Beginning Birding and Finding Community

January 2, 2024

A review by Julia Zarankin

Birding Basics: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Great Bird-Watching, by Noah Strycker

National Geographic, 2022

256 pages, paperback

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15304

I remember opening my new Sibley guide to the warbler page as a beginner birder and feeling demoralized. How would I ever get the hang of birding if these warblers that I was supposed to adore all looked the same? The problem, of course, didn’t lie with Sibley (whose field guide I still use and swear by), nor did it rest with the warblers themselves (for whom I did, as predicted, develop an irrepressible fondness). The problem was that as a beginner, I had no idea how to use a field guide and didn’t realize the pedagogical reasoning behind showing images of 40-ish warblers in first winter female plumage. Not only was the whole concept of a field guide—the taxonomic order, bird topography, references to plumage and molt—completely uncharted territory for me, but I didn’t even know how to look at a bird.

The book that would have made my foray into the world of birds so much smoother didn’t yet exist—but it does now! Noah Strycker’s inviting and accessible Birding Basics: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Great Bird-Watching not only demystifies the lingo surrounding the world of birding but also, and perhaps most importantly, teaches us how to be better community members. While the book is geared toward the novice, even the seasoned birder will find helpful tips and reminders to look even more closely.

Divided into seven chapters, the handsome photo-filled book will make any skeptic want to head out and see what birding is all about. But birds aren’t the only ones centered in this fine, photogenic volume: Strycker underscores the ways in which birding with others—as part of a group or a citizen science community—not only enhances our own skills, but also ultimately helps the birds. It’s not by accident that many of the photos in the book feature groups of birders in action; birding is also a social practice.

I found it refreshing to read a book that doesn’t just focus on the science of birds and how to ID them correctly (although Strycker gives ample expert advice and fantastic information in that arena), but also addresses the human side of birding. In particular, Strycker models how to be a more empathetic and respectful community member (own your mistakes!), introduces readers to the ABA Code of Birding Ethics (the welfare of birds comes first!), and reminds us to encourage beginners in the field (always!). The underlying message is clear: “Each of us should aspire to improve the world for birds and birders alike.” By making the birding community a more welcoming place, we’re not only helping each other, but we’re ensuring that more people join forces and advocate on behalf of birds and have a positive impact on conservation efforts.

The volume may be slim, but it is chockfull of information and includes a glossary as well as a pronunciation guide and even a quick discussion of sartorial best practices. Strycker touches on the science of birds, including evolution, taxonomic order, molt, migration, and bird behavior, and each chapter ends with his personal experience in the field. Surprising scientific tidbits abound in this book and could provide excellent cocktail party conversation fodder, since it’s likely that few people know that based on DNA, falcons bear a closer relationship to parrots than hawks (note the big eyes and rounded, hooked beaks). If anything, the scope of the book is dizzying and covers just about every facet of birding one could imagine. The book is meant to be read as an introduction, an amuse-bouche, where the hearty main course will be the application of Strycker’s advice in the field. I do wish there had been a recommended reading list at the end, but that is a very minor quibble.

The book strikes an excellent balance between introducing the reader to the tremendously useful technology (Merlin, eBird, and more) that has made birding so much more accessible to novices, while also encouraging us to supplement the apps with more tactile ways of engaging more personally with the avian world, including field guides and notebooks. “My own notebooks,” Stryker writes, “are stained and ripped, but they convey my birding stories to my future self.” To that end, Strycker also recommends drawing birds in the field, since it “gets you closer to the essence than snapping photos.”

One of the most powerful birding strategies Strycker imparts is just as valuable for the seasoned birder as it is for the beginner. “Look at every bird,” he reminds us, and then “look again.” In other words, even when you think you’ve seen every bird in a particular area, stop and pay even closer attention. “Birds swim out from behind rocks, fly into view, hop onto bushes. It’s what they do—and, as birders, we can reap the rewards of patience.” When you “look again,” you’ll find yourself slowing down and marveling just a little more at what you see.

In one of the discussions of birding identification challenges, Strycker mentions the dreaded LBJs (little brown jobs) that often stump beginner and seasoned birder alike. In perhaps the most moving part of the book, he suggests that close observation of these frustratingly difficult birds yields something akin to a masterclass in astonishment. “Sparrows aren’t a task for the dilettante. It requires apprenticeship of study in spots and speckles, streaks and stripes. Don’t worry if these birds seem daunting at first—so does the Sistine Chapel, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look and wonder.” To look and see the world of wonder—isn’t that exactly the point of birding?

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Julia Zarankin is a writer and lecturer to lifelong learners. She is the author of Field Notes from an Unintentional Birder, and her writing about birds and conservation has appeared in Audubon, Canadian Geographic, Sierra Club Magazine, and The Globe and Mail. Julia lives in Toronto, where she is trying desperately to get a better handle on shorebirds and is currently hard at work on a novel.