I had always spent a lot of time in nature and I always watched natural documentaries in awe. However, I also always thought that the things that you see in the movies are out of the reach of a normal guy like me. Yes, I saw a rabbit here and a dear there, but observing wild animals was always extremely rare and difficult. About four years ago, I somehow discovered the colorful world of birds - everywhere around us and surprisingly easy to see, watch, observe and study. Today I want to share this world with you. Even if you always thought that birders are weirdos with binoculars attached to their bodies, bear with me. After the first fascination with the birds themselves, I found another layer that fascinated me perhaps even more - the colorful community and the unexpected room for competition behind it. I still love to be deep in the nature, encountering wild and free creatures, but honestly, the competitive aspect is what keeps me hooked up for so long and so much.
Why watch birds?
Because they are wonderful, of course! And moreover, they are by far the easiest vertebrate group to see. Mammals, barring a few exceptions are usually elusive, fish are mostly obstructed by water ... while birds fly and perch, hiding in plain sight. I am not saying that you should not care about the rest of the nature - and most of birders revere any meeting with a mammal, or even an interesting plant, with big appreciation - but focusing on birds and getting to know them is an extremely rewarding choice.
On the other hand, even if you were never too much into outdoors or nature, birdwatching can be great for you - particularly if you are on TL, you probably spend too much time behind a computer (like myself), so a stroll in the fresh air can't hurt you. For me, birding has become a driving force to move my sorry ass and go outside and it has lead me to places I would never even thing of visiting. As an added bonus, as I travel a lot, it gives me "something to do" at almost any destination and motivates me to explore foreign lands from a very unusual perspective.
How to watch birds?
Just go outside and have a look! Really, there are likely some interesting birds right outside your window. Later you can head to the nearest nature reserve, fish pond, forest, pasture, mountain ... every biome brings new experiences. The best time of the year to watch birds in moderate climate is spring (where as in tropical areas it is essentially "all the time", how come you are not a birdwatcher yet if you are so lucky live in a tropical area?!) , but apart from the really frozen high latitudes, there is some activity all-year long. On a smaller scale, the most productive part of the day tends to be the morning, but don't worry about that if you are just starting.
The nice thing about birding is that you can get very far without needing a lot of expensive gear. A pair of binoculars is a good start - chances are that you have some lying around for any reason and if not, you can buy some for a couple dozen bucks that will serve you for some time, even though you birder friend probably has a $500 pair at least. Later you realize that some birds are just too far away (or you don't want to disturb them, more on that later) and buy a spotting scope on a tripod. Again, the sky is the limit when it comes to price, but rest assured that my spotting setup is worth mere $300 and does wonders.
Another way to go is to take pictures of the birds - that makes later identification easier and also gives you a solid evidence that you saw what you claim to have seen. This is a little tricky area financially, because your desire to take great "wildlife" picture may very quickly empty your wallet, but good documentation can be done with a solid "ultrazoom camera". I personally walk around with a Canon 100D camera and a Canon 400/5.6 L lens in my hand all the time (I don't even carry around binoculars anymore).
But what am I seeing?
Now things get interesting! Bird identification is an awesome detective activity. Very important is to not get discouraged from the start - IDing birds when you don't know any can be sometimes really frustrating. When I started, I did not know even the most common birds, moreover I had no idea which birds are common and which are not and felt like I don't even know where to begin.
Luckily, resources to help you are endless. For the most basic introduction just look out for some information materials - are there nature trails in your area with colorful wildlife tables? Chances are they show the most common birds around. Or just google some bird images and stroll through them. Or buy a random local book with birds on it, why not?
Later you are gonna need a good field guide. I would really suggest not to get a very advanced field guide right off the bat, because that will only make you see rarities at every corner and for the first steps it is probably better to be unaware of all the possibilities. But once you can distinguish a chaffinch from a swallow (or insert your local varieties), you need a good book to continue, because IDing the less known species off Google can be frustrating (however sometimes necessary, because the book you have may not show the very marks you have just observed).
If you happen to live in Europe, or very nearby, you are a lucky birder, because this area (the Western Palearctic to be precise) is covered by - The Collins Guide (a.k.a "the Svensson"). Lars Svensson is actually the author of the text, but what really makes the book so great are the fantastic illustration of each species. There are obviously many competing books, but Svensson is the book that you will meet the most, translated to many languages while keeping the order and illustrations (so that if you talk to someone not speaking your language, you can just show them the page and they will know what are you talking about).
For other regions, they are similar guides, different in scope and detail. I travel a lot to South America, so I got two comprehensive SA books - one for passerine birds, the other for the rest - they do really cover everything I could see, but the detail is not very great (and the paintings are sometimes very rough), so I have just ordered another local book for Chile for example. You will see with time what you need.
If you are really lost in your ID skills, you can always ask other people. If you lack birding friends, you can make some online, for example at the biggest and greatest online birding community - http://www.birdforum.net. If you look up my nickname there, you will notice that I get lost a lot You are also warmly welcome to hit me with any ID questions, however I will probably be helpful only concerning European birds (and limitedly Argentinean and Chilean ones).
Some words of caution
Now is a good time to interrupt the awesomeness with some real talk. It's all fun and games, but it's also about living creatures, sometimes even endangered ones and every birder needs to acknowledge his or her responsibility for the protection of the nature. Thus, some simple precautions need to be followed when birding.
You should do your best to not disturb the birds you observe, particularly while they are breeding. To do that the best, you should learn beforehand about the birds you are likely to see in the place you are going to visit and be aware of their nesting habits. Even though it may be tempting to get up close with the birds, it is better to stick to existing paths and routes even outside natural reserves (inside you are often required to do so by law). Many species nest on the ground and you could step on their eggs. Others are sensitive to disturbance and could leave the nest altogether or abandon its construction - most notably Eagle Owls, Falcons, Bee-eaters, but many others are threatened by human activity.
Any human acitivity outdoors has some effect on the wildlife and I don't think we should all stay inside just in case we might disturb something - the main theme is that you should be aware and behave reasonably. If you walk on paths where many other people go every day (even non-birders), then it's probably an ok thing to do. If you scramble through the reeds, you arel not only likely to step in to a Plover's nest, but you are probably not going to see anything anyway, because you are making too much mess.
Competition, you were saying?
And finally, the lists. Every country, region, continent ... has a list of birds that have been seen there. It is usually easy to find by Google (many lists are kept updated on wikipedia). There are different version depending on who manages the list, but many countries have very active "official" bodies and committees keeping the lists in check and judging the reliability of new observations. You can then make your own list and see how much of the birds from a given area have you spotted. Moreover, you can make a world-wide list of yours and that will take you some time as there are about 10 000 different species across the globe!
And how would that be that people made lists and did not compare them with each other. In many countries, there are birding clubs where you can join and exchange your experience with other similarly-minded people - and on top of that you can also compete with them for the longest list. Our local Czech club has a compilation of links to other European clubs - it's the first bloc of 11 links, I hope it is easy to navigate even though it is in Czech.
It often happens that many species show up in a given area only once in a couple of years or so and every sighting of such a rarity in a country with existing birding community creates a perfect occasion for an impromptu meetup of the club on the spot. Usually, there are web portals that provide up-to-date informations on rarities and other observations - in Czech Republic it is http://www.birds.cz/avif/obs.php and this map can lead you to similar pages across Europe. There is probably something very similar at least in the US, but likely also in other parts of the world.
For a rather light-hearted look at the competitive birding in US, I can really recommend Big Year - not only it really hits home in some respects, but it is also a pretty lovely movie anyway (and much less cliched than I would expect from the premise).
And what about you, opisska?
As I said, I started really briding about 4 years ago. In fall 2011 I was for some time in Argentina doing night shifts at our observatory and most of the time I was really bored, so I was on Skype with my wife and we went through all the pictures we collected from our trips over the years and we tried to ID all the birds we more or less accidentally captured. At first I was scepctical that I will be able to recognize anything, after a couple of long nights It turned out that we had more than a hundred different species already from all around the world, while missing even the most common birds at home. So as soon as I went home, I started birding around and it never left me.
As of now, we have photograhped 794 diffent bird species, as you can see in our comprehensive bird species album. So we have still a long way to go to the 10 000 mark! The Czech list has currently 394 recorded species, but it includes stuff such as some birds shot in the 19th century - the best Czech birders have just reached 300 species (thus the "klub300" website); we are still only at 234 and it is already getting pretty difficult to expand (but even more exciting when it happens!).
While I still haven't really started to talk about the birds, it's time to close this rather long post. I hope it will be interesting for at least someone. If you alrady are a birder (shoutout to catplanetcatplanet!), please share your stories and experiences. If you never watched birds, but feel like you would give it a try, go ahead and do so - and if I could be of any assistance to you, I would gladly try. Finally, if you ever happen to be around Prague in the mood for some birding, hit me with a message and we can go together!