Birding Tools

Basic Tool Guide

You need only two basic tools to enjoy birding: binoculars and a good bird identification field guide.

How to choose binoculars

There are many options available when purchasing binoculars. There are a variety of brands, magnifications, and prices. 

Magnification. A common magnification for birding binoculars is 8x42. The first number describes the magnification, while the larger number describes the size of the objective lens, which is the lens at the end of the binoculars farthest from your eyes when holding the binoculars to your face. The size 42 objective lenses capture more light and work better in low-light situations. As far as focusing options, look for a right eyepiece that focuses to adjust for individual eye differences, plus central focusing to adjust for various distances.

Cost. Binoculars range in price from about $25 to many thousands, depending on brand and quality. As with most products, you don't want the cheapest kind you can find, because you'll get what you pay for. While birding, you use binoculars often. Cheap ones can easily cause eyestrain, and this annoyance can quickly zap all excitement. A relatively affordable pair of binoculars with a fault-free lifetime warranty will run you $200-$350. This is pricey, but binoculars are a great investment for a beginner birder.

Bird identification guide books and apps

A trusty field guide is a must. Like binoculars, there are many options. Some birders prefer field guides with photographs, while others like illustrations. Our online field guide is a good place to start identifying birds you see in Missouri.

If you don't want to invest in multiple books guides to try in the field, check out a few from your local library and see which works best for you. We recommend field guides that cover a wide geographic range, like the eastern United States, instead of bird guides with a handful of "most common" or "backyard" birds only. These rarely help you identify birds outside of your backyard and do not account for many migrant birds that pass through on their way north or south.

The three field guides listed below are illustrated in color, show range maps for all species, and contain a birder's checklist in the back. They are standards in the field and are available at most bookstores.

Birds of North America, by Robbins, Bruun and Zim. Illustrations by Arthur Singer. Published by Golden Press, New York. This covers all birds native to North America north of Mexico.

A Field Guide to the Birds, written and illustrated by Roger Tory Peterson. Published by Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston. The original eastern edition (revised numerous times) covers all birds east of the Rocky Mountains and north of Mexico.

Birds of North America, by the National Geographic Society. This guide also covers all birds of North America north of Mexico.

If you prefer to travel light and enjoy technology, you can download a bird identification application, or app, for your mobile device. Bird identification apps are a portable and handy reference in the field and a great educational tool. Apps are also updated with more regularity than is possible with books. Apps also include birds' songs and call notes, which a book cannot provide. 

A few bird identification apps are free downloads, like the Merlin Bird ID app by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Many high-quality apps cost a fee, so creators can be competitive with book guides. Most of these apps have a one-time fee of $10 or less.

Optional tools

Spotting scopes

Spotting scopes are popular with most advanced birders and are typically designed to magnify an object 20 to 60 times. Lenses can be purchased separately and are interchangeable. Zoom lenses are available. Spotting scopes are most practical for identifying birds across the wide-open areas of marshland, mud flats and lakes. Due to their narrow fields of view and the bulkiness necessary for their high-power magnification, they must be mounted on sturdy tripods to avoid shaky images.

Bird song recordings

Learning bird songs will quickly expand your ability to distinguish one species from another. It frequently is the only way to identify species that remain hidden. Song differences are also the best way to identify certain look-alike species, such as alder and willow flycatchers. You can download recordings of bird songs online, hear them in bird identification apps, purchase recordings on CD, or borrow them from your public library. Recordings should rarely be used to attract birds, because nesting birds can be threatened by invaders in their territories.

Where to go

Find conservation areas near you that are good for bird watching, and also check out the Great Missouri Birding Trail. The Birding Trail is a guide to the best places to bird in the state with an interactive map, site descriptions, and other birder tips and resources.

Related Content