Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Developing your birdwatching skills by Thomas Banks

Birdwatching is very enjoyable, but it can be even more enjoyable if you have the right set of skills. Here are five skills which I believe have helped me love birding even more:

1. Attention to detail – many beginners will look at a bird and determine its species just by the colour and pattern of its plumage. An example where this does not usually work is the Dunnock (though it does have a unique plumage). Some people will identify it as a sparrow because it’s a "LBJ" (little brown job). But if you take note of other details, you should be able to identify it.
Shape and size is important. Dunnocks have a thin, pointy beak, whilst House Sparrows have a conical beak.

A good way to get to grips with different bird species is to watch videos of them. This will help you understand their behaviour and help you group them into different families. Dunnocks usually feed on the ground, whilst House Sparrows are likely to be in flocks and eat from a bird feeder.
Another way to identify birds (which I have not perfected yet) is by sound. This is very useful if you do not have good views of the bird or the bird looks similar to another species e.g. Willow Warbler and Chiffchaff. Practice by listening to recordings, which you can buy on a CD or on an app or you could go online.

When you are learning all these features about a bird, don’t just look up the more attractive adult males – females and juveniles count too!

Pintail by Thomas Banks
Pintail by Thomas Banks
2. Practice using equipment – You might have a pair of binoculars or a scope, both very useful in birding, but you might not be using them to their full potential. Begin in the garden. Make sure you can quickly change the focus and be able to see a bird with your peripheral vision and then get your binoculars onto it. With a scope, practice scanning every bird in a flock, identifying each one. This worked for me. I got a scope for Christmas and practiced using it at Staines Reservoir, Surrey on Boxing Day. I was scanning a flock of ducks, which seemed to just be Pochards. But because I did not just assume that they were all Pochards, I managed to pick out a drake Pintail. So if you stumble across a flock of Chaffinches in the winter, check each individual as there might be a Brambling!

Great Grey Shrike by Thomas Banks
Great Grey Shrike by Thomas Banks
3. Planning ahead – Before you visit a new site, do a search on the internet. Find out what star species you can find there (are they the ones you hope to see?), what habitats are there (e.g. if it’s a heathland, then you could see a Dartford warbler) and if the cafĂ© serves cake! Plan what time you make the visit – the time of day (most birds are active early morning) and the time of year (some birds are only summer/winter visitors to the UK). Back in November, I saw a Great Grey Shrike at Frensham Common, Surrey. This was partly because I had read about recent sightings online, I was in the right habitat and it was the right time of year.

4. Patience – You can’t just expect a bird to appear straight away, or see the species you wanted to see in one trip. Sometimes luck is on your side and your target species is right in front of you, but you sometimes have to wait to see something special. In September, there was a Barred Warbler at Staines Moor, Surrey. A rare bird that had been there for some days and so I made the visit. There were other birders there and we had to wait for about hour until it appeared. Now that it is a long time standing around, but I know some birders have waited way longer for a bird than I have.

5. Get in the field – The more you birdwatch, the better you get at it. Reading is helpful in identifying birds, but putting your skills into practice is the best way of developing them.
There are many other skills used in birdwatching, but they are few that have helped me. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

Thomas Banks, @MrTomBanks


  1. Very useful tips! It is also handy to take a notebook whilst birding so you can jot down notes and sketches. :)