Birding Resources for Beginners

By: Cliff Keene Last Update: Tuesday, June 13, 2006 01:05 AM - Updated out of date links.
This is available on the Web and may be more complete later.
Check:   for updates.
In addition you may want to see my “Bird & Nature Web Links” web page at:


·         It’s not necessary to spend a lot of money to start bird watching. Primarily you need to enjoy and have an interest in birds. However, most folks will increase their enjoyment with a good guide books and a fairly good pair of binoculars. As we became more “advanced” in our bird watching, we found that we wanted additional books and other equipment. We tried to list those items most important to beginning birders first.

·         The Birding.Com Web Site has an excellent introduction to the “world of birding” at:

Field Guides:

·         Your first field guide should probably be one covering a more limited area (Western Birds) with painted illustrations. Examples include: The Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds or The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. Another that we don’t use as much is Birds of The Rocky Mountains.

·         If you plan to travel east, then you should get one that covers all North America. Once you are “hooked” on birding, we feel that at second book is very helpful. No one book has the best illustrations for all birds in all light conditions. We like the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Others include the American Bird Conservancy’s Field Guide – All The Birds of North America, and Kenn Kaufman’s A Focus on the Field Birds of North America.

·         Although for our primary books, we prefer those with painted illustrations, those with actual photographs can be helpful, especially when the light is dim. We like the Stokes Field Guide To Birds – Western Region. Another is An Audubon Handbook – Western Birds.

·         There are other books, but they are not what we’d call field guides. We’ll discuss those later.


·         Generally speaking, 7x35 or 8x40 are the most practical binoculars to have for birding. They work well in the forest or in the backyard, gather a fair bit of light and have a relatively large "field of view." Although 10 power binoculars tend to be heavier, are harder to hold steady, and have a narrower field of view, many experienced birders prefer the higher magnification they provide. We use a fairly light weight 8x42 Swift brand binocular. They work well, but are very sensitive to damage when dropped. We’ve had to send them back to the factory to be re-aligned.

·         More information is available at the Great Backyard Bird Binoculars page at:

·         If you want to spend enough money there are 10 power binoculars that have a battery powered stabilization mechanism.

Checklists, Guidebooks, Diaries:

·         Most of us would have little success identifying some species of birds if we had to choose from a selection of all the birds in the world. There are literally hundreds of warblers, for example. However when we know what species are most likely to be seen in our area, the task is easier. That’s where a checklist helps. We are fortunate to have a new checklist for our area, the Birds of the Upper Salmon Basin Checklist. They are available at the Salmon Region, Idaho Department of Fish and Game, 99 Hwy 93 North.

·         Checklists are available for all the National Wildlife Refuges, and other areas and most of these are available on-line. To access these lists, go to my Bird & Nature Web Links at: Other links go to web sites with good descriptions of these areas. There are also links to the Birds Of Idaho Field Checklist. This list has codes for the expected abundance for each species Statewide and also by the Southeast, Southwest, Central, and Panhandle areas. My page also has a link to a list of the Idaho Fish & Game Wildlife Management Areas. Many of these areas have bird checklists available on-site, but none appear to be available on-line.

·         It’s helpful to have directions to the best bird watching areas. The above site has links to descriptions of some of these areas. There are also books available. Many of these books also have bird checklists. The Upper Salmon Basin Checklist is based largely on Birds Of East Central Idaho, By Hadley B. Roberts, 1992. This book is very helpful in making a determination as to how rare a given species is at a given time. For example, a Chipping Sparrow looks something like an American Tree Sparrow, but if it’s Winter it’s almost certainly the Tree Sparrow, and if it’s summer the Chipper. However, if it’s mid October, we might have to look closer. This book also lists some good birding sites. The Birds of Idaho Field Checklist is based largely on the list in A Birder’s Guide To Idaho, edited by Dan Svingen and Kas Dumroese, 1997. This is a “must take” book for us when traveling in Idaho. It has excellent maps and descriptions for many areas. We have a similar list and book for Montana. We also have Wildlife Viewing Guides for all the Pacific Northwest States. The Idaho Wildlife Viewing Guide is a small soft cover book readily available in book stores and for sale by the Idaho Fish and Game (See attached sheet.) In this guide are 100 of the best wildlife viewing sites in Idaho. Each site is clearly described with locator maps, driving directions, best times to view wildlife, and the type of animals found there.

·         We have at least three Diaries for tracking birds. We keep one list of bird species seen each day in our yard. We have another loose-leaf notebook to record birds seen on trips. In this notebook is also a formal list where we record the first sighting of each bird species we’ve seen. Except for special bird counts (Christmas, Great Backyard Bird Count) we normally don’t record the numbers of each species seen, just that we saw that species on a given date and at an approximate location.

·         It’s not necessary to keep lists, but most active birders do keep some kind of list. In its simplest form a birders “Life List” would be a listing of all species observed. At least for the first sighting of a given species, most folks record a date, and some kind of location. The simplest location would be for a given country or state. Most states have some kind of bird tally by county and also by at least a one degree Latitude – Longitude Block. Thus we like to record an approximate location for birds seen on a trip that will put the birds in a given block and county. The extreme is to record a GPS location for each sighting. Too much work for most folks at this time. Sometimes folks will record the number of birds seen. However, for a feeder or yard count, you can’t keep recording more species seen, or you’ll often be counting the same bird over and over. Thus in that case you record the maximum number that you saw at one time. ). We try to maintain a list for the following: Our yard, the East Central Idaho area, by State/Province and by Country. So far we only have the US, Canada, and Australia. We started to record our data in the Thayer Birds, Birders Diary computer database, but have let that slide. If we ever get our data entered we’d be able to locate most birds seen in Idaho by Latitude – Longitude block.

Tapes, CD’s, Computer Programs:

Most expert birders will identify a high percentage of their sightings by sound. In a Northern Idaho bird count it was estimated that 80% of the identification was by sound. We have some CDs and Tapes that list bird sounds by category. For example all those that sound like a Robin including the Western Tanager, and the Black-headed Grosbeak. Other CDs list the sounds by the bird family. For example the Robins are a thrush, so there will be songs for all the thrushes even though many don’t sound much like a Robin.

We also have some Computer programs such as the Thayer Birds and the Peterson albums. These show the birds on your computer screen but also allow you to group various birds together, do searches and also play sounds

We will show examples and explain how they work. More to be added here later.


Bird Feeders, Yard Plantings:

A good way to learn birds is to see them in your yard. More to be added later.

Scopes, Tripods, Advanced Optics, Etc:

If you plan to go to Wildlife Refuges and view waterfowl a scope is very handy. However a good scope can be quite expensive. Generally plan to spend several hundred to even a thousand dollars.

Advanced Books, Bird Behavior, Specialized Field Guides:

For a more complete list of books, go to the Great Backyard Bird Book page at: