting behaviors. However, if you spot a “rarity” and don’t want the birding community to ostracize you for making such fantastic claims, you had better have a picture of the bird to submit to your local rarities committee.
As with optics, you need a quality camera with a great deal of zoom to get a decent picture of small active birds. For feeder birds or large birds, my Panasonic Lumix point-and-shoot with 12x optical zoom gives nice results.
Smart phones have revolutionized birdwatching. It’s like having a field guide in your phone, except it’s better (well, in some ways). Like a field guide, it provides illustrations and range maps. Plus, some birding apps have programs that allow you to filter characteristics to help you identify your bird.
For example, you can enter your state, month, color of the bird, and type of bill, and the program will narrow down the list of all possible species. You can also use it to store your “life list” of species you have observed and where.
Another feature is that you can play the song of the bird. This is useful for identifying a species based on a song you heard while birdwatching or helping “call a bird in” if you want to get a closer look. The first app I installed on my new Android was iBird Pro, although I’d recommend any birding app from Sibley, National Geographic, Kaufman, Peterson, or Audubon.
Despite everything I have just said, the only things you really need to go birdwatching with are your own two feet, a love of wildlife, and patience. But the gear truly maximizes your experience.