This is the complete guide to bird watching. It covers:
- What kit do I need
- Where do I watch birds
- Best time of day to go bird watching
- Best time of the year to go bird watching
- How to find birds
- How to identify birds
- How to attract birds to your garden
So, if you want to join the community of three million bird watchers in the UK and enjoy the delight of spotting rare and beautiful birds, then this is the guide for you.
Let’s get started.
What kit do I need?If this is your first-time bird watching, then all you’ll need is a basic set of binoculars and a field notebook. However, if you want to take your bird watching to the next level and you really want to spot exclusive and rare bird species, then it’s worth investing in these 10 essential pieces of equipment.
A good pair of binoculars is essential for bird watching out in the field. Make sure they’re a good quality, durable pair of binoculars with UV protection.
The weather is rarely on your side in the UK, so you’ll no doubt want to purchase a good quality, waterproof field notebook. Don’t skimp on price with a notebook - buy something with high-quality cotton paper so it doesn’t tear when wet.
Bird Watching Hide
For those that want to get up close and personal with birds, a hide is a must. Try searching for something that is easy to set up and comes with a carry bag for easy transportation.
If you want to see birds in all their glorious detail, then it’s worth investing in spotting scope. These scopes will change how you watch birds forever, offering you a closer look at the amazing array of British birds on offer. Again, don’t skimp on price. The better quality scopes will generally last much longer than cheaper scopes.
Handheld GPS System
The rarest, most beautiful birds are often found off the beaten countryside tracks. With this in mind, when you do head off track, you’ll want to ensure you can arrive back to the track safely again when your adventure is over. To do this, we’d recommend purchasing a simple handheld GPS system. These devices help you plan trips, display topographic map data and share routes with family and friends.
You’ll also need to think about how you transport all this equipment. A typical backpack is good enough for a beginner, but if you’re really investing in a spotting scope and a proper notebook, a proper field bag can just make expeditions a bit quicker, easier and generally more comfortable.
Bird Identification Book
While you don’t need to carry a bird identification book, we’d recommend purchasing a hard, waterproof and photographic guide of British birds. This way you can identify birds in the field instead of waiting until you get home.
We’d also recommend purchasing a versatile jacket that is ready for all weather types. Some jackets come with detachable fleece insides, which are perfect for the summer when the weather heats up, but will also keep you warm in the winter when the weather cools down.
Spotting a rare bird is a delightful moment that you will remember for a lifetime. But if you want to capture that moment on film, you’ll need to look at purchasing a high-quality DSLR or mirrorless camera. Don’t miss out on turning those unforgettable moments into high-definition photos.
Finally, you’ll also need to purchase a quality pair of walking boots. This is another item you should definitely not skimp on price. Try to get a pair that are comfortable, waterproof and durable to cover the many miles you’ll walk in search of beautiful birds.
Where do I watch birds?There are some fantastic spots to watch birds in the UK. If you have the budget available, you could visit Anglesey to spot Puffins on the coast, visit the Cairngorms in Scotland to watch Golden Eagles or you could even book a trip to Brownsea Island in Dorset to watch the UK’s largest flock of avocets.
However, if you’re new to bird watching, you might want to start a little closer to home. Try these different locations to find an array of exciting UK birds.
In Your Backyard
Your backyard can be just as much an oasis for birds as anywhere else in the world. Start by scanning the tops of local trees for birds perched upon high, powerlines for birds preening in the sun or even local berry bushes for birds foraging on the ground. The options in your backyard are endless.
The UK has just about the most varied array of wildlife parks in the world, each of which will offer its own selection of bird species. Try a walk through a local forest reservation to spot birds nestling in the trees. Alternatively, visit a local reservoir or lake to spot birds hunting for fish in the water. The range of reservations on offer is just marvellous and it really just depends on where you’re located as to what you have on offer.
Visit the Seaside
The seaside is another fabulous place to spot birds. Depending on where you are located, you can enjoy gulls on a promenade walk, spot wildfowl on an estuary or seek out kestrels hovering above the sea cliffs.
If you can’t find a wildlife reservation that takes your fancy or you’re a bit out of the way for a seaside visit, you can always just take a walk in the countryside. Birds live and migrate across the whole of the UK, so you’re never more than a mile from a wonderful selection of rare and beautiful birds.
Join a Local Bird Watching Community
Our best piece of advice is to join a local bird watching community. Now, thanks to modern-day technology, these communities can be found via a simple search on Facebook. Simply type in “bird watching [insert local town, county, region]” and a small selection of groups should come up as suggestions. Join the group, speak to people and find the best places to stalk in your area. It really is as simple as that.
Best Time of the Day to Go Bird WatchingJust like humans, birds often have predictable schedules that make it easier for you to know where they should be and at what time. Follow these tips to ensure you’re birding at the right time of day.
Sun Rise Feasting
One of the most active times to find birds is early morning just as the sun rises. The sun will be just starting to warm, making it easier for insectivorous birds to forage. As the saying goes, “the early bird gets the worm”.
Birds often use the sun for temperature regulation and mite control, so when their foraging is done for the day, you have a good chance of spotting birds practising what we call “sunning”. This happens around the mid-afternoon when the temperature has started to cool.
Late Evening Snacking
Late evening is another active time for birds. They can often be spotted out and about building their energy stores for the night ahead. The only issue is the lack of light which can make it difficult to identify different species.
Best Time of the Year to Go Bird WatchingThis is a difficult question to answer as it largely depends on where you’re located in the UK and what species you’re looking to watch. However, generally, there are two times of the year when birds are most active. These include:
Spring is generally the best time of the year to spot birds. Fledglings will be hatching and parent birds will be very active foraging food for their young. Birds are also generally brighter in colour at this time of year, so will be easier to identify than at other times of the year.
Autumn Trip South
Late September to November is another popular time of the year for bird spotting. Birds will often gather in packs to prepare for their migration south. This can make for some fabulous photography as they fly overhead.
How to find birds?Some people seem to be born with a sixth sense for spotting birds. They look up, and just like a children’s magician, a rare and exotic bird appears. But don’t be fooled, there is no sorcery or witchcraft to birding. All it takes is a consistent practice of what we call the S.L.L.R. Try these tips next time you go birding and you should find birds in no time.
The first thing you need to do is stop. Spotting birds requires a high level of attention, so put down your phone, pack away the sandwiches and take a moment to soak up your surroundings.
The next step is to scan your surroundings with purpose. Try to think like a bird - investigate exposed perches such as fence posts, power lines and treetops for foragers like Bluebirds and Kestrels who are sitting in wait. Inspect open clearings for meadowlarks and towhees who might be enjoying a spot of afternoon sun. And always keep an eye out overhead for Hawks and Eagles on the hunt.
Try to start with unaided eyes before using binoculars. Then, when you think you’ve found something, pick up the binoculars to take a closer look.
Efficient birders will spend up to 90% of their time simply listening for the telltale sounds of their feathered friends. If this is your first time birdwatching, consider sifting through YouTube, listening to the tapping of a woodpecker or the morning call of Greenfinch before heading into the field. Your ears are just as important as your eyes, and while this tip will take a lot of practice, sounds are often a lot more distinctive than visual field marks.
It’s important you go to the birds, rather than waiting for the birds to come to you. So, after you’ve thoroughly scanned an area, it’s important to move on. Try to walk at a leisurely pace, scanning the skies and keeping an ear cocked to the sounds above. When you hear a promising sound or spot a suspicious flicker in trees, stop, look and listen again.
How to Identify BirdsIdentifying birds can be a tricky task. With 574 different bird species in the UK, it’s easy for someone new to bird watching to feel overwhelmed by the possibilities. However, identifying a bird is all part of the fun, so before resorting to clicking through an app to find a match, try these 8 ways to identify birds. Over time, your natural bird memory will build up and you’ll be able to recognise birds in no time.
Try to learn the different bird families that inhabit the UK. For example, you might spot a brown bird, but instead of writing “brown bird”, try to identify the family. Was it a brown sparrow-like bird? Or a brown gull? Or even a brown owl? Once you know the different families, you will be much closer to honing in on that final ID.
If your bird family knowledge is pretty limited, try to note down the shape of the bird to the best of your ability. For example, make sure you capture the general leg height, bill shape and neck length. Even a quick silhouette sketch of the bird in question will make it much easier to recognise in the future.
Size can be a little tricky as from a distance it can be difficult to get a good perspective of the bird. However, if possible, try to note down the bird’s size in comparison to other birds you may have spotted in the vicinity. For example, is it smaller than a Greenfinch or larger than a Robin? Make a quick note as this could prove vital in the final identification of the bird.
It’s easy to be captivated by the bird’s beauty and fail to notice what it’s actually doing. But for a good final ID, it’s important to note down the bird’s behaviour. For example, was it hopping on the ground, foraging in water, perched on a treetop or climbing a tree? All these behaviours will point you in the right direction when making the final identification.
The habitat of the bird can be another fantastic clue for identifying the bird. Try to note down whether you spotted the bird in a forest treetop, a wetland or even stalking the bushes of an open field. Again, gathering all this information will make it easier to confirm the bird’s final ID.
Birds are generally very predictable when it comes to seasons. Swallows for example can only be found on UK shores during the summer, while Nuthatches and Brambings can only be found between Autumn and Spring. Noting down the season will be useful information when honing in on that final ID.
You should try to get into the habit of noting the different markings on birds. Does it have a ring around the eye? Pale spots on the torso? A brown stripe on the back? White speckles on the wings? Or even certain discolouration to the tail feathers. Try to note down as many marks as possible. Each of these marks can prove crucial in the final identification.
If you’re new to birding, sound can be a difficult way to identify a bird. However, just as top-level birders use sound to find birds, they also use it to identify birds. You see, many birds will make a distinctive sound to attract mates, ward off competition from their territory or even just when they’re foraging. Sound could be the final clue that secures your identification, so make sure you note down anything that sounds even slightly distinctive.
How to attract birds to my garden?You don’t always need to venture into the great outdoors to spot wild and exotic wildlife. Often you can find just as many rare and beautiful birds in the luxury of your own garden. Here are our tips on how to feed and attract birds to your garden.
Prepare the right foods
Attracting the right type of birds requires feeding the right type of food. Feed something with too much wheat, and you’re likely to attract many unwanted birds such as pigeons and doves. Here’s a quick list of different feeds to attract more exotic and rare birds to your garden.
Blue Tits, Coal Tits and Great Tits
- Suet pellets
- Suet fat balls
Siskins, Greenfinches and Goldfinches
- Sunflower hearts
- Niger seed
Blackbirds, Starlings and Robins
- Suet pellets
- Calci worms
Alternatively, you could always choose a good quality wild bird seed mix. Just make sure you check what the feed actually contains. Many seed mixes seem like ‘great value’, but they often contain large amounts of filler, such as dried peas and beans, which most birds won’t eat.
Think carefully about feeder location
It’s really important you think carefully about the location of your feeders. Try to avoid:
- Areas with too much noise
- Locations near bushes or shrubbery
Anywhere with too much noise is going to scare off birds. You also need to keep feeders a good distance from bushes and shrubbery. Bushes offer cats a good source of cover to lie in wait for birds. In terms of a good location, look for areas that are:
- Sheltered from winds
- Hang at eye level or above
The more reasons you give birds to visit your garden, the more likely they are to visit. So why not leave out some water for birds to both drink and bathe in? It doesn’t necessarily need to be an expensive birdbath, you could leave out:
- A dinner plate or breakfast bowl
- Large plant pots
- A pond or garden water features
Just remember to keep it clean, put fresh water out every day and ensure water doesn’t freeze during the winter.
Keep feeders clean
It is vital that your feeders are kept clean. Birds are not only fussy eaters, so will avoid feeders if they’re dirty, but feeders that are left to go rank will breed bacteria which will spread disease and infections among your local bird population. Always ensure you:
- Clean feeders with warm soapy water
- Scrub feeders both inside and out
- Use a mild, non-toxic disinfectant
- Dry the feeder before refilling
Try to clean your feeder at least once a month to keep your local birds happy and healthy
Provide somewhere to nest
Another fantastic way to attract birds to your garden is by providing your local birds with a safe and secure place to build their nest. Now, this doesn’t need to be expensive. If you’re handy with DIY, you could simply nail down a platform up a tree for birds to then build upon. Alternatively, you could install a proper open bird nest box. These boxes are very affordable and will offer your birds a sheltered area to raise their young. Install bird boxes in areas that are:
- Out of direct sunlight
- Sheltered from the wind
- Facing a North Easterly direction
Provide bird-friendly plants
Our final suggestion is to plant a variety of garden life that is bird-friendly. For example, berry-rich trees like Hawthorn and Guelder Rose are great natural food sources.
You could also consider planting Ivy and Honeysuckle. These plants provide dense cover for birds while also providing rich fruits they can feast on.
Alternatively, if those plants seem like too much effort, you could simply lay down some wildflowers. These flowers will attract a variety of insects, which then act as a fantastic food source for insectivorous birds.