Introduction

I believe strongly that in order to be a good bird photographer you need expertise in both photography and in birds. You'd expect a photographer specializing in sports to have a lot of basic knowledge about the games, the teams, the players, and the schedules wouldn't you? So I'm always a bit surprised when I see someone interested enough in photographing birds to have invested thousands of dollars in specialized gear (big lenses, tripods, special heads and custom mounting plates) that knows so little about their chosen subjects and how to identify them.

This tutorial will provide some guidance to help remedy this problem. I won't bother with the mechanics of photography as that information is readily available elsewhere; instead I'll address the basics of birds and birding that I think any bird photographer ought to know to the same extent as they know how to determine exposure or change lenses. Those basics include fundamental bird identification, knowledge of distribution and habitat preferences, birding tools (field guides and binoculars), and useful sources of information.

(download complete tutorial with larger images as a 508KB pdf file)

Fundamentals of Birding

Like any other activity, getting started can seem intimidating because there's so much to learn. The trick is get started slowly with the easy things, gain some basic knowledge and fundamental skills, and then build upon that base with experience.

Birding requires that you learn how to observe birds and really look at them, absorbing as much information as possible from the observation, and then use that information to determine the identity of the bird by matching it against what you already know (best) or against good reference materials (when you are just getting started or when you encounter a bird that you've never seen before).

The most important lesson for birders of any level, and often the most difficult for them to adopt, is to look beyond color and pay attention to structure. I receive a lot of random email requests from strangers around the country asking me to tell them what bird they saw when all they tell me is the major color they noticed. With only the color it is not possible to make a specific identification; more information on size, structure, location, habitat, and behavior is almost always needed. For example, a "red bird" can easily be a Northern Cardinal, or a Summer Tanager. Knowing that one also has prominent black markings, a crested head, and a substantial bill separates the cardinal from the "plainer" tanager.


Northern Cardinal



Summer Tanager

So, when observing a bird note its colors (they are usually hard to miss), but also see how the colors are distributed on the body (head, nape, back, wings, tail, belly). Note how big the bird is (often hard to be definitive until you've learned some basic species). Look at the size and shape of the beak: it is a very distinctive feature that has evolved to allow the bird to exploit a specific food source. Decide if it is long or short, thin or stout, narrow or wide, straight or curved, blunt or pointed. Spend as much time as possible noting these characteristics as they are often very important in the final ID. Are the legs long or short? How about the tail?

All the time you are looking at the physical features of the bird, you should also be paying attention to behavior. Is the bird a slow or fast feeder? Where does it feed: in the treetop leaves or under a shrub? If it feeds on the ground, does it scratch, peck, or hop? If it feeds in the water, does it run around, swish its bill, probe up and down like a sowing machine, or stand quietly and wait? Does it bob its tail, and does it go up or down? Flick its wings? Any of these behaviors can be an aide in identification.

Then, there's habitat. Birds have evolved to exploit various plant communities, and most species have strong preferences where they live and on what they feed. Paying attention to where you see a bird can be valuable in identification.

Finally, know that the expectations of what you might see are governed by status of each species, its distribution, the habitat available, and the season. As you gain more knowledge and experience you will begin to rely on all of these factors to help narrow the spectrum of possibilities when you look at every new bird you encounter.

Setting the Baseline

Knowing the common local birds serves as a solid foundation for all other learning and bird identification. Build your foundation by paying attention to the birds you can see every day in your backyard, neighbor, or local park. Get to know them as well as you can until you can identify them in an instant without needing to look at them beyond the briefest glance.

Depending on which part of the country you live in you'll have a different baseline set of birds to work with. It really doesn't matter what these birds are; it just matters that you get to know them well. Once you know them they will serve as reference points for everything else you encounter and make it easier to key in on the characteristics that define each new species, making it easier and easier to expand the set of birds you can identify. You will use them to gauge size, compare color, judge the shape of a bill, etc.

Get to know: Northern Cardinal, Song Sparrow, American Robin, Mourning Dove, Rock Pigeon, Red-tailed Hawk, American Kestrel, Canada Goose, Mallard, Pied-billed Grebe, Common Moorhen, Great Blue Heron, Chickadee (Black-capped, Carolina, Chestnut-backed, or Mountain depending on region), Titmouse (Tufted, Oak, Juniper depending on region), Wren (Carolina, House, Winter, Cactus depending on region), Red-winged Blackbird, Ring-billed Gull, European Starling, House Sparrow, American Coot, Killdeer, and Goldfinch (American or Lesser). Learn them well. Compare unknown birds against your knowledge base of these whenever you have an encounter.
House Sparrow


Find a nearby local patch where you can go often throughout the year - it is a great way to learn the common local birds and get a feel for seasonal changes. And whenever possible, spend time with a local expert and learn the local birds.

Bird Walks with Local Audubon Group

Probably the best way to learn the local birds and locations where are are likely to have the best chance of seeing them is to go on field trips with the local Audubon group or birding club. All such groups welcome new participants and are happy to share their knowledge. By going out with someone who knows the local birds you can get a good start to learning the common local birds, without having to deal with the unfamiliar field guide. Seeing a streak-breasted bird on your own will likely have you spending hours trying to find it among the sparrows; having someone tell you that you are actually viewing a female Red-winged Blackbird will save you lots of time by learning to look at more than color and consider structure as well.

Red-winged Blackbird

Song Sparrow

Going on birdwalks with a local group will also give you a great opportunity to see what experienced birders have selected for their binoculars, and you'll find that almost everyone on such an outing will gladly let you try out their binoculars (more on this elsewhere in this tutorial).

I strongly recommend that you leave your camera gear behind, at least on the first few field trips, as it will only be in the way and birders don't spend time for photography. Don't expect to take decent photos while participating in a bird walk - birders won't be willing to linger, never get close enough for large in-frame images, and the size and sound of the group means you'll not find many subjects that will tolerate the group for long. Instead, devote your time and attention to actually looking at the birds and learning what they are, where they occur, and how they behave. Save the camera gear for other occasions when you can spend enough time alone to get birds within camera range.

Find out about local opportunities by checking the Yellow Pages for a store like the Wild Birds Unlimited chain, or Google "Audubon" with your state name. Another way to get connected with the local birding community is to check out Jack Siler's birdingonthe.net where you can find any email lists used by birders in your area. Anyone posting on these lists will likely be well connected with the local birding community and will gladly point you in the proper direction.

Learning Bird Sounds

Every experienced birder knows the value of being able to identify birds by their calls and songs. But it seems to be a difficult talent to develop for many aspiring birders.

There are many commercial tools available to help in the learning process, from the CD's for eastern and western bird songs in the Peterson catalog, the similar products in the Stokes series, and similar "name, call" recordings from other sources. My favorite collection of bird calls is on the DVD that comes with the Ted Floyd field guide discussed in the field guide section.

A better tool for learning bird calls is the Birding by Ear series. These are designed to group similar sounding birds together, and have habitat sections as well. There's more song and less spoken names.

But for me, the only way to learn bird song is in the field. Songs and calls just stick better in the mind if they are learned one at a time while actually looking at the bird making the sound - the audio experience gets married to the visual one.

So, pay attention to bird vocalizations whenever you are out looking at birds. Whenever you hear a call or song that is unfamiliar make the effort to track down the source. If you can think of a phrase that reminds you of the song, all the better. "Potato chip" immediately brings back the call of the American Goldfinch for me. "Which way to Wichita?" is a very good mnemonic for Bell's Vireo. The Peterson filed guides have many such phrases in case you can't come up with your own.

Basic References

Every birder should read about birds as much as possible, and an excellent place to start is with the introduction to your favorite field guide (more on those later). At the very least it will tell you how to read the important range maps. It will also tell you a lot about the topology of a bird, explaining the terms used for the various parts of its anatomy and feather arrangement. There's usually information about migration timing and routes.

For example, the introduction to the fourth edition of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America covers the following topics in 14 tightly packed pages: Species Selection (for the guide), Families, Scientific Names, How to Identify Birds, Parts of a Bird, Molt, Plumage Variation, Plumage Sequence, Measurements, Voice, Behavior, Abundance and Habitat, Range Maps. How to be a Better Birder, Keeping Track. The Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America covers a similar set of topics using 28 pages.

I also highly recommend at least one of these "birding basics" books written primarily to introduce novices to birding, but full of lots of valuable information for birders of all experience levels:

- Sibley's Birding Basics, by David Allen Sibley, 2002. Yes, the same Sibley who is responsible for the highly regarded field guides. It contains all the topics you'd expect given the title, but also talks explicitly about Misidentification, Identifying Rare Birds, Ethics and Conservation, and in great detail about Feather Arrangements and Color Patterns. This book might look small and inconsequential on the outside, but it is full of information and Sibley's excellent artwork inside. This book is highly recommended for birders of all experience levels.

- Pete Dunne On Birding, 2003. Pete has been writing about birds and birding for as long as I've known him, and probably before I met him in the mid 1970's. This book collects a lot of his essays and presents them in a coherent fashion. As I read them I am taken back to the times when I've heard Pete say essentially the same things as he led groups of birders (including me) around Cape May and other wonderful birding locations in New Jersey. Reading this book is the next best thing to spending time with Pete in the field.

- National Geographic Birding Essentials, Jon Alderfer and Jon L. Dunn, 2007. A very nice book using state of the art photos that should be familiar to participants in the Avain Galleries at Naturephotographers.net and NatureScapes.net. Topics are very similar to Sibley. This is also a terrific book full of information gleaned from decades of field experience by some of America's best birders. Don't hesitate to add this book to your library and read it slowly.

Field Guides

There are two essential items every birder relies on: at least one quality field guide, and a quality binocular.

A modern field guide covering the territory most often visited is essential. It is the basic reference you will use more than any other in determining the identity of birds you encounter. An up-to-date field guide will have the latest species names (splits and lumps occur to the established species list as scientists learn more about birds), plus current range maps that reflect the latest intelligence on distribution collected by active field birders around the country.

Become familiar with the layout and features before taking your guide out in the field. Page through it at random to get a feel for how species are grouped together. Look at range maps to see what might nest nearby.

Read the entire introduction - it is crammed with a lot of useful information about the birds, birding, and the book itself.

Use removable colored tabs from an office supply store to mark the pages for the most common or expected species to make them easier to find on initial field trips.

Until very recently the only field guides worth considering were illustrated with drawings, not photos. These guides are still preferred by most experienced birders, but they are now being supplemented by the latest guides that use photos. You might want to wait on picking your primary field guide (yes, I'm implying you'll want more than one if you're serious about learning the birds) until you've been out on a couple of walks with others. They'll be glad to show you the guide they use and explain what they like about it. But be careful to resist getting a guide suited to experts; what you need when you are starting out may be best fulfilled by a book designed for that purpose.

There are many excellent field guides in publication today, and each has pluses and minuses. Here's an overview of my preferences:

- National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, which became my favorite when it was first published in 1983. I still use it today, keeping one in my car and older copies on the shelf at home (I buy the discounted ones at the local bookstore when a new edition comes out). It uses paintings of mostly good quality, but since different artists did different families there is some variation in quality. It covers all of North America in a single volume that is too large for many pockets; I've read reports that it will be issued in separate East and West versions soon. I especially like the illustrations for shorebirds and gulls. Plenty of expert level information; not as easy for novices as some other field guides.

- The Sibley Guide to Birds, David Allen Sibley, 2000. Probably the favorite guide among hardcore birders at the moment. Available in East and West editions that are small enough for field use, and a very large volume covering all of North America that is better suited to reference use in the car or home library. Consistent quality illustrations throughout. I like this guide a lot and keep the small Western volume in the car, and the large volume on the shelf at home. I don't think this is the best guide for beginners, though, who might find the illustrations on the small side and the descriptive text a bit terse.

- Birds of North America, Kenn Kaufman, 2000. Generally regarded as the first successful use of photos to illustrate a field guide. Covers the entire country in a single volume while remaining small enough to fit in a pocket for field use. I find it a bit chaotic visually, with lots of images crammed on pages with varying pastel colored backgrounds. A good field guide for novices with easy access and lots of opportunity to compare similar species. My copy usually stays on the shelf, but I sometimes take it when leading bird walks to show to participants.

- Peterson Field Guides Eastern Birds, and Western Birds, Roger Tory Peterson. The Eastern Guide was the best choice for a while in the early 1980's, and it will always hold a place for experienced birders who relied upon it so much. And I think it still makes an excellent guide for novices for exactly the same reasons it served so many of us in the 80's - the consistent, simplified, competent illustrations, and Peterson's famous use of arrows to point out important field marks.

- National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Edward S. Brinkley, 2007. The first photo-based guide that I like enough to use at times instead of my regular guides. At over 500 pages its a bit thick and noticeably heavy; not a book I'd carry all that far on a walk. Good photos; lots of good information. Range maps and photos on the small side. A good home reference for a novice birder.

Brinkley Field Guide


- Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, Ted Floyd, 2008. State of the art photos are used for each species; covers all of the U.S. A DVD containing 587 excellent recordings of bird songs and calls in MP3 format is included with the guide making this a must-have for any serious birder. The book is a bit too big for casual field use and not the best choice as the only guide for a novice birder, but well worth having in the reference library at home or car.

- American Bird Conservancy's All the Birds of North America, 1997. A book with mostly wonderful illustrations, but in a very non standard arrangement that makes finding any species account difficult. Not a good choice for a novice birder as it is difficult to use and will build bad habits that will interfere with the use of all the other better field guides.

- Stokes Field Guide to Birds, Eastern and Western volumes, Donald and Lillian Stokes, 1996. A decent attempt at a photo-based field guide, with larger photos than those in the more recent guide. But not up to the latest guides, and not a guide that I'd recommend as anyone's primary reference.

- Birds of North America, Golden, 1983 and later. The 1966 edition was my favorite guide when I started in the 1970's as it had all the birds of the U.S> in a single volume that fit easily in a pocket, illustrated them all in color, and had text and maps on the left with the illustrations on the right hand pages. This layout is so field-friendly that it is used in the National Geographic guide and may be one of the reasons I like the larger Nat Geo as much as I do. It has nice features still not seen in any other guide: sonograms that plot the spectrum of many bird's songs with the text descriptions that useful to many birders; a very convenient overview of just the heads of the wood warblers on two facing pages; the same feature for the heads of sparrows separated into "streaked breast" on the left page and "unstreaked breast" on the facing page; a very useful two page arrangement of "confusing fall warblers." Unfortunately, the illustrations are not very good in comparison to other field guides and it seems rather dated.

There's another level of guides to identification that are not necessary when getting started, but good to know about once you've built experience. These are books giving in-depth details about a limited number of birds in a single group of closely related birds. I have and use three for hawks, at least three for shorebirds, three for sparrows, three for warblers, one for hummingbirds (and I want a second book), one for gulls (and want a second), and a couple of books on seabirds that have been idle since moving away from the coast into the desert.

Binoculars

The choice of binoculars is as personal as the selection of a camera, and you should do some study and comparison before buying. I'll just touch on major points you should keep in mind as you look for your binocular purchase.

- avoid cheap optics. Stay away from the $100 or less price category. Their optical performance may only be passable; their durability won't be very good; they'll likely fog up when used in wet weather; they won't stay in alignment.

- at the very minimum plan on spending $200 for serviceable binoculars, but budget a lot more if you have it.

- avoid zoom binoculars. Avoid Zoom Binoculars. AVOID ZOOM BINOCULARS.

- 8 power is a good choice for all around birding. 10 power sounds better but is harder to use and doesn't really show any more detail.

- quality binoculars are waterproof, and you'll be unhappy if the pair you buy isn't. Don't consider any binocular that isn't guaranteed to be waterproof.

- an exit pupil of 3.75mm on a good optic is all you need for birding while there's enough light for photography. Exit Pupil is the diameter of the "light bundle" transmitted to the eye and is calculated by dividing the objective diameter by the power. An 8x30 binocular has (30 mm)/(8 power) = 3.75 mm exit pupil; a 10x40 has a 4 mm exit pupil.

- if you wear eyeglasses or bird with sunglasses you need to pay attention to Eye Relief - the distance behind the eyepiece that the image is formed.

- close focus is very important for birding as you will often be trying to focus on a small active subject less than 12 feet away.

- ergonomics of binoculars differ, and brands with very similar specifications will feel very different in the hand. Do not buy a binocular you've never handled to avoid surprises that will make a model uncomfortable for you.

- ask to try as many brands and models as you can, both in the store, and on bird walks with the local group you've joined.

- If you can afford them ($800-$1500) look at Leitz, Zeiss, Swarovski, Bausch and Lomb Elite, and high end Nikon. All offer excellent image quality and lifetime durability and you'll never regret the purchase.

Field Ethics

It is never too soon to learn to behave ethically around birds. So:

- Getting too close to a nesting bird can keep an adult from feeding young or expose young to dangerous sun and heat, so stay away from any nesting birds you encounter.

- Don't play tapes of bird calls (and that includes no iPod playback) to attract birds just so you can see them (or take their photos). Birds come in to calls because they see it as a rival for territory or a mate, or because they think it is a threat of some kind. Let the bird spend its time and energy dealing with real threats and not selfish birders.

- Stay on official trails in parks to avoid destroying important habitat.

- Learn to keep quiet; if you are with a group it allows others to hear subtle bird sounds and find the birds they are hoping to see. Save the chatter for the carpool to and from the birdwalk.