5 Steps to Better Birding

 This is written as a simple introduction to those who are new to recreational birdwatching known as birding. These simple steps will assist in the location and detection of birds in any location. This will be especially helpful if you are a novice birdwatcher wanting to take their birding to the next level.  

Before you venture out, it is important to decide what kind of birding you want to do on the occasion: 1) A Pot Luck bird outing in any location;                                                                                2) A bird outing targeting birds in a particular type of habitat;                                              3) Seek a particular species of bird sighted or found in a specific location.

Your answer to the above choices will help determine the best locality for your walk, and where you are likely find the birds you seek. Local and learnt knowledge on websites and from local bird observer clubs is helpful as well as The Australian Bird Guide and Finding Australian Birds both obtainable from CSIRO Publishing.

A good bird field guide (pictured above right) is essential for the identification of Australian birds, and can be purchased at most book stores and National Parks shops. The bird field guide will help with the geographic location of each bird (where in which States) including any races (subspecies) that a particular specie may have. It will identify the bird (with illustrations) showing variations  in sex, stage of development and breeding plumage, which can be very helpful. This Variegated Fairy-wren is a good example of how different some species of bird can appear when breeding or non-breeding.

Other factors that affect your success may include the time of day (low tide for viewing waders, or night time for owls), the time of year or season (for migratory species) and the current weather (very hot, very dry, very windy or very wet conditions can have a negative affect). Otherwise, many of us just do a pot luck bird walk through National Parks, Reserves and State Forests and be thankful for what we might see, often surprised when we find the unexpected bird or birding experience.  Because many Australian birds are territorial and non migratory, you can usually predict what birds you are likely to see in any given location. 

1. Listen

The first and most important rule in birding is to quietly LISTEN for bird calls as you walk along the bush track or just stand in one area. Most of the time you will hear a bird before you see it. Birds have much more acute hearing and sight than humans and are able to think and act much faster than we can. Usually by the time we set eyes on a bird, if it has seen you it has already processed the information and is either flying off or cautiously watching you.  Australia has one of the largest number of songbirds, and each has a very distinctive call which identifies it. Australia also has a large number of species that can mimic other bird calls. It is therefore the bird’s own distinct call that one needs to listen for, sometimes mingled with the mimic call. One of the skills one gains from mindful listening is to identify each bird one hears from its call. Listen to this young Superb Lyrebird male practicing his mimicry repertoire. Would you know this bird if you heard it ?

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When you hear a particular call you need to deduce where to look, nearby or further on, or in a particular tree or on the ground. The sound you hear may not necessarily need to be a call, but may be a clue as to what the bird is actually doing at the time, such as the sound of falling bark or pine cones. To effectively do this you need to stand perfectly still, to avoid the noise of your feet, clothes or water bottle etc so that they do not interfere with your ability to effectively listen and triangulate accurately the direction from whence the call comes.

The two most notorious Australian birds which are gifted with the ability to learn and copy the calls of other birds are The Superb Lyrebird and Satin Bowerbird, which can be confusing for the novice birder. Listen to this Lyrebird imitate at least 6 different birds, as well as make its own peculiar: twit, choy, choy call interspersed with the many mimicked calls. 

 A most helpful aid to the Australian birder is the  Morcombe and Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia  iphone app.  This app also allows you to hear the calls of each bird and is available for purchase in itunes store. Slowly move to where the bird call is loudest, stop moving if the bird stops calling, as it has probably seen you and become cautious.  LOOK for movement in the direction you last heard the call.  

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Be aware that with some birds it will not be their call or song that will draw attention but the sound of them foraging. Careful listening may detect bark being torn and stripped from trees (e.g. Crested Shrike-tit, Eastern Whipbird, and the Treecreepers), leaf litter being overturned on the ground (Logrunner, Whipbird, Bassian Thrush), scratching sounds (Lyrebird, Brush Turkey) or it may be the sound of crunching pine cones and falling debris from the Cockatoo and Parrot family feeding silently in tall trees.

Helpful Hint 1: The golden birding principle is that ‘If you sit quietly and patiently wait, the birds will come to you.’ Mixed Feeding Flocks (MFFs) are constantly moving through areas of forest and field, and many territorial birds (non flock birds) will also do a circuit and return through the same area several times a day. So wait in a place where you find birds moving, or beside sources of fresh water and blossoming trees and LISTEN.

Helpful Hint 2: The early morning and late afternoon are the best times to go birding, as these times are when most birds are calling as they actively feed and move about after their night’s sleep or a last feed before roosting for the night. It is at this time you are most likely to hear and identify most songbirds.

2. Look

Little Lorikeet

So on hearing the bird, one starts looking in the direction of the call, in particular for movement of both bird and branches as well as color which is useful with birds that blend into the trees such as the red face markings of tiny Little Lorikeet pictured above. The most helpful tool at this stage are your eyes and your binoculars. The aim is to look for any movement at all in the vegetation and focus in on it.  Scan on low power and zoom in on any movement. You may notice that particular songbirds sing less when overcast  than when the sun is out, or when it is windy or wet they seem to pick up their song as the sun re emerges, so at times you may need to LOOK more carefully. 

Rainbow Lorikeet feeding on our Bottlebrush flowers

When you look try to get a clear view of the face and beak of the bird and its profile as this will assist to give the best key to identification. Learn to identify with the help of Bird Field Guide and internet photos what the various appearances and shapes of each bird species looks like, such as male and female, breeding and non breeding plumage well as  juvenile, immature and adult plumage. This is also why photographing your find can be helpful for learning later at home.

Helpful Hint 3: Honeyeaters, Lorikeets and Parrots are attracted to flowering Eucalypt trees, Banksia, Grevilea, Bottlebrush and Mountain Devil, as well as native and introduced fruit trees, especially fig and berries, so just wait about 10 to 20 feet from the flowers or fruit and birds will most likely visit. Often you will see birds already feeding off nectar rich flowers, so just wait there and watch as different species visit. Birds are easier to see and often more exposed when feeding, we just need to be patient long enough to LOOK.

3. Locate

The next step is to LOCATE the bird so you can view it and/or photograph it. My wife is the ‘spotter‘ and I am the ‘shooter‘, so for me if I do not get a photograph of the bird I have not truly seen it. This is the case for many birders, we like to see the treasure we have spotted, again later at home, which in some cases may be the only means of positive identification. The value of doing this leads later to our last 2 steps. If you are using a telescopic lens, the secret is to pull back the focus and view in the general direction of the bird and then gradually extend the lens till you have it in focus. It is extremely difficult to focus from a fully extended lens.

A bird will usually move away when it notices you watching it, so the idea is to remain very still and inconspicuous as possible. Looking a bird in the eye can be very threatening to many bird species. If the bird is in full sun, try and remain in the shade as you observe it so that it makes you less noticeable. If possible wear clothing that blends in with the surrounding environment (browns and greens are best). Remain very quiet and avoid using flash. I almost never use flash on birds as it alarms them and can affect the eyes of some birds such as owls and penguins. The improved  ISO technology on most DSLR cameras give relative good photos even in reduced light. 

You will find that each species of bird have different zones of tolerance or safety zones before they take flight. Birds have heightened spacial awareness, with extremely fast thought processes, constantly on the lookout for danger. For this reason it is wise to learn to keep outside their tolerance zone and avoid stressing the bird. 

 For example I walk right up to a Magpie or Kookaburra and they will not show fear, where as an Eastern Curlew will sound the alarm and fly off if I get within 40 meters of it or if it even sees me looking at it. Here is one of my best friends patting a Kookaburra he is feeding. The bird trusts him and permits him to enter his safety zone. 

4. Log

Many birders, similar to myself, have said that the greatest delight is going home after the birding adventure and opening their box of treasures, meaning viewing the photographs they have taken. Photographing birds is a very positive and useful way of logging and recording your bird finds in addition to simply recording your findings in a book. It is also a very challenging part of the process which gives one great pleasure. It is the 21st Century conservationist approach to hunting birds, where no bird is injured in the process. The added use of HD video capability available on most SLR cameras now allows one to capture bird behavior and their calls, which adds to the enjoyment of studying and learning about them. It is advisable to create a folder system  on your computer to store and easy retrieve your bird photos and information. Here is a screenshot as an example of my way of keeping a log. Inside each folder lie other folders for species and subspecies in each family.

Many birders keep year round records of their finds, becoming tuned in to various birding areas and their resident birds as well as the times of year particular birds occur in these places. A spreadsheet can be very useful for keeping a running record of your bird sightings. Over a period of time and observation of particular bird species,  you may during any bird outing be able to locate a particular bird with a greater than 80% probability. My personal log of birds seen, when and where, is my photos. Each birding outing is a named and dated folder containing my photo treasures, backed up on several drives. My lifers and better photos are also transferred to my Speciated Bird Album, which is a massive collection of all the species of Australian birds I have personally seen and photographed. As seen above there is a folder for each specie, on a 2TB drive. I set targets for new birds I want to discover each year (lifers) and plan to visit their areas.

5. Learn

In addition to just viewing the bird photograph, it is a teaching tool familiarizing you with the bird appearance and physical features. I also like to capture sound files and video clips of bird behavior to help me in learning about the bird specie. Each time I find a new bird (lifer), I have not seen before, I study it by reading my Bird Field Guide or read information on Birdlife Australia’s website or Birds in Backyards website to find out more about it, its characteristics, location, male, female and immature forms, how and where it nests etc. I will venture back out to attempt to photograph the complete set of male, female and juvenile if it is possible at a later date.  Compare this juvenile Satin Bowerbird with the mature female. Most juvenile birds will have earthy brown and speckled or striped white plumage often similar to the female adult, to afford protection from predators while in and near the nest.

Here by comparing my photos of  a mature female with the juvenile I can learn to identify not just the bird itself, but its level of maturity, body shape, beak, how it sits on the branch, its calls and what it feeds on. I eventually will have a mind map of where I can find this bird locally as well as seasonally. The mature male is the most elusive of the family and looks quite different. This is the case with many birds. In many species the male will take longer to mature, and when it does its plumage may change to brighter or different colors to female such as the male Satin Bowerbird below taking up to 6 years to change to full color. 

Satin Bowerbird male adult

The immature always look similar to the female till they mature as a protective form of camouflage. Most of the color changes and breeding plumage changes all have to do with signifying to both females and males this bird is ready to breed and bring forth offspring. Some birds go through several plumage changes a year passing in and out of breeding (eclipse), the Fairy-wrens are a good example of this. The male retains his blue tail but looses his beautiful blue and black plumage. The bird pictured below is morphing or changing from non breeding to breeding plumage. I hope this 5 step process has been helpful, so now go out and bird with more confidence and enjoy the adventure.


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⇒ If this has been helpful you may like to check out my page: Birding for Beginners 

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NOTE: All photos, videos and music used on this website are photographed, composed, performed  by the site owner and remains his copyrighted property, unless otherwise stated. The use of any material that is not original material of the site owner is duly acknowledged as such. © W. A. Hewson 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021.

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