Bird Watching


Bird behaviors can be fascinating to watch.  Birds feed, preen, fight, fly, court, mate, nest, produce offspring, and in many instances support juveniles until they fledge.  According to a recent report from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, one out of every five Americans watches birds.    Birders contributed $36 billion to the US economy in 2006. (Read more at http://www.muirnet. net/?p=1841)

There are four essentials for bird watching (1) Bird habitat for observations, (2) Field guides to birds, (3) Binoculars, and (4) Practice of birding etiquette.


Bird habitats can be as close as your own backyard and as distant as another country.  Bird habitats include forests, wetlands, prairies, and seas.   They also include rain forests, cloud forests, sod farms, grasslands, and more.  For Florida bird habitats there are several resources beginning with Birding Hotspots in Broward County on this website and the Florida Birding Trail brochures (  Birding Florida by Brian Rapozza highlights 200 habitats in 54 locations in Florida.  Nationwide there are hotspots for birding, birding trips, and bird festivals.  Check out this website's Birding Florida, Birding the USA, and Birding the World pages.  Whenever possible, join other birders on a field trip.  Learning increases tenfold when there are more eyes and ears to detect and identify birds in the surrounding areas.  Also check South Florida Audubon Society's Events page for information on the next local birding adventures.


Field guides briefly describe and illustrate birds in specific locations such as a state, region, country, or continent.  Guides usually describe the size, shape, and field marks of the male, female and immature bird as well as preferred habitat for nesting, vocalizations, and unique behaviors (such as tail pumping).  Some birders prefer field guides by a seasoned author such as Roger Tory Peterson or David Sibley while others choose guides because of the organization producing the book such as National Audubon Society, National Geographic, Smithsonian, or American Birding Association.  Field guides for Florida birds found at popular online bookstores and published since 2000 include but are not limited to: National Audubon Society Field Guide to Florida (by Peter Alden), Birds of Florida Smithsonian Handbook Series (by Fred J. Alsop, III), Florida Bird Watching: A Year-round Guide (by Bill Thompson II and the Bird Watching Digest Staff), Birds of Florida (by Bill Pranty, Gregory Kennedy, and Kurt Raddamaker), Florida's Birds: A Field Guide and Reference (by Herbert Kate, II, David S. Maehr, and Karl Karulus), and Birds of Florida Field Guide: Companion to Birds of Florida CD (by Stan Tekiela).  Two online naturestores in Southern Florida include Corkscrew Sanctuary ( and the Everglades Association (   


Binoculars are invaluable for viewing distant birds.  Often observers can spot birds flying between trees or perched high up in a tree but cannot see the bird's field markings.  Binoculars help in bird identification and in the enjoyment of watching bird behaviors.  To use binoculars the observer follows the moving bird to its new perch and then while keeping eyes on the bird, brings the binoculars up to the eyes. If you buy your binoculars from a nature store that specializes in optics for birders, you will be assisted in how to select the right pair for your eyes and in setting it up for ease in focusing once you have spotted that bird.

Here are a few suggestions for selecting the right pair of binoculars.  Read the book, Pete Dunne on Bird Watching, for further details.

Size and shape -- Choose binoculars (bins) that once adjusted produce a single image (i.e., ocular lens fits your interpupillary distance).  Choose binoculars that are easy to grasp and hold firmly while maneuvering the focus wheel with your index finger.

Weight -- Lighter weight binoculars are easier to hold while locating and studying a bird's features.

Design -- Choose between Porro prism and roof prism.  Porro prism binoculars are usually wide-bodied and the front lens (objective) and back lens (ocular) are not lined up along a linear axis.  They use fewer reflecting surfaces and thereby reduce light loss and image distortion.  Roof prism binoculars are easier to hold and use because of its sleek back-to-front linear design and better overall image quality in higher magnifications.  Its disadvantages are increased loss of light and introduction of light-wave shift that reduces image contrast.  Differences, however, are reduced in higher quality and more expensive binoculars.

Focus System -- Choose binoculars with a center-focus wheel for quick and easy adjustments between distant and nearby birds.  Avoid lever or bar focus systems as well as permanent-focus or no-focus systems.

Magnification -- Most birders choose between 7x to 10x power for magnification.  Higher magnifications enables viewing of more distant objects but reduces field of view and depth of field.  Higher magnifications may lose light or cause darker images.

Exit Pupil Size -- is the diameter number calculated by dividing the size of the objective lens by the power of the binocular. For example, a 7x 42 binocular has a 6 millimeter exit pupil.  Objective lens sizes used by birders range from 30 to 50.  The larger the objective lens number the more light enters.  Choose 5-6 mm and never less than 3.75 millimeters. 

Choose BAK-4 glass or denser; HD (high-density) glass

Choose fully multicoated optics.  Roof prism binoculars need phase-corrected coatings.

Close Focus
Choose 10-15 feet for close focusing

Field of View
Choose no less than 330 feet at 1,000 yards.
Eye Relief
18 millimeters is preferred by many.  Eyeglass wearers need at minimum 15 millimeters

Water Resistance/Durability
For bird watching in fog, rain, snow, or sleet and offshore or in the tropics, be sure the binoculars are waterproof and rugged

Before purchasing check the binoculars for proper alignment, optical performance, dust or debris in the barrels, and any mechanical problem.  Check two or three binoculars of the same model and select the best performing one.  To see the latest binocular reviews go to  http://www.featheredgeoptics.


The American Birding Association developed a Code of Birding Ethics which emphasizes showing respect for wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others while birding.  Here are highlights from that code:

  • Support protection of major bird habitats
  • Avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger when observing or filming them
  • Limit use of recordings in trying to attract birds
  • Stay back from nests, display areas, and feeding sites
  • Minimize use of flash for close-up photos
  • Share presence of a rare bird only after evaluating potential for stressing the bird by others nearby
  • Stay on trails and keep habitat disturbance to a minimum
  • Show respect for the law and follow laws governing use of roads and pubic areas
  • Show respect for the rights of birds and of others
  • Seek permission before entering private property for birding
  • Be courteous to other birders and non-birders
  • Share your knowledge and experience with beginning birders
  • If leading a group, keep the size small to minimize interference with others in the area

Pete Dunne reminds us:

"Harming birds is the very antithesis of what motivates birders--yet birds are sometimes injured, and their lives are often disrupted, by the efforts of those eager to appreciate them.  Shorebirds feeding to fuel their long flight to the Arctic are forced to relocate when approached too closely--a waste of their time and energy.  Adult birds, trying to distract birders away from nestlings, may attract a hawk that truly puts their young at risk."


After you have begun using the essentials for watching the behaviors of birds, consider additional resources such as :

  • Companion to the Field Guide
  • Birding Software such as by Peter Thayer
  • Birding CD's and Videos for listening to birds
  • Birding Journals and CheckLists to keep track of birds seen

Visit our Photo Gallery to see photos of bird behaviors: Feeding, Fighting, Flying, Mating, and Nesting as well as photos of chicks, juveniles, and immature birds  

Photos by Al Hartman and Laura Edwards on Bird Walk at Plantation Preserve 3/28/09

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