Questions from Beginning Birders

There are many resources available to you, and you are really fortunate to be in the St. Louis area, where there are many experienced birders who are really interested in helping new birders.

1. People.

There are two organizations in the St. Louis area that offer regular birding field trips. Field trips are the best way I know for beginners to learn. This includes where to bird, how to find birds, how to know what you are looking at, what to expect in what season, what is common and what is rare, etc.

Pat Lueders of the St. Louis Audubon Society (SLAS). Pat leads field trips and can be a great help to you as you get started.

Jackie Chain of the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS). I'm not as familiar with WGNSS, but am sure Jackie can help or connect you with someone who can.

2. Binoculars

This is not a simple matter. Good to excellent binoculars range from $150 to more than $1,500 dollars. No brand/model is "right" for everyone--either by price or for the view it provides.

Some things to consider:

It is impossible to share binoculars--someone will always be frustrated. Each person in the family should have a pair.

Kids, especially younger ones, don't have faces with eyes at the same spacing as adults. All binoculars are adjustable, but all have limitations. For the kids, consider less expensive, kid-sized binoculars. If they enjoy the activity, they will know when it is time to upgrade (and they'll let you know--probably by borrowing yours).

Adult binoculars. One piece of advice I offer in birding classes is to buy the most expensive pair you feel you can within your budget. I know that is tough. How do you know you're going to enjoy birding enough to justify the expense? You don't. There is ALWAYS a market for used binoculars and there are experienced birders who can help you find a buyer if you want to sell. That said, you may want to buy binoculars from a birder who is upgrading. Jackie or Pat may even know someone with binoculars to sell.

BUT, before you buy:

An important thing is to look through enough pairs to begin finding out what you are comfortable with. There are several ways to determine what binoculars you like and can afford.

Before you buy, you may be able to borrow binoculars for an extended period so you can begin birding, but not make a hasty purchase you might regret.

Go on birding field trips and try out everyone's binoculars. Birders are usually glad to let you look through theirs and to explain the good points and drawbacks of each model.

Another way is to go to a local birding supply store (check your area phonebook, or Pat or Jackie can advise you of one near you) and look through every pair in their inventory. Listen to the sales pitch, but don't buy immediately. Test as many kinds as possible.

After you've begun to see the variety, you may want to look at Eagle Optics on-line. This is a company based in Wisconsin. You can speak by phone to a salesperson whose job is to match customers with binoculars best suited for them--by price and by type. Eagle Optics will send you one to three pairs for you to test for two weeks. At the end of that period, you can send one or all back to them. Only mailing fees are charged.

3. Books.

Alas, a compulsive birder never has enough books about birds and/or birding.

But, there are places to start.

a. A field guide. Not just any field guide will do. If you already have one and it was published 5 or more years ago, buy a new one. This is important because there have been many changes (alas, "official" bird names are sometimes changed, we learn more about when and where birds can be expected to be seen, etc.)

There are a couple of books sold at bird supply stores with titles like Missouri Birds or Birds of Missouri. These are NOT very good. They are books of photos with some descriptions. They do not have all the birds you are likely to see and they do not show males and females and juveniles, so you will see birds that don't look like the pictures. This is very frustrating.

Buy a field guide that has illustrations, not photos. The illustrations are done to highlight the features that help you identify the bird you see; photos do not do this well.

Buy a field guide for Eastern North America or for all of North America. In bird books, "eastern" means everything east of the Rocky Mountains. The rockies are where there is a big break in what birds are found in an area. All birds you will see in Missouri will be in an eastern field guide.

There are many to choose from. For beginners, I usually recommend one of these three. All bird supply stores and maybe Barnes and Nobles will have these. Look, compare by looking at illustrations and descriptions of the same species. Any of these will work, just pick the one you like.

National Geographic Field Guide to North American Birds, fifth edition (make sure it is the fifth edition).

Peterson Field Guide to Eastern and Central North America (get the current edition)

The "Golden" guide, Robbins, et al., Birds of North America, a Guide to Field Identification

b. Other books to help.

The Missouri Department of Conservation has a FREE publication, a 40-page booklet titled Enjoying Missouri's Birds. It has information about binoculars, how to identify birds, what kinds of habitats will host what kinds of birds, and (very important) bar graphs that show WHEN to expect WHAT birds in Missouri. You can order it on-line from MDC or maybe pick up a copy at a Conservation Area near you.

There is also a fine book about sites to look for birds in the St. Louis area. Pat and/or Jackie can help you find a copy, but I highly recommend birding with others on regular field trips first.

I realize there is a lot to digest here. Birding is fun. It is easy and complicated at the same time. It can be a very exciting rewarding activity, regardless of age.

One further resource: A birding class. Check with Pat and/or Jackie to learn if there is a class in beginning birding offered near you. A birding class, especially one with field trips, is often a great way to begin.

Used with permission of Edge Wade. Modifications made by Patrick Harrison.