Here are some tips to get you started in birding, from where and when to go, to information on joining a birding group.
A good pair of binoculars and a field guide are all you need to start birding. The least expensive binoculars can be purchased for around $25, but they can range up to several thousand dollars. As you move up in price you will get a better grade of glass that will provide a sharper image and work better in dimmer light. There are several features such as weight, storability, and price to consider before making a purchase. Most important is that you get what you can afford so that you can see the birds in more detail than with the naked eye.
All binoculars are gauged by two numbers, such as 8 x 42. The first number is the magnification. So, the 8 in this case means the binoculars magnify the distance 8 times closer than with the naked eye. An 8-power magnification allows you to see an object that is 200 yards away as though it were only 25 yards away. The second number, 42 in this case, describes the diameter of the lens in millimeters. This is important because lens diameter plays a big role in determining how much light is transmitted through the glass lens to your eye (glass quality is another). So, the more light that is transmitted, the sharper the image will be. This is helpful when observing birds in low-light conditions, for example at dusk and dawn.
A good place to start is with a well-know field guide, such as the Peterson’s Guide, the Sibley’s Guide, or guides produced by The National Audubon Society and the National Geographic Society. The Stokes Beginner’s Guide to birds is also a great place to start.
Many of these guides are available at your local Vermont bookstore. There are several bird identification applications for download to your cell phone but a printed guide will never need to be recharged.
For information on birdwatching in Vermont, it’s hard to find a better book than Murin and Pfeiffer’s Birdwatching in Vermont, available at your local Vermont bookstore.
For information about wildlife watching opportunities in Vermont, pick up a copy of Vermont Wildlife Viewing Guide.
A guidebook with information on many of the wildlife management areas in Vermont, complete with the birds that can be found at each, is also available in our bookstore.
What to Look For
Besides plumage, birds can be identified by their silhouette, their flight pattern, and their class and songs. Learning these important identification skills from species that are easier to observe, such as those that come to a bird feeder, will lead you to early success and confidence when other species are added to your list.
Time of Year
Birding can be enjoyable year-round. Many new birders find the winter to be a good time to start, as the number of bird species to keep track of is fewer and beginning birders can focus on the more recognizable birds, such as chickadees and nuthatches.
The spring migration (March-May) will bring a rush of different species that are either just passing through Vermont to destinations elsewhere or those that are only beginning their search for a suitable nesting site. Because birds are on the move during this time being able to identify them by silhouette and flight patterns is very useful.
Late May and early June is when males of most species are singing enthusiastically as they court females and defend their territory. Active singing can be heard into early July but most nest are well established so singing will taper off quickly this month.
By August your birding skills should focus on habitat, flight patterns, and silhouettes as the birds are usually very quiet but active. As September approaches many species are preparing to migrate south for the winter. Hummingbirds, for example are often on their way to Central America by Labor Day.
For many species, the males molt to their non-breeding plumage. This can be an added challenge to identification but like any avocation it is only enriched when the challenge is accepted.
Autumn is a very popular time to watch for migrating waterfowl, especially Canada and Snow Geese. Many resident Canada Geese can be observed in September (and before) but October is when the migrant geese begin their journey south from Canada.
Many species of migrating hawks can be observed in October too. Perhaps the most notable are the Broad-winged Hawks who can often be seen in the hundreds as they ‘kettle’ on thermals above Vermont ridgetops. Lake Champlain is one of the best locations to see a wide variety of ducks, geese, brant, swans, loons, eagles, and a wide variety of other migrant bird species.
Time of Day
Mornings are usually the best time to start you birding trek. Most bird species are governed by daylight and have been sedentary on their roosts during the night. Morning in late May and June usually means the birds will become active as early as 4:30 am.
It is typical for them to remain actively singing until late morning but the weather will influence their enthusiasm. Calm days with plenty of sunshine is best. Windy and rainy weather is more likely to ‘put birds down’ for a while.
Birding can also be rewarding in the evening around sunset, especially during the summer months. Many birds have a brief period of activity just before dark.
Some species are known for their night time songs and vocalizations. The Eastern Whip-poor-will is probably the most famous for being a night time singer but a variety of owl species sing and call at night.
Many towns have local birding groups that are usually welcoming to newcomers or beginner birders. Often these groups meet early on a weekend morning during the spring and summer, and some go year round.
To find out if such a group exists in your town, start with your local conservation commission. Another source might be through Front Porch Forum. If such a group doesn’t exist, you can always start your own. You may be surprised at the response you get. Other contacts for birding information are listed below.
- Audubon Vermont is a great resource for birding information, conservation efforts, or upcoming birding events.
North Branch Nature Center offers many birding classes, lectures, field trips, and festivals. They also conduct songbird and owl research with opportunities for public involvement.
- eBird Vermont has lists of recent bird sightings throughout the state, as well as upcoming events. They also have checklists for upcoming events.
- The Christmas Bird Count is a great way to join a group of experienced birders and to contribute to citizen science by documenting the winter distribution of birds.
- The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department keeps a list of all known bird species in Vermont, along with their status.
- The Vermont Center for Ecostudies keeps a running list of verified birds in Vermont, and is always looking for additional reports from the birding public.
- The Birds of Vermont Museum is a great place to learn about the Green Mountain State's feathered friends!
- Wikipedia has a crowd-sourced page listing all of the known birds in Vermont, broken down taxonomically, with options to click on each bird to learn more about it.