How to improve your bird spotting skills

Bird flying above the garden at Mount Stewart House, Garden and Temple of the Winds, County Down

If you’re developing an interest in birdwatching our ranger Gwen Potter has some expert advice to help you improve your spotting skills.

From useful resources to top tips to use out in the field, you’ll soon be on your way to becoming a bona fide birder.

Practice makes perfect

If you’re confused between two species the best thing to do is to read about them and then seek each species out in its natural habitat. Once you've got a good description of the bird, and the more you experience a bird’s behaviour the better you’ll be at spotting it in the future. The British Trust for Ornithology website has advice on commonly confused species.
Understanding the structure of birds’ bodies and the terms used, particularly for different groups of feathers, is useful knowledge to have to hand in the field, especially when referring to identification guides.
A book such as The Unfeathered Bird by Katrina van Grouw or Kate St. John’s Outside My Window blog are good places to start.

Listen out

Another way to identify different species is through their songs and, surprisingly, they are relatively easy to learn.
You’ll already recognise blackbird, blue tit, chiffchaff and robin calls without even realising it. The RSPB eGuide to British Birds app is a really helpful tool for checking birdsong you hear when you’re out spotting.

Bird-friendly gardens

A garden full of native shrubs, flowers and grasses and free of excessive fertilizer and pesticide will be much more inviting for birds and may tempt in some unusual ones. Don’t forget bird-friendly native plants such as rowan, wild cherry and elder – birds will love their berries and the insects they attract.
It’s not a good idea to feed wild birds bread in your garden – it’s not good for them and you’ll be more likely to attract crows instead.
If you do feed birds peanuts, crush them up first as young birds can choke on full-sized nuts. Overall the best approach is to feed birds foods that would naturally be growing at that time of year – seeds in the summer, nuts in the autumn.

Hot spots

Great places for bird spotting which we look after include:
  • The Malham Tarn Estate in Yorkshire
  • Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire
  • Brownsea Island in Dorset
  • Strangford Lough in County Down
  • The Leas in Sunderland
  • The Llyn Peninsula in Gwynedd
" Feed birds foods that would naturally be growing at that time of year – seeds in the summer, nuts in the autumn. "
- Gwen Potter, ranger