The most active times of the year for birding in the temperate zones are during spring and fall migration when the greatest variety of birds may be seen. These birds are travelling north or south to wintering or nesting locations.
Early morning is typically the best time of the day for birding since many birds are active searching for food, and thus are easier to find and observe. Success in locating the more interesting species typically requires detailed knowledge of their appearance, sounds, behavior, and most likely habitat, in addition to stealth and patience.
Birding can be one of the quieter and more relaxing outdoor activities. However, birders who are keen rarity-seekers will travel long distances to see a new species to add to the list of birds they have personally observed (life list, national list, state list, county list, year list, etc.).
Seawatching is a type of birdwatching where observers based at a coastal watchpoint (such as a headland) watch birds flying over the sea.
Many birders take part in censuses of bird populations and their migratory patterns which are sometimes specific to individual species, and sometimes count all the birds in a given area (as in a Christmas Bird Count). This citizen science can assist in identifying environmental threats to the well-being of birds or, conversely, in assessing the outcomes of environmental management initiatives intended to ensure the survival of at-risk species or encourage the breeding of species for aesthetic or ecological reasons. This more scientific side of the hobby is an aspect of ornithology, co-ordinated in the UK by the British Trust for Ornithology.
Increasing (seasonal) bird populations can be a good indicator of biodiversity or the quality of different habitats. Some species may be persecuted as vermin, often illegally (e.g. the Hen Harrier in Britain), under the (usually false) perception that predatory species increase in number at the expense of other species of birds, insects, or smaller mammals. In most cases, the reverse applies: the population of predatory species is controlled by the abundance of the prey species. Bird counts in defined geographic areas can therefore be useful from a scientific perspective.
"Twitching" is a British term used to mean "the pursuit of a previously-located rare bird." In North America it is more often called "chasing", though the British usage is starting to catch on in North America, especially among younger birders. The British term is said to come from the frenzy that descends on some when they receive news of a rare bird. The term may derive from one of its first proponents, who used to arrive on his motorbike in freezing weather in the early 1960s, still "twitching" from the cold. The end goal of twitching is often to accumulate species on one's lists. Some birders engage in competition with one another to accumulate the biggest species lists. The act of the pursuit itself is referred to as a "twitch" or a "chase". A rare bird that stays put long enough for people to see it is called "twitchable" or "chaseable".
Twitching is probably most highly developed in the United Kingdom, The Netherlands and Ireland because their small sizes make it possible to travel within their borders quickly with relative ease. The most popular twitches in the UK have drawn crowds of up to 5,000 people at any one time (Golden-Winged Warbler in Kent). Twitching is also highly popular in Finland and Sweden. In the United Kingdom there exists a particular twitchers' vocabulary which is surprisingly well-developed and potentially confusing for the uninitiated. In the UK for example, "dipping" is the act of missing the rare bird you tried to see, "gripped off" is how you feel if other twitchers see the bird but you didn't, "supression" is the act of concealing news of a rare bird from twitchers, and a "dude" is someone who doesn't know much about rare birds. Similar vocabularies have developed in all countries where twitching is popular. Twitchers often have mobile phones and (especially in Europe) pagers to keep constantly informed of rare bird sightings and weather. The latter is important, since the right winds can lead to drift migration from the east or "Yankees" caught up in the tail end of hurricanes from the west.
A North American one-day birding competition is called a "Big Day"; in Britain it is called a "Bird Race". Teams trying to win such competitions usually have twenty-four hours in a designated geographical area to do so. They commonly drive hundreds of kilometers. Some record-chasers have employed private jets and helicopters in the enterprise.
The most popular birding competitions in the United States are the one-day World Series of Birding which is held in New Jersey in May and the five-day Great Texas Birding Classic held in April.
Equipment commonly used for birding includes binoculars and a telescope or spotting scope with tripod, a notepad, and one or more field guides.
Photography has always been a part of birding, but in the past the cost of good cameras and long lenses made this a minority, often semi-professional, interest. The advent of affordable digital cameras, which can be used in conjunction with binoculars or a telescope (a technique known as digiscoping), have made this a much more widespread aspect of the hobby.
Prominent national organizations concerned with birding include the B.T.O. and RSPB in the United Kingdom (over 1 million members), and the National Audubon Society and American Birding Association in the United States. Many statewide or local Audubon organizations are also quite active in the U.S. BirdLife International is an important global alliance of bird conservation organisations.
Socio-psychology of birdwatching
It has been suggested that birdwatching is a form of expression of the innate need for human connection to the environment. Ethologist Nikolaas Tinbergen considered birdwatching an expression of the male hunting instinct. Indeed, most birders (especially those below middle-age) are male; however, one of the top world listers was a woman, Phoebe Snetsinger. The idea of birding as a completely male-oriented activity is not accurate, though twitching in the UK is heavily male dominated.
Another intriguing connection has been that of the interest in birds by spies. There have been several cases of spies who were serious ornithologists such as Sidney Dillon Ripley, St. John Philby and Richard Meinertzhagen.
Birding vs. birdwatching
In the U.S., birders differentiate themselves from birdwatchers. At the most basic level, the (possibly elitist) distinction is one of dedication or intensity. Generally, self-described birders are more versed in minutiae such as molt, distribution, migration timing, and habitat usage. Whereas dedicated birders may travel widely, bird watchers have a more limited scope, perhaps to their own yards.
Famous for birding/ornithology
- Kenn Kaufman
Roger Tory Peterson
David Allen Sibley
John James Audubon
- Members of the band British Sea Power
Alan Brooke, 1st Viscount Alanbrooke
Sir Anthony Galsworthy, former UK Ambassador to China
Kenneth Clarke MP
Ian Fleming, who named his most famous character after the ornithologist James Bond
Princess Takamado of Japan
Harold Wilson, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
Sir Kenneth Dover, famous British classicist
Birders in fiction
- Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey–Maturin series
- eBird - A database for birding in North America & Central America
- Cusco Peru - The National Reserve Allpahuayo - Mishana: A Paradise in Peril
- GeoBirds - Online bird identification and tracking
- Birdwatching-Bliss.com - Birding info for happy birders.
- American Birding Association - The primary association for North American birders
- National Audubon Society
- Birding in India and South Asia
- BirdLife International - Alliance of conservation organizations
- Birding Optics Blog
- Worldtwitch - Rare bird news around the world
- The Nature Conservancy - Protecting habitat for birds and birders around the world
- The Cornell's University Lab of Ornithology
- Peru: The Best Route for Birdwatchers
- Bird Banding Laboratory - The North American Bird Banding Program
- ^ Dunne, Pete (2003). Pete Dunne on Bird Watching. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-90686-5.