Join ornithologist Kenn Kaufman as he gives expert advice for watching birds in their natural habitat.
Most quality binoculars can be adjusted to accommodate different strengths of vision in each eye.
"It took me three years before it dawned on me that I was looking through my binoculars with one eye out of focus," Kaufman says. To properly focus your binoculars, first cover your right eye; focus on an object using the central focusing wheel. Next, focus on the same object with only your right eye using the adjustable right eyepiece.
If you wear eyeglasses, roll or slide back the rubber eyecups to achieve the widest view.
Ask yourself these questions: Is the bird social or solitary?
Does it perch upright or upside down?
Does it walk, run, hop, or swim?
Does it eat seeds and bugs or snag fresh berries from shrubs and trees?
Knowing these characteristics will help you narrow down the choices.
It's fun to search for new species and build your bird checklist, but Kaufman suggest you focus first on the birds that visit your yard, such as the American Goldfinch.
"The better you can get to know the common birds, the better you get to know when you're seeing something different," he says. Once you practice at home, observe birds at a local park or take a drive out to the country. You'll soon associate different habitats with specific species. There's no need to travel great distances.
Kaufman calls these the "trademarks of nature." Illustrations in the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America point out particular markings such as eye ring, wing bars, crown stripe, belly streak, whisker marks, etc. that distinguish one species from another. The more details you notice, the more likely you'll correctly identify the bird.
During nesting season (spring and summer), birds pair up to raise their young. This is the time to be on the lookout for mating displays, nest-building activities, territorial behavior, and fledglings. If you spot a baby, it's likely that Mom and Dad are nearby.
Note the differences in plumage between adults and juveniles. A young American Robin, pictured, is just beginning to show orange on its belly. Its first feathers are spotted, which provides good camouflage in trees.
Birds have ranges, or territories, which can vary depending on the time of year. Most field guides include color-coded range maps to show where and when you should be able to see each bird species. Within these ranges, some birds prefer forested areas, while others are more at home in fields or wetlands. Still others are found only in deserts or on seashores. There will be some territory crossover, but knowing each species' range and habitat preference will help you find them.
When you hear a bird, resist the temptation to immediately use the binoculars to scan the horizon. Instead, Kaufman suggests making sure you can first see the bird in relationship to where it is in a tree or shrub or on a fence post. After you see the bird with you unaided eye, direct your binoculars to the same place.
Decide whether the bird is large, medium, or small; chunky or slim; thin- or thick-billed; and short- or long-tailed. Learn the shapes of different bird groups. Use common birds, such as robins, finches, and sparrows, as guidelines for comparison. With practice, you will notice the subtle differences between species within each group. For example, the Savannah Sparrow, pictured, has a shorter tail than the Song Sparrow.
Many birders keep a running tally, or "life list," of bird species they have seen. If you're not sure about the identification of an unfamiliar bird, take notes on its field marks and sketch it out the best you can. Always include the date and place.
Your best chance for seeing the most birds is early in the morning when they're most active. Birds don't always sit still waiting for you to identify them, which poses both challenges and joys for the birder. To avoid startling birds, slow down, pause often, and quietly observe.
Remember, you don't have to know every bird by name to enjoy the view. With a practiced eye, you'll soon be -- if not an expert -- an avid birder.