Did you know Australia is home to more than 800 bird species, some of which are the oldest in the world? If you’re looking for a fun way to learn more about our beautiful country and immerse yourself in the landscape, birdwatching could be for you!
Since when is birdwatching cool?
Birds are a familiar sight (and sound) for most Australians. We share our cities with noisy flocks of rainbow lorikeets, fiercely guard picnics from pesky chip-eating seagulls and spend spring cycling in fear of swooping magpies.
Until a few years ago, I wouldn’t have been caught dead birdwatching. I associated the hobby with old folks, dank bird hides, long lenses and camo gear. Not to mention twitching: surely the world’s nerdiest version of Pokémon GO?
But that all changed when I grabbed a pair of binoculars and an old bird guide from my folks’ shed, and set out to record all the birds living at our family property. Along the way I learned what birding is actually all about, discovered a heap of cool species with great names like Crested Shrike-tit and Spangled Drongo, and found a new way to appreciate the Aussie bush.
I also learned that birdwatching is addictive. So, if like me, you soon find yourself wandering around the Boorowa cemetery on a quest for Superb Parrots, you’ve been warned.
Birdwatching is a Choose Your Own Adventure Hobby
Birdwatching – or birding, as it’s commonly called – is just that: the observation of birds. The hobby took flight in the late 1800s when people realised you can get as much enjoyment from watching birds as eating them, and has increased in popularity ever since.
Just like other hobbies, birding exists on a spectrum. Maybe you want to watch the birds in your backyard? Maybe you want to identify the birds you come across on your next overnight hike? Or maybe you want to become a fully-fledged bird-nerd, start a ‘lifer list’ and travel Australia to tick every species?
It’s totally up to you, and however you choose to do your birding, the principles are the same: spot the bird, get a better look with your binos (that’s birder for binoculars), ID the bird, and record the species (or not – that’s cool too).
Fun fact: Stealing a cheeky peek at your local bin chicken does not make you a twitcher. The term ‘twitcher’ is reserved for hardcore birders who travel to see rare birds.
Getting Started is Easy – All you Need are Binoculars and a Bird Guide
Wherever you perch on the birding spectrum, the gear is the same. You need a pair of binos and a bird guide. A notebook is also handy if you want to record your sightings.
When looking for binos, the main thing to check is the numbers that accompany the model (e.g. Bino Binoculus 8 x 42). The first number is the magnification and the second number is the lens diameter. For example, a pair of 8 x 42 binoculars have 8 times magnification and 42mm lenses. The stronger the magnification, the greater the distance you’ll be able to spot birds from, and the larger the lens, the more light that will come in, making birdwatching easier in dim light.
You don’t need to spend a fortune to get a decent entry-level pair of binoculars – a midsize pair is fine. For your first pair, I’d recommend either 8 or 10 times magnification, and a lens size between 30 and 42mm. This REI article has lots more info if you’re interested.
Tip: if you’re not yet ready to commit to birding but you have a good camera with a telephoto lens, that’ll work fine too. You’ll generally also be able to see larger, more common birds (like different parrots) without binos.
In terms of bird guides, there are five main Australian guides. Personally, I love the Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds, because it’s the lightest and easiest to carry in my pack, but the others are equally popular. If going digital is more your thing, the Morcombe and Stewart Guide to Birds of Australia is available as an app.
Hot tip: If you’re having trouble identifying a bird with your guide or want to double-check your thinking, a quick Google can be super helpful. The Birds in Backyards Bird Finder is a great tool as it usually has bird call recordings as well as photos.
From Your Backyard to the Beach, Birds are Everywhere
If you’re totally new to birding, you probably want to go somewhere you won’t be waiting ages to find a bird. Your local botanical gardens or nature reserve is a great place to start. They’re likely to have a good range of species – some of which you’ll be familiar with – and the birds should be less shy, making them easier to spot.
You’ll also be amazed by the variety of birds that visit your garden. I have a Noisy Friarbird living across the road from me in Canberra and during last year’s lockdown I had a great time watching Red Wattlebirds, Eastern Spinebills and Spotted Pardalotes feed in the bottlebrush outside my bedroom window.
If you’re keen to go on a dedicated birding trip, have a look for national parks, state forests and other places (like sewage ponds) that are well-known for birding. Some of the best spots I’ve been to include Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park, Capertee National Park, Warrumbungle National Park, and Tjoritja / West MacDonnell National Park.
And if the idea of wandering around a park with binoculars or sitting in a bird hide doesn’t appeal, that’s ok too – you don’t have to go on a dedicated trip to enjoy birding. I do most of mine while I’m hiking or sitting at camp.
Hot tip: Spend a bit of time reading through your bird guide before you head out to get a sense of which birds you might come across. This will make narrowing down the precise species a whole lot easier!
The Late Birdwatcher Catches the Birds Too
You’re probably familiar with the expression ‘the early bird catches the worm.’ While there’s something special about being woken by birdsong in the bush, you can still enjoy birdwatching even if you’re not an early riser.
Generally speaking, birds are most active in the early morning and at dusk, but depending on where you go you’ll likely spot birds throughout the day. In fact, some of the best birding I’ve ever done has been mid-afternoon just after it’s rained. The only time you probably won’t have great success is when it’s super windy outside.
Hot tip: You’re most likely to see a bird when it’s out and about feeding. Try looking for flowering gums or other trees and small water sources.
Don’t Get in a Flap – Teach Yourself Along the Way
Did you know the tip turkey has two cousins? That’s right – there are three species of ibis native to Australia. Or that male Superb Fairy-wrens change into their blue breeding plumage in spring?
One of the best things about birding – and why it’s so great to do alongside other adventures – is that it forces you to slow down and immerse yourself in the bush in a whole new way. You’ll be amazed by the fun facts you pick up along the way that’ll help with your birding, so don’t let taxonomies and scientific lingo put you off.
As you learn to recognise species, you’ll become more familiar with things like their shape or movement patterns, making them easier to identify with a quick glance. For example, I’ve learnt to spot an Eastern Yellow Robin by the way it perches sideways on a tree trunk, and a Crested Shrike-tit by the noise it makes as it cracks open loose bark while looking for insects.
You’ll also become more familiar with different calls (which can be surprisingly tricky to discern), and where you can expect to find a particular bird species. For example, I’ve learnt that White-Browed Scrubwrens (the Australian Angry Bird equivalent) like to hide in gullies and under shrubs, whereas you’re more likely to see a honeyeater flitting around in the upper branches looking for insects or flowers.
Hot tip: Instagram is a great place to practice your bird species memory recall. #australianbirds, #birdsofaustralia, and #aussiebirds will bring up loads of beautiful, high-quality photos that can help you tell your emus from your Emu-wrens and your Wood swallows from your Welcome swallows.
Ready to fly the nest?
If you need a bit of help getting started, Birdlife Australia’s next Aussie Backyard Bird Count is happening from 18-24 October 2021 and is a great way to learn a bit more about birding, while participating in some citizen science. The app even has a built-in bird finder in case you’re struggling.
Your bird guide will also have lots more info.
And if you need a bit of inspiration, The Guardian’s biannual Australian Bird of the Year is back for 2021, with a special focus on the birds we’ve been surrounded by in lockdown. Voting opens on 27 September, and is sure to ruffle a few feathers.