Birding: What You Need To Get Started

This blog entry comes to us from Tim Schreckengost, a Field Ornithologist and blogger at Thermal BirdingHe has worked throughout the country on several bird research projects and in his free time enjoys birding, blogging, and photography. He's especially interested in migration, radar ornithology, and keeping cats indoors. We look forward to more blog posts from Tim in the future!

Birding, one of the fastest growing recreational activities in the world, is very simple, yet somewhat complicated to become involved in. To get started you will need two things; a pair of binoculars and a field guide. In this article, I will discuss various types of binoculars and give recommendations from my personal use and explain the differences between the spread of field guides on the market.


Binoculars come in an assortment of shapes, sizes, and prices. When buying binoculars for the first time, you may become overwhelmed at the overabundance of options to choose from.

Sizes – 8x32, 8x42, 10x42, 10x50, etc. What do these numbers mean? The first number is the magnification. With 8x32 binoculars, the object will appear 8 times larger when looking through binoculars compared to the naked eye. The higher the magnification, the larger the object will appear. This plays a role in the type of birding you will be doing. A lower magnification is superior for birding in lower light conditions and for close encounters (i.e. forest birding), while a higher magnification is valuable when looking long distances in brighter conditions (i.e. hawk watching or field birding). Furthermore, higher magnification binoculars are more difficult to hold steady, which may produce a blurry image.

The second number is the diameter of the objective lens. With 8x32 binoculars, the diameter of the objective lens is 32mm. Ranging from 15mm to over 50mm, the size of the objective lens determines the ultimate weight of the binocular. In other words, the larger the objective lens, the heavier the binocular. Most birders use either 32mm or 42mm objective lenses. 32mm will generally work fine in well-lit areas, but 42mm will conquer any scenario.

I have been using 8x42 binoculars since I started birding. I recently started using Celestron’s Granite series, which are exceptional. Good lighting, bad lighting, wind, whatever the conditions, these binoculars get the job done.

Field Guide

A good, well written and easy to understand field guide may be more important than a good pair of binoculars. A field guide is essential when deciphering a bird’s identity. There are field guides for whole countries, regions, groups of birds, etc. Big names that stand out are Sibley, Kaufman, Stokes, and Peterson. These are probably the four top field guides for birds of North America. 

Field Guides

If you are new to birding, investing in multiple field guides may be beneficial. Each field guide provides varying amounts of information regarding identification, life history, range, status, and distribution. The authors include what they feel is necessary, which varies with opinion.

I prefer the Sibley Guide to Birds of North America, because of the excellent illustrations that depict just about every age, sex, and plumage you may encounter in the field. I started out with the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America, but I quickly adapted to the Sibley way of life. The Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America gives the most information regarding life history, which is helpful when narrowing down a tough identification. The Stokes Field Guide to Birds of North America is phenomenal as well, which uses beautiful photographs to depict each species. Photographs are great compliments to illustrations used in other field guides. The bottom line is, the more the merrier when it comes to field guides. Your library can never be too large or extensive. I recommend starting with at least two field guides, with the Sibley Guide to Birds of North America as one of your choices.

Most field guides are broken down into region, usually East and West. As a beginner, choosing a region specific field guide can provide a less stressful learning experience as you venture into the world of birding.

Lastly, field guides have been converted to digital formats in addition to the hard copies. The digital formats are available as applications for smartphones, tablets, etc. Field guides can definitely be cumbersome; therefore a digital copy can come in handy when walking long distances, hiking, etc. Most come with the same information in a hard copy, plus songs and calls for each species!

There is plenty more to the world of birding including learning bird songs, using spotting scopes, photography, and more. I will cover these topics in detail throughout the year.

Good birding,

Tim Schreckengost
Field Ornithologist
Blythe, CA