Some people seem to have a sixth sense for locating birds, but don't be fooled—there are no wizards in birding. All it takes is practice. Finding birds is mostly a matter of being aware and knowing where to look. Next time you go birding, try these four steps to hone your powers of observation.
Step 1: Stop
If you're in a car, park and get out. If you're with a group of people, finish chatting and stand still. Tuck away your phone, field guide, and anything else in your hands (except binoculars). Spotting birds requires attention, so take a moment to clear your mind, heighten your senses, and soak in your surroundings.
Step 2: Look
The trick is to scan with efficiency and purpose. Don’t just gaze around; try to think like a bird. Scrutinize exposed perches—snags, power lines, fence posts, tree tops—and investigate any interesting shapes or silhouettes. This is the best way to spot foragers sitting in wait, like bluebirds and kestrels, and singers out in the clear, like meadowlarks and towhees. Keep an eye on the sky for flyover hawks and eagles.
In fields, mudflats, lakes, beaches, and other open areas, scan slowly and intently across the full panorama. As you sift through the scene and the birds, try to identify the different groups. For example, you might find a sandpiper blending into a muddy spot, or a distant loon on the water. It’s a good idea to work up the optical scale: Look with unaided eyes before using binoculars, and try your binoculars before going for a spotting scope. Be alert for movement and for anything that seems out of place. If you see a bird and think you know what it is, don’t immediately pass it off—study it closer to be sure it isn’t something unusual.
Step 3: Listen
Your ears can help as much as your eyes, especially while birding in dense forests. Good birders spend up to 90 percent of their time just listening. The tap-tap-tapping of a woodpecker is unmistakable, and vocalizations—like the croaking of a raven—are as distinctive as visual field marks. It's hard to sift through the noise at first; the best way to learn is to spend more time in the field and chase down anything you don’t recognize. As you visually scan a landscape, always keep an ear cocked, too, and listen to the birds around you.
Step 4: Repeat
After you've thoroughly studied a scene, it’s time to move on. In general, you’ll see more birds by covering more territory, rather than letting the birds come to you. Walk at a meandering pace, and keep scanning the sky and listening to bird sounds while wandering along. When you see a bird, or when you arrive at a promising vantage point, stop, look, listen—again and again.