A beginners guide to birdwatching in the UK

Birds are found all across the UK, and you don’t even need binoculars or a telescope to watch for many of them. We recommend trying out birdwatching during the shooting offseason as it helps you learn the flight patterns of certain birds and the best terrain to find them in. It is also a very enjoyable countryside activity which doesn’t require much training or skill, all you need is comfortable country clothing, a pair of binoculars on hand and some patience!

Find out more about how you can get the most fun and enjoyment as you begin your birdwatching adventure this year with our helpful guide for beginners:

Bird behaviour

bird 1 kite

It is important to find out the behaviour of birds, such as why some birds might be aggressive, why some may sing at night and even why you might not see so many birds at certain times of the year.

Nocturnal song

While most birds sing in the day, there are a few notable exceptions of birds who sing at night. Apart from owls, nocturnal songsters like nightjars, nightingales and corncrakes are migratory birds, who have a well-defined song period during spring and summer. Reed and sedge warblers are other birds which sing at night. But what might surprise you is the robin, which keeps territories all year and sings all year, is often the bird you are most likely to hear singing at night. Simply a streetlight or loud noise can trigger a robin into song!

Mobbing

This behaviour is noisy and used by birds to defend themselves and their offspring from predators such as a red kite, and is often seen in springtime when chicks are hatching. If a predator is discovered, the bird emits an alarm call and flies at the predator, diverting its attention and harassing it. Mobbing may start with one or two birds but can attract large numbers, with a variety of species. Gulls and terns are two species for who the mobbing technique is popular.

Swooping at people

Sometimes, wild birds will make unprovoked attacks on people, and there are two common reasons for this behaviour. The first is due to birds nesting nearby when they have eggs or chicks to protect, and the solution is to avoid the area while the young develop. Another reason for swooping is common in gulls, as they often associate people with food.

Identifying birds

Birdwatching in country clothing UK

You don’t need to know anything about birds to enjoy watching them. Whether you simply want to watch the birds visiting your garden or head out to the countryside to see birds of prey soaring above your head, they are interesting to watch and identifying them is part of the fun. The best place to start is by getting an illustrated guide book of British birds.

Practice makes perfect

The more time you spend birdwatching, the better you will become at identifying birds. Many RSPB and nature reserves provide excellent opportunities to watch birds at a close range, and you can pick up advice from the staff, volunteers and other birdwatchers there.

Don’t always rely on the book

Although it is a good starting point, bare in mind that birds don’t always look exactly like they do in a bird book. Every bird is slightly different, and though the book may illustrate a winter/summer plumage of a bird, birds replace feathers at regular intervals and their ‘intermediate’ stage is not always illustrated. The time of day you spot a bird can also make them appear differently, as can the way they are sitting; herons can coil their long neck close to their body making them appear differently to how they may be illustrated.

Use your ears

Don’t just use your eyes when birdwatching, utilise your ears too. Some species of bird can be hard to detect without their distinctive call or song, so keep an ear out when on the lookout for birds in the countryside. For example, nightingales are very vocal but like to sing from dense bushes. Tawny owls are secretive during the day but loud after dark. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers are similar in appearance but their calls are vastly different.

Don’t worry

As a beginner, don’t worry if you can’t identify a bird, just put it down as experience, not a failure. There will always be a bird which gets away, as they might not hang around long enough for you to identify them.

Birdwatchers code

Birdwatching in country clothing UK

Following the birdwatchers code is good practice and common sense. Around three million adults go birdwatching every year in the UK and the code puts the interests of birds first. The code also applies everywhere, not just at nature reserves. The key things to remember are:

Avoid disturbing birds and their habitats.

Know the law and rules of the countryside, and follow them.

Record sightings and send them to the County Bird Recorder.

Think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird, especially in the breeding season.

Be an ambassador for birdwatching.

Reserves

Birdwatching in country clothing UK

There are over 150 nature reserves located throughout the UK, and they provide the perfect place to get closer to nature. In addition to the birds, there are flowers, deer, insects and trees, to name but a few. For beginners, families and experts, nature reserves are the best place to start off at for birdwatching, and you can learn more about the habitats of certain birds and pick up the tricks of the trade from other birdwatchers, who love to share their knowledge of the activity. Check out the RSPB website for the nature reserves closest to you.

Equipment

Birdwatching in country clothing UK

You don’t need much to enjoy birdwatching, just your eyes and ears. But there is equipment to make it an easier and more enjoyable country activity. Two pieces of equipment you can start with are binoculars and a telescope. Do some research before buying one, so you will get one to suit your needs. Be sure to take care of the equipment so you can use it for years to come.

If you are also interested in creating permanent records of your birdwatching adventures, you may want to invest in a camera and an attachable long lens. Again, photographing the birds takes practice, but birdwatching is a great starting point for amateur wildlife photography.

Images by: Tony Hisgett, Andreas Trepte, Christine Matthews, JJ Harrison, Tim Mason

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