A beginner’s guide to bird watching

Birds are almost everywhere if you take the time to notice them – and once you do, they can provide hours of entertainment. Not only can you spend time identifying different bird species and learning about their behaviours, but you can also spot family dynamics, see chicks grow up, and watch as migratory birds fly thousands of miles back and forth to other parts of the world throughout the year.

Bird watching is a fascinating and flexible activity that can help to keep your mind in the present moment – but getting started is also completely free, and can be done from the comfort of your own home.

Here, we’ll offer 11 tips and tricks for beginners – to help you get the most from your bird watching experience.

1. Start bird watching from anywhere

You don’t have to venture too far to have a memorable bird watching experience. You can get started in your garden, local park – or even by sitting at your window. It also doesn’t matter whether you live in the quiet countryside or in a busy city, as they’ll still be plenty of bird wildlife around to keep you occupied.

Because life is so busy, many of us see birds roaming or flying around, and never really think about what they’re up to. Or sometimes we might not notice them at all. The wonderful thing about bird watching is that once you start actively looking for birds and paying close attention to their relationships, their struggles and their bird song, it can open up a whole new world.

Although birds are almost everywhere, it’s worth being aware of some of the different habitats that different bird species prefer, so that you have a good idea where to look. For example, shore larks prefer sandy beaches, sparrows prefer thickets and woodpeckers prefer trees. The RSPB has published some useful information on different habitats, and who you can expect to find there.

2. Get an idea about the sort of birds you’re likely to see

Doing a little bit of research before you step outside can help to give you an idea about the types of birds you might be likely to see in your local area, and what they might be doing. This will largely depend on the time of year.

Migratory birds

While some birds reside in the UK all year round, others make seasonal visits – travelling thousands of miles to and from different parts of the world.

Spring and summer

In March and April in the UK, we see the arrival of 15 million migratory birds, who fly hundreds of thousands of miles to join us for the Spring and Summer months. Most of these come from Africa or southern Europe, where there are more predators, more competition for nesting spots (nesting season runs from March to August), and hotter, drier conditions during the summer. Here in the UK, we typically have much wetter spring and summer months, which leads to an eruption of insects for these birds to feast on! 

Keep your eyes peeled for sand martins and wheatears who appear from March onwards, and house martins, swallows, swifts, whitethroats, turtle doves, and nightingales from April onwards. 

Swallows – who arrive in the UK from South Africa between April and May – travel through France, the Pyrenees, Spain, Morocco and the Sahara to get here; covering around 200 miles a day! To find out more about what birds will be arriving this spring, check out this article from the Woodland Trust.

During the Spring we also say goodbye to some of our winter-visiting birds, most of which come from countries with much colder winters, including Russia and Scandinavia. These birds include redwings, fieldfares, and bramblings – as well as some breeds of ducks, geese, swans and wading birds, including pink-footed geese and whooping swans.

The smallest and rarest swans found here in the UK are Bewick’s swans. They face a 2,500 mile journey back to Siberia around February/March time, where they face a number of challenges along the way, including illegal hunting, predators, and the risk of hitting power lines.

Autumn and winter

In September and October, species of birds – such as osprey and willow warblers – who have spent the summer in the UK, will be stocking up on fish and insects, and preparing to migrate back to warmer continents, including Africa. Summer visitors tend to leave in stages throughout the autumn, but by the end of October, we can expect them to have more or less departed. Then we can welcome the arrival of our winter visitors…

These incredible birds travel hundreds and thousands of miles from the Northern and Eastern corners of the world to the UK for winter, where it is milder (believe it or not), and where food is easier to find. One of the birds with the longest journey is the pink-footed goose, which travels 3,400 miles from Greenland or Iceland, to the UK every winter!

Some winter visiting birds that you might come across (depending on where you live) over the Winter months include waxwings, fieldfares and knots. To find out more about birds that spend their winter vacation in the UK, have a look at this article from National Geographic.

Birds that reside in the UK all year round

Birds that tend to live in the UK year-round, and are commonly spotted in gardens and local parks during the autumn and winter, include:

Wren

Wrens are brown, dumpy, rounded birds, with long legs and toes. They also have remarkably loud singing voices, and are commonly heard in the Dawn Chorus (which occurs when birds sing at the start of a new day between March and July). 

Often, wrens are easy to spot because they lead a very active lifestyle; especially during the Spring when preparations for nesting season are underway. Male wrens will build several nests, and the female will choose which one to use. Once she’s made her selection, she will line it with feathers; ready to lay her eggs.

Wren numbers often decline in the Winter months, as they find it difficult to tolerate freezing temperatures and a lack of insects available.

Blue tit

Despite their tiny size, blue tits can eat up to 30% of their body weight in food each day, so will spend a lot of time on bird feeders and hunting insects – especially during the colder months, when they need to keep warm. Because of their stunning blue and yellow colouring, blue tits are often easier to spot in winter, among the bare branches.

However, the Spring is also a busy time for blue tits – and an increase in activity can lead to an increase in sightings. From mid to late March, a female blue tit will be racing to find a mate, build a nest (all by herself over the course of several weeks!), and lay her eggs – all while trying to time the hatching of her eggs with peak food availability (baby blue tits can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day!). 

When it comes to breeding, blue tits differ from other garden birds like blackbirds and robins, because they will typically only raise one brood of chicks each year. A female blue tit will typically lay an egg a day for up to 14 days, which is quite a tall order for such a tiny bird (blue tits weigh just 10 grams, and each egg weighs 1 gram!). 

Once all eggs are laid, the female blue tit will keep her eggs warm using a featherless patch on her tummy, and will only leave the nest to hunt for food. Usually, she won’t need to leave too often, as her male partner will deliver food to the nest – which is usually located in a cosy cavity like rot holes in trees, or cracks and crevices. Some blue tits will also nest in garden nesting boxes if they’re cosy enough.

Sparrow

The UK has two types of sparrow – house and tree. Tree sparrows are smaller and have chestnut crowns and black cheek spots and tend to be found in the Midlands and in southern and eastern England, while house sparrows are dumpier with a grey chest and cheeks and are seen more widely across the UK. House sparrows are much more common in urban areas.

House sparrows are very sociable birds, so they often don’t feel the need to guard their territory.  They will, however, fiercely guard the entrance to their nesting place – which is usually under cover, and they’re notorious for nesting in roof spaces. House sparrows tend to live in close proximity to one another, so you will often see or hear several sparrows together in a noisy flock; often bathing, singing or chattering away. It’s also not unusual to see them getting into noisy arguments with their neighbours.

Males might be easier to spot during the Spring because they have a large, attractive, black bib, which they use to attract a mate. They wear their bib like a badge of masculinity, and the bigger it is the more appealing they will be to a female. They will then lose this bib around August time, during the moulting process.

Robin

Often appearing on the front of Christmas cards and being voted the UK’s favourite bird in 2015, these birds are considered a British winter icon.  Many people think they disappear during the Summer, but they appear in gardens all year round; their red breast is just more striking during the colder months, when branches are barer.

Not all birds sing year-round, (as many only sing to attract a mate during breeding season), but Robins do – to act as a warning to other wildlife to keep away from their territory. They are incredibly territorial and will often fight other robins to the death defending what’s theirs.

Although small, Robins are very broody; and will usually start breeding around January time. Then can then go on to produce up to five broods of chicks a year.

Blackcap

Blackcaps originate from mainland Europe and used to only visit the UK during the summer – but more of them are now staying out in the UK year round. Males have a black cap, while females have an auburn quiff – and both sexes have pale grey bodies. Male blackcaps might often be confused with willow or marsh tits, who also have a black cap. 

These black and white birds eat a diet that consists mainly of insects, such as caterpillars and flies; so they tend to thrive in warmer conditions, when availability of these food sources is much greater.

During the Winter, following a decline in insects, they can be found chowing down on ivy berries instead. They are also regular visitors to gardens with bird feeders that contain sunflower seeds and suet balls (and aren’t afraid to shoo other birds off them). 

Starling

Starlings live in the UK all year round, but during the Winter, there’s many more of them, because they are joined by starlings who migrate from northern Europe. It’s not uncommon for starlings to be confused with blackbirds, because they are a similar shape and size and are dark in colour – but upon closer inspection, they have a beautiful purple and green iridescent shimmer to their feathers. 

During the Winter a starling’s feathers will develop white tips, making them easier to identify. Starlings are usually easy to spot because they’re noisy, sociable birds who tend to feed together, and they won’t shy away from a garden bird feeder.

They usually breed during April, and sometimes again in June; with a typical clutch containing between 4 and 7 pale blue-green eggs. Broods are generally brought up by one male and one female starling (with the female doing most of the incubating and both birds doing the feeding). However, males will often have several different active nests at one time, and females are also known to lay their eggs in the nest of another male!

Other common UK garden birds

For more common garden birds that you can see all year round including wood pigeons, magpies and jays, have a read of this article from the Love The Garden. Or for more birds that can be easier to spot in winter, including chaffinches, blackbirds and coal tits, check out this list from the Woodland Trust.  

You might also find it helpful to familiarise yourself with a few common bird songs, as this can help you to identify some of the common birds in your local area. Have a watch of the video below to see how sounds can differ between species – or check out this bird song identifier from the RSPB.

3. Pick a few things to concentrate on

One of the first things that bird watching beginners tend to want to know is what exactly they should be concentrating on once they spot a bird. As you learn more about different bird species, you’ll find yourself naturally asking questions and instinctively knowing what to look for. But to begin with, it can help to choose a few things to focus on, and to record your findings on paper – or to take a photo (if you can do so without disturbing the bird).

Questions to consider during a sighting to try and identify a bird include:

  • Where is the bird located?
  • What does it look like (size/colours/patterns/beak/claws)?
  • Was it alone, or with a flock?
  • Was it singing? If so, what did it sound like?
  • What was it eating?
  • What was it doing/how was it interacting with its surroundings (including with other birds)?
  • What time of day did you see it?

The more you’re able to observe about a bird, the greater chance you’ll have at identifying it, and learning about it’s life. Bird watching can be a little bit like putting pieces of a puzzle together. Once you can identify one bird and understand how it interacts with its surroundings, you’ll be given clues about other bird species and wildlife, and your knowledge and understanding of how the entire bird ecosystem works will grow. When this happens, watching them can become a bit like watching a soap opera unfold in front of your eyes, and you might find yourself asking the question – how did I never notice any of this before?

Even the common pigeon can have it’s fair share of drama! Have a watch of the video below, which shows a wood pigeon and feral pigeon fighting over scraps in a park, while a mouse looks on.

4. Be aware of how the changing seasons affect bird behaviour

While the types of bird seen in your local area can differ, depending on the time of year; the behaviour of birds will also be markedly different from season to season. 

During spring and summer, birds will be busy mating, preparing nests, laying eggs and raising chicks (nesting season officially runs from February until August). On spring and summer mornings, you’ll also be more likely to hear loud and persistent bird songs early in the morning (which is known as the Dawn Chorus). You’ll also be more likely to see birds hunting for insects during the warmer months, when insects numbers reach peak levels.

In August, you might also notice that you see fewer birds around than usual. Often, this is because they are moulting: a process where a bird loses all its old feathers and grows new, strong, warm feathers. The moulting process happens very gradually so that birds aren’t left with big bald patches, but the process requires a lot of energy, and it can be harder for birds to fly during this time. For this reason, they spend much of August hiding in vegetation to avoid predators. For more spring and summer highlights, check out this article from the Natural History Museum.

During autumn and winter, you might notice flocks of birds performing synchronised aerial acrobatics – known as murmurations. These murmurations usually take place between November and February.

Throughout the colder months, more birds will also visit garden bird feeders, in an attempt to stock up on food and stay warm – especially since there is a decline in insects. The Natural History Museum has compiled some more autumn and winter highlights, which you can find here.

5. Make use of books, apps and websites

Once you start observing birds and taking a few notes, you can get to work identifying them by using a range of books, apps and websites. If you have a good idea about what a bird looked or sounded like, then you stand a good chance of being able to put a name to that feathered friend.

British Birds: A photographic guide to every common species and the RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds are popular books that can help you decide which species of bird you saw. They include detailed descriptions and images of birds that you might come across in the UK, as well as information about their habitat and birds that they are commonly confused with. The latter book is also pocket-sized, making it convenient to carry with you when you’re out and about.

There are also some great apps out there that will allow you to ID birds by taking a photo of them or recording their bird song. An example of a highly-rated free bird identifier app is Merlin ID – which can help identify birds across six continents by answering some basic questions or uploading a photo. Alternatively, if you don’t mind spending between £1 and £5, ChirpOMatic and Warblr  are popular options for identifying British birds by their song. All these apps are available on iOS and Android devices.

As well as books and smartphone apps, there’s also a wealth of interesting and helpful information about bird watching online. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) is a reliable source to visit if you’re ever in doubt about anything at all bird-related. They have a handy tool on their website, which will help you to quickly and easily identify birds based on what it looks like and what it was doing – you can find this here.

It’s also worth checking out this RSPB page on reporting bird sightings too, as it has details on where to report sightings of injured or rare birds, and how to get involved in surveys which can help to determine population numbers, and contribute towards bird conservation. If you’re wondering which birds are considered rare in the UK, and where they’ve been spotted so far, then have a read of this article from Countryfile. Choughs, nightingales and white-tailed eagles are just a few that you’d be lucky to see!

6. Join a bird watching society

Depending on how involved in bird watching you become, you might want to join a bird watching society – either internationally, nationally or locally. This can be particularly helpful if you’re interested in bird conservation, as you’ll be able to keep up to date with the latest bird facts, figures and news, and get tips on how you can do your bit to help protect and support bird wildlife. You’ll also be able to connect with other bird watchers and enthusiasts (sometimes referred to as ‘twitchers’), and share tips and experiences – they’re almost universally a friendly bunch!

The leading international bird society is BirdLife International, while examples of national bird watching societies include the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust. Or, you can find a breakdown of local bird watching groups and societies on the Birds of Britain website, here.

Many people say that they find it helpful to join either a national or international society as well as a local one – or all three. Birds don’t understand borders and fly around freely (with many doing cross-continental travel twice a year), so while looking out for and helping to protect birds in your local area is invaluable, it can also be useful to find out what efforts are going on at a larger scale, to protect birds across the UK and beyond.

7. Look for birds at popular feeding times

Birds will feed at different times, and this will largely depend on whether they are alone or travelling in a flock, the time of year, and what they eat. It can help to be aware of when and how birds feed, if you want to maximise your bird watching opportunities.

The saying, “the early bird catches the worm!” is thought to be most accurate for single birds (rather than those who travel in flocks) who are looking to top up energy stores lost the night before, or for birds (such as blackbirds) whose main food sources are worms and insects. Many birds will hunt for worms and other insects when the sun rises first thing in the morning, because the sun warms up the insects in the ground, making it easier to forage for them.

You might also be familiar with the 5am wake-up call of birds singing (the Dawn Chorus), especially during the Spring and Summer months. There’s still limited research about why this happens, but a common theory is that birds are singing to claim their territory and protect their breakfast before the morning rush when the sun starts to rise. It’s thought that the better and the louder you can sing at a challenging time of day like feeding time, the stronger and more difficult you will be to compete with for food. Whether this theory is correct or not, it’s true to say that there’s definitely an increase in bird activity early in the morning – making it a good time to sit and watch.

If you really aren’t a morning person and don’t fancy getting up at the crack of dawn to do a spot of bird watching, then you’ll be glad to know that there is also a peak in activity late in the evening. This is especially true during the Autumn and Winter months, as birds stock up on food (many from garden feeders) to help get them through the night. 

The other, but less common time of day for some birds to up their activity levels as they search for food, is the middle of the day. It’s thought that smaller, less dominant birds might visit feeders at this time because the more dominant species exclude them early in the morning and late in the evening.

8. Be calm, quiet and patient

If you want to increase your chances of seeing as many different bird species as possible, then it’s worth paying attention to how you approach and behave around them. Birds are easily startled by loud noises or sudden movements, and will often fly away if they feel threatened – so it’s best to stay as quiet as possible and move slowly and carefully if you want them to stick around.

This is where patience is key – it’s much better to wait for a Robin to hop into your view, than for you to try and get close to it. Birds have much better hearing than we do, so even the smallest noise can give you away. Always avoid wearing bright colours too – although birds are colour blind, anything that’s too bright will create an obvious contrast with your surroundings, and enhance the appearance of movement.

To help protect birds in their natural habitats as much as possible, some of the leading bird organisations, magazines and websites have published the Birdwatchers’ Code; a list of five things for bird waters to remember, in order to put the best interests of the birds first, and to have respect for other people in the area. In brief, these are: avoid getting too close to birds, be an ambassador for bird watching, don’t repeatedly mimic bird songs (as this can divert birds away from caring for their young), stick to countryside rules, and think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird. You can find the full code on the RSPB website.

9. Keep an eye on the sky

Many bird watchers become very focussed on looking in trees, thickets and for birds hopping around the ground foraging – but don’t forget to keep an eye on the sky where you might see flocks of birds travelling together.

During the Winter months, many smaller birds such as starlings and knots will flock together for protection, and to make their search for food much easier. Some flocks fly silently, while others can be a lot noisier – and their noise, or lack of can often be a helpful indicator about what sort of birds they might be. As can their flying pattern.

During March, April, September and October, our skies will generally be busier than ever, with huge flocks of birds migrating to and from various different countries around the world.

To see how hundreds of birds can flock together in perfect synchronization, without bumping into one another, have a watch of the video below. Travel journalist Dylan Winter was sailing around the UK in an 18 foot-boat when he captured the footage.

If you want to find out more about why birds flock, then have a read of this article from the RSPB.

10. Make your garden more bird-friendly to increase your chance of sightings

If you’re lucky enough to have a garden, and you want to increase your chances of bird sightings, then you could consider making your garden more bird friendly. The best way to attract more birds to your garden is to install a bird feeder, a nest box and/or a bird bath.

Bird feeders

In the warmer months, birds need high-protein foods, especially when they are moulting. These foods can include things like black sunflower seeds and mealworms – and it’s best to avoid leaving out anything that could go rancid. For more tips on what to feed birds in spring and summer, have a read of this advice from the RSPB.

In autumn and winter, many birds will use garden feeders to stock up on food before a long flight, or to help them stay warm during the cold nights. They will be looking for food with higher fat content, so you can help by filling your bird feeder with things like nyjer seeds, sunflower seeds and suet balls. Have a read of this article from the Woodland Trust to find out more about what to feed birds during the Winter. You can also pick up bird feeders at reasonable prices on Amazon.

Bird baths

Birds will also benefit from a bird bath all year round. Although birds might use a water bath to cool down during the warmer months, the main function of their bathing year-round is to clean and maintain their feathers. They also drink the water too. 

In colder conditions, birds (believe it or not) will also bathe to keep warm. A quick dip will fluff up their feathers, which can help to insulate them against the cold. 

You can pick up a bird bath at your local garden centre, or you could use a shallow container you already have in the house that doesn’t get much use – this article from the RSPB will explain more about which sorts of containers are suitable. Then, just be sure to keep it clean and topped up.

Nest boxes

If you want to give birds a helping hand during nesting/breeding season, you could consider providing them with a nesting box in your garden. This should always be placed somewhere safe, where birds will not be disturbed, as some birds (like robins) who have recently laid eggs, might abandon their nest if they see that it has been tampered with. 

Even after breeding season is over, many birds will still use nest boxes to roost (rest) and keep warm. 

You can purchase nest boxes for just a few pounds on Amazon. Although, if you’re feeling adventurous you could attempt to make your own. The RSPB have created a step-by-step guide to help you build your own bird box out of wood and screws – which you can find here. This guide also has tips on choosing a location for your bird box.

Cameras

If you want to be nosy and keep up to date with what your garden visitors are up to when they think no one’s watching, then you could consider installing a small camera in your bird box, or somewhere near your bird feeder. Again, you can pick these up at a range of different prices on Amazon

These mini cameras are a fantastic way to get closer to nature, without disrupting or disturbing birds in their natural habitat. The video below will show you an example of some nest box footage – watch as a single blue tit uses the box to roost overnight during the Winter.

Helping to provide natural habitats for birds in your garden

It’s also worth looking at how you could provide a range of natural habitats for birds in your garden such as hedges, trees and shrubs. Avoiding pruning these too harshly before the Winter will mean that birds visiting your garden will have somewhere to stay warm and take shelter. To find out more, check out this article from Gardeners’ World.

11. Enhance your experience with a good pair of binoculars

While you can enjoy bird watching without any equipment whatsoever, it’s still worth having a look at a few different types of binoculars – as they could have the potential to enhance your experience. These days, a decent pair of binoculars won’t break the bank, and can be lightweight and easy to carry around with you.

When it comes to choosing your binoculars, it’s important to remember that the most powerful ones aren’t always the best for bird watching. Yes they might have the highest magnification, but this will often mean that you need to use a tripod to get a steady view – which isn’t always practical for seeing a bird quickly before it flies away.

If you want something that you can carry with you and use easily at a moment’s notice, then experts recommend going for a pair of binoculars with 8x or 10x magnification. Procular has written a handy guide, which will talk you through everything from field of view, to eye relief, through to fog and waterproofing, which you can find here. If you’re ready to buy some binoculars, or if you just fancy having a browse, Amazon has a wide selection of binoculars at varying prices.

You might also want to consider investing in a digital camera with a zoom lens at some stage in your bird watching journey. While these aren’t cheap, they allow you to capture some amazing shots, which can be hugely satisfying. This guide from Digital Camera World will talk you through some of the best bird watching camera lenses. The Sigma 85mm lens comes top of the list, and is available on Amazon.

12. Check out our webinar lead by Rest Less member Marina Harkins

Rest Less member Marina Harkins hosted a brilliant webinar on ‘An introduction birds of the UK’, which you can watch below. Here, she shows us how to look beyond the obvious, and lays the foundations for us to begin to appreciate and learn about birds on a deeper level. 

We also had a chat with experienced bird watcher, Bob Watts, from North London…

Bob has been a bird watcher for 43 years. During that time, he has seen over 560 bird species in the UK and Ireland, and over 4000 species worldwide. Sharing his experience of bird watching so far, he says:

“Engaging with nature is really good for the mind and body. Just going out in the morning, walking around the park and stopping to look at things, is a very enriching experience. On the days I don’t get out there and interact with nature, I really feel it. I’d recommend bird watching to anyone who is in need of some fresh air, a bit of a routine – or wants to do something mindful.

“During the last 15 years, I’ve had some really exciting moments as a bird watcher. Like last week, we had a crane fly over. It had a couple of rings on it’s leg and we worked out that it must have come from one of three countries, based on the colour of the rings. Either Finland, Poland or Russia. So, that bird has flown all the way across the North Sea.That was brilliant – we watched it for about five minutes and it came right overhead.

“Bird watching has also encouraged me to travel all over the world – I’ve travelled far more widely than I ever would have done. I’ve been to some very exotic parts of the world, many of which are off the beaten track and teaming with wildlife.”

“Absolutely anyone can get into bird watching, and it’s something that seems to be growing in popularity and becoming more popular in mainstream media. I would recommend having a look at David Lindo who explores the art of urban bird watching, and 12-year-old Mya-Rose Craig (also known as Bird Girl) who’s interest in birds first developed as a young child. Now she’s a keen blogger.”

Final thoughts...

The events of the last year have given many of us a deeper appreciation for nature than we’ve ever had before – with windows, gardens and local parks becoming our sanctuaries. Bird watching is an activity that’s on almost all of our doorsteps, and can be unlocked by simply looking a little more closely.

While you can invest in binoculars, books and bird feeders to enhance your experience, it can still be relaxing and enjoyable to simply watch them and to consider how their lives are so different from ours, yet so similar at the same time. If you’re looking for further inspiration, you might like to have a read of our articles An introduction to beekeeping, and 32 ways to connect with nature and feel inspired.

Do you enjoy bird watching? Would you be keen to connect with other bird watchers? Join the conversation on the community forum or leave a comment below.

Links with an * by them are affiliate links which help Rest Less stay free to use as they can result in a payment or benefit to us. You can read more on how we make money here.

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