Birding can be a sport for the stingy. A pair of name-brand binoculars might cost you $140—which isn't nothing, but it's less than, say, the cost of a pair of good skis, plus boots, plus poles. Still, the expenses can add up, especially if you want to chase birds beyond your local parks. So, in the spirit of conscious, thrifty birding, we asked the pros to share their best hacks for finding deals and freebies around the market. Some are obvious, some are odd—but they all come with innocuous price tags.
Gear and Accessories
If you’re just starting out as a birder, you will need to pick up a few essentials. Number one is a solid pair of binoculars. For the cheapest options, scout out thrift stores, antique shops, or eBay: You might be able to find a pair of decades-old Binoculux for as low as $10. Older models usually have a magnification of 7x35 (meaning the objects look seven times bigger and the diameter of the larger lenses is 35 millimeters). That's close to the 8x42 specs that most birders use. Do not, however, be tempted to buy opera glasses: They might look fancy and operable (high five), but they have a low magnification and a wide field of view—not ideal for locating birds.
While vintage binoculars are okay for your starter kit, you will eventually want to move on to something more high-tech. If there’s one gadget you can afford to shell out on, make it your binoculars. Many top brands, like Nikon and Celestron, have models that ring in under $200 (we reviewed the best ones here).
Scopes are tempting, but they're not essential. The very best scopes have extra-low dispersion glass, and start at about $500. They’re good for birding over long distances—to spy on waterfowl, shorebirds, hawks, and pelagic species—but even then, they’re not a cure-all. You will still have to parse through tiny, back-lit birds by picking out their subtler ID features. So instead of investing in a scope, stick to group birding. If you go on a trip or a walk in the park, chances are someone else will be lugging around a scope. It's fine to ask for a glimpse through their glass—just don't hog the view.
You may also see birders packing high-end camera gear. To satify your inner shutterbug without spending like crazy, get a smartphone adapter and tripod to attach to your binoculars. Your pics will pass muster on Instagram at least.
As for other gear, it’s all optional. There’s birder-specific apparel out there, but you can also just wear your everyday muted duds (no white!). For small accessories like binocular harnesses and lens cleaning cloths (never use a T-shirt or tissue, as they might scratch up the glass)—ask companies to throw them in for free with your optics. Journals are a real asset in the field—you can get an all-weather one for under $10.
Oh, and enter contests whenever you can. Some, like the Wings of Peru travel sweepstakes, require nothing more than the luck of the draw. Others require a little more skill: eBird hosts a monthly birding challenge with prizes from Zeiss optics, and the Ohio Young Birders Club gives its members a chance to win swag with regular ID quizzes.
You might not think of books as a big-money item. But if you’re a bibliophile like I am, buying one just isn’t going to cut it. Field guides especially can become a recurring expense, given that there are loads of options, editions, and regional versions. Before you commit to purchasing a field guide, narrow the selection: Borrow several different series from your library, and see which one works best for you (here's our advice on how to do that). You should only have to buy a new version every few years.
If you’re looking for inspiration from a champion thrifter, go out and buy Kenn Kaufman’s Kingbird Highway, in which he details traveling cross-country for a Big Year on a very tight budget. You can also read free excerpts of well-reviewed birding tomes on Google books: titles like Sibley’s Birding Basics, Fifty Places to Go Birding Before You Die, and Best-Ever Backyard Birding Tips.
Going digital is good for the planet and for your wallet. Smartphone ID apps such as the Audubon Bird Guide, Cornell’s Merlin, and Peterson’s Backyard Birds can all be downloaded at zero cost. Plus, Cornell and Audubon have extensive online North American guides that you can explore. (Cornell has a smaller guide for the neotropics as well.)
Want to learn more about the natural history of each species? Try a yearlong Birds of North America subscription for $42. Cornell also offers a revolving syllabus of online birding tutorials, usually for $50 or less. If you prefer quick, stripped-down videos, BirdWatcher’s Digest has a semi-regular Youtube series titled “Birding Basics & Beyond.”
Places to Go
Travel is probably the top splurge for many birders: weeklong tropical getaways, festivals in remote landscapes, overnight pelagic cruises. But you don’t have to blow your budget by visiting far-flung birding destinations. There are stellar options close to home—as close as your own backyard even. Jazz up your property with native plants, feeders, and other features to bring the birds to you. If DIY isn’t your thing, defer to the experts. Audubon chapters and centers across the country offer free bird walks, seminars, family-friendly events, and workshops. Some will even loan out binoculars and scopes to participants. Birding trails can make for a fun day trip, too: Check out Audubon's seasonal guides and the American Birding Association's detailed listing for ideas.
If you live in a city and don't have a car, use public transit to explore urban green spaces, which are popular stopover points for birds during spring and fall migration. (If you’re chasing birds in New York City, NYC Audubon has a handy subway map.) When birding on the water, see if you can catch a low-cost or free ferry. You won’t get far enough offshore for snazzier seafarers, like skuas, but eiders, terns, and storm-petrels might turn up.
National wildlife refuges, which are often the best places to find high concentrations of birds, are local and accessible. Only about 20 percent have entrance fees—and you can avoid those, too, by buying a federal Duck Stamp for $25. National Parks are more of a trek, but visiting on free-entrance days will save you about $20. If you’re looking to spend the night, they’re a real bargain: Campsites cost about $15 per day. Plus, they put you right there with the birds (enjoy that beautiful dawn chorus). Park and refuge rangers also lead complimentary birding trips, like the three-hour van tour at Padre Island National Seashore. Just be sure to book in advance.
Finally, when looking to go the distance, travel with friends. Gas and tolls will be less painful if you split them with a carload of folks. And if you plan to really get away, some lodges and travel agencies offer discounts for parties of six or more.
Talk is cheap; don’t forget to tap the intellect of other birders. Grill them when you have downtime during a trip, or buy them a beer afterward. For daily chatter, join a local birding email listserv or Facebook group. Post your questions (in accordance with the page or chain’s guidelines), or lurk and learn from other discussions. Being a quiet observer can have its perks, especially when it comes to birds.