A to Z of Birdwatching

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Welcome to A – Z series where I’ll be highlighting the basics in every conservation/environmental/natural world related topic, area or activity. Today I’ll discuss The A – Z of Birdwatching. What are the basics in bird watching? What are some of the things you need to know while birding? What terms are used in birding?

Aves is the class where birds scientifically belong to. Globally we have close to 10,000 species of birds and still counting. Kenya alone has 1,000 species with Africa taking up to 2,355 of the 10000 and more global avian species. This number will continuously ensure your enthusiasm for bird watching lives on.

Binoculars are your new best friend. Getting a big, bright, clear picture of a bird up-close is an amazing feeling when bird watching; not only for the minuscule bird species but also the large ones as you will notice detailed features which make the bird distinctive. Binoculars have recently become available at surprisingly low prices. With as little as $100 you can get a pair, though investing in one above $250 is worth it for a vastly superior image, lifetime warranties and waterproofing elements as well as been light weight. This article on getting optics on a budget. will provide details when you decide to invest in a pair binoculars.

Connections. Bird watching is not only a relaxing solo recreation but also a social endeavor. Yes, doing a bird watch alone may be fulfilling in terms of peace and having an array of bird sightings at your disposal but the best way to learn is from other people. Connecting with people from different backgrounds with one similar interest in bird watching is very rewarding.

Diurnal species are species which are active during the day. Most bird watching activities happen during the day time from as early as 0600H depending on where the sun is at the tropics. The earlier one starts the more the species, although this is not to say you won’t get to see birds when the sun is overhead at 1200H.

Ecotourism. Bird watching is considered an Eco tourist activity where visiting fragile, pristine and relatively undisturbed natural areas will be top on the list of your birding excursions where education, economic development, community empowerment and respect of different cultures will be among the skills you will gain.

Field guide. When you see a bird, curiosity sets in and you will begin to wonder what it is. A field guide is essential in identifying what you see plus you will learn more by just reading on that specific bird. Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania is a great book for beginners. Electronic field guides such as this which sing and play videos are recent innovations available making it easier to carry a library in your pocket.

Gear up. Always have with you a field guide and/or binoculars on your birding expeditions. Spotting scopes and a good camera are also essential but not necessary.

Hydration. On those day long birding tours on hot sunny days when the day is longer than the night and the sun seems to be right above you, been hydrated is critical. Carry water and sip as you bird watch along to avoid mental breakdowns due to dehydration. Your mind needs to be active when bird watching.

Indigenous birds are birds native to a particular region or country. Some avian species may only be found in a particular range such as the Taita Apalis in Taita Hills or the Sokoke Scops owl in Arabuko Sokoke Forest. This knowledge will make it easier to look for these bird species in ranges where they only habituate.

Join a group of other bird watching enthusiasts. Most bird watching groups are very friendly, welcoming, helpful, fun and everyone is always willing to share their knowledge. Here in Kenya, Nature Kenya is a good start as they have weekly and monthly birding excursions. You can also join various groups like this on Facebook to keep you updated on bird identifications and sightings.

Keenness is a sure success to achieving your bird watching goals. Spotting a bird is key but differentiating diverse bird species through plumage, range or behavior is of more importance.

Lifer is a common term birders use when they spot a bird they have never seen before. If you are beginner, most birds will be a first seen. Going to different places and habitats will however increase the chances of adding lifers to your records. Bird watching becomes stimulating when you can’t wait to see a new bird to add to your growing the list.

Morph is the plumage (a birds feathers collectively) colour phases which are observed in several dimorphic or polymorphic bird species such as the Augur Buzzard.

Nocturnal species are species which are active during the night. Owls and nightjars are some of the bird species which are more likely to be seen and heard at night.

Ornithology is the scientific study of birds. Been a birder doesn’t make you an ornithologist, however, you will get to meet and interact with professionals in this field which can spark an interest to learn more on birds, their habitats, distribution and more.

Passerines are the most common species in the avian world with nearly half of all avian species been grouped in the order Passeriformes. Your bird list may as well comprise more of passerines than any other avian order unless the birding tour is on/near a water body.

Quiet. Always remember to put your phone on silent mode or vibration. You don’t want to be scaring away birds with loud incoherent ringtones. One doesn’t need to unnecessary shout when speaking too. Being quiet is golden, especially in forested areas. No one wants to alarm other animals which might frighten the birds you are looking for away.

Records. When you record you remember. This makes it easier to identify a bird when you see it a second time. It may not be very clear but soon you can even identify a bird in your sleep. You don’t have to keep your records in a notebook, thanks to applications such as Birdlasser, with only a smartphone, life has been made easier for you as this App keeps track of every place, bird and even the day you go for bird watching tour. You can also use Kenya Bird Map project or ebird, an online project to record your bird sightings as well as share them with friends, and explore data from other birders.

Skills. Being labeled as a birder doesn’t mean you have hit the jackpot. One needs to develop skills which makes it easier to effortlessly identify birds not just by sight but also through their calls or songs, behavior and even their nesting and habitats. Skill is developed by practice and always remember a pro was once an amateur, therefore don’t rush the process but keep on progressing at your pace.

Tail feathers will be your latest collecting craze if you are an avid collector like I am. However, this doesn’t not warrant you the right to grab birds and DE-feather them. 🙂

Underestimating an environments richness should not be tolerated. Always have an open mind in any birding excursion. You might as well surprise yourself.

Volunteer. Being a volunteer in birding groups will not only increase your knowledge and skills on birds, you will always have fun while doing it. Volunteering will make you proactive. Don’t be at the back afraid to enquire, always ask any questions on birds that crosses your mind. We learn by asking.

What to expect. Different habitats have different species of birds. Don’t always expect to see one bird in all your birding tours. Always have an open mind as this makes it easier for learning purposes.

Xenus cinereus is the scientific name for Terek Sandpiper. Looking for ‘X’ words got tricky.

You need to have fun when bird watching. Don’t be too serious, you might scare away the birds.

Zealousness is essential in birding since some days you may not see as many birds as expected while others days you will be overwhelmed. The passion will keep you going.

Have fun and be kind to birds

Happy birding

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Vicki Wangui
Vicki Wangui
Vicki Wangui is a believer in all things beautiful. A believer in spreading information in regards to environmental awareness. A believer in sharing all that is good in Kenya's natural world. A believer in speaking truth with no boundaries. Do you have a story, photo, experience or message you need to share? Send your work to vicki@nyikasilika.org or vickiwangui26@gmail.com.


  1. […] Source: A to Z of Birdwatching […]

  2. […] Bird watching is a fun activity to get involved in. Not only will you learn the names of bird species but you will also have fun while at it. For tips and terms used in birding, do read an early post on the A-Z of Birdwatching. […]

  3. One of the species associated with these habitats but are not found elsewhere in southern Africa is the grey-olive bulbul, seen especially on Nyika.

  4. Yacon Root says:

    Awesome Site. Really enjoyed reading.

  5. tbabez.com says:

    Amateur birdwatchers can contribute valuable information about New Zealand birds.

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