Flight of fancy – Discover the joys of birdwatching

A whistling kite lands on a dead branch.

Don Caswell

I am constantly surprised at how indifferent and unaware of birds most people are. I think birds are marvellous little creatures. They have always fascinated me. A garden, no matter how beautiful, would be a sad place without birds. Most people are busy leading hectic lives and don’t have time to notice the birds sharing their world. And birds are everywhere, once you start observing them. The streets, train stations and high-rise buildings of cities all have their share of birds.

The natural environment hosts greater numbers and diversity of birds. Those folks who caravan or go camping have a wonderful opportunity, and no excuse, to start taking note of our wonderful birdlife. Birdwatching is something that can be done in conjunction with many other activities. I can be reading, fishing, kayaking or whatever, while maintaining an awareness for any fluttering wings or interesting chirps. Being crouched in a hide on a swamp all day is something you can leave to the truly dedicated birdwatchers.

What do you need for birdwatching? Three things ‑ an interest, a pair of binoculars and a bird identification guide. The best binoculars are 8x or 10x. Larger magnification binoculars are not an advantage for the average birdwatcher. Binos of 12x and bigger are bulky, heavy and difficult to hold steady. Your average, everyday binos are all you need to start off. One thing that is a great advantage in birdwatching binoculars is a close focus. Ideally, you want to be able to focus at 2m, or even closer. This is the first criteria I look for when shopping for binoculars. Next is the optical performance – sharpness and colour rendition. After that my interest is in the size, weight and ergonomics. Price is the ultimate criteria of course. Good binoculars for birding can be had from around $300 to in excess of $3000.

Why would you want to look at bird 2m away, in plain view, using binoculars? The image you attain close up through binoculars highlights the bird. All the other distracting aspects seen by the naked eye simply vanish when you concentrate on a bird through binoculars. You will be amazed at the fine feather details and subtle colouring that binoculars reveal. Try it and you will forever reach for your binoculars to view any bird, close or far. My binoculars are always at hand, when not slung around my neck.

Australia has more than 800 species of birds. Many are very similar to other species. Some change their colouration significantly as they mature, or go into breeding plumage. Males and females can be amazingly different, or identical. If you enjoy puzzles and crosswords, then you will find identifying some species a worthwhile challenge. That’s why it pays to have a well-used bird guidebook sitting beside your binoculars.

There are some great phone apps for identifying birds. However, for somebody just getting into birdwatching, I believe a book is much more useful until you develop a feel for the variation and different species. It is much easier to flick through a book looking to identify a bird you have just seen. Help is at hand via the excellent Facebook page called ‘Australian Bird Identification’. You can post photos of birds you are seeking to identify. I would advise trying to ID the bird first before seeking expert assistance.

Taking photos of birds is a great aid to identification. Birds rarely sit about for long and the few seconds glimpse you gain through your binos may not have let you determine the many subtle clues to what it may have been. However, with a photo you can study it for hours. Taking photos is challenging too. It can escalate into a passion, once you acquire a taste of the objective and rewards of bird photography. A lot of folks start by taking a few snaps with their iPhone of the magpie, or whatever, perched on the patio railing at home. For those who become bitten by the bug of bird photography, the question arises as to what is a good entry level camera and lens?

The cameras and lenses you see on wildlife documentaries have amazing magnification and astounding optical clarity. They are also bulky, surprisingly heavy and can often cost more than a brand new 4WD. That sort of gear represents the end of the bird photography journey, not the beginning. There is a lot to learn and appreciate before you could hope to make good use of such equipment. So, what is an appropriate camera for somebody just starting out to photograph birds and what should you budget for?

You will be able to start on bird photography for somewhere in the $500 to $1000 range. Some of the new digital cameras offer great built-in zoom lenses, while still being suitable for family snapshots and the like. Slightly more specific to bird photography would be a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) with a zoom telephoto lens. The major camera makers have entry-level camera systems with a couple of zoom lenses that will be enough to see a new chum started.

Slightly more advanced again would be a DSLR with a bigger zoom lens, say 100-400mm. Often there are good deals in the secondhand market with these sorts of cameras as their owners trade for more advanced systems. Up from that is a better quality DSLR body and a prime telephoto lens. A prime lens is of fixed power, that is, it is not a zoom lens. A suitable prime lens would be from 300mm and upwards. The price of such prime lenses escalates as the lens power increases. This is the territory for experienced amateurs and professional photographers.

DSLR cameras are popular with serious wildlife photographers. However, that is changing rapidly as electronic viewfinder cameras are overtaking the DSLR. During the next decade there should be some good secondhand deals for high-quality DSLR cameras as professionals and keen amateurs move onto the new generation of cameras.

Whatever camera and binoculars you may be carrying, the most important aspect of birdwatching and photography is the ethics of how you conduct yourself. The welfare of your subjects is the overriding consideration. When a bird reacts to your presence, you are too close. What may seem cute, like twittering and approaching you, is a stressed little creature bravely trying to chase away what it perceives as a great threat. That means being as unobtrusive as possible in the environment. Wear drab coloured clothing. Move slowly. Be quiet. Don’t disturb or rearrange anything. Most important is to keep right away from any nests or young birds.

There are now many websites, Facebook and Instagram pages devoted to birdwatching and photography. Some are suited to more advanced birdwatchers and photographers while others cater for beginners. The website bestbirdphotos.com.au has a lot of advice on bird photography, ethics, camera systems, binoculars and guidebooks as well as new photo postings most days.

So, on your next foray into the great Aussie environment, have your binoculars ready, your guidebook at hand and just be aware of the wonderful birdlife that surrounds us.

When camped, keep your binoculars, guide and camera handy.
Big expensive lenses are the endpoint, not the beginning for bird photography.
Binoculars of 8x and 10x are ideal for birdwatching.
There are a range of good bird identification guidebooks.
A laughing kookaburra with a small snake.
A fluffy female red-backed fairywren.
A colourful rainbow bee-eater.
A bar-shouldered dove.
A spectacular male red-backed fairywren on his way to feed some babies.

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