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Bird Watching Field Guide

field guides,

Apps & Lists

Apps are a good complement to field guides and play bird songs and calls.

Important “gear” includes field guides and apps on mobile devices. Field guides help identify birds by details about the individual species with pictures, descriptions, and behaviors. A good field guide can help you learn the bird basics and species in your area. Apps complement field guides, play bird sounds, and are easily accessible when birding.   


Field Guides

Field guides follow a standard layout. A typical page will have the right side showing illustrations or photographs of birds with important field marks; the left side has species name and description with details like size, behavior, range, and habitat. It’s important to spend some time reading the upfront pages to understand the author’s use of shorthand and jargon. This will help make the book more useful. Typical layout of a field guide, which usually includes:


  • Common name

  • Scientific name

  • Picture(s) of the bird species

  • Description with species information

  • Range map for where the species is found and by season


Some field guides are better suited to beginners. They show the field marks that are most obvious, whereas the advanced guides with include the subtle field marks, and may be superfluous. Experienced birders may prefer Sibley Guides, for example. Most beginners are best paired with one of these guides:


  • Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America

  • Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America

  • National Geographic Field Guide of North America (more general)


At home, keep your field guide in easy sight, on a coffee table or flat on a shelf. This will lure you to open to examining a few bird species or to get your next walk planned.


Digital Guides, Apps and more


Other essential gear items are digital field guides and apps for use on smartphones or other devices. Digital guides and apps have the advantage of being portable, and not an accessory if you bring your phone in the field. Most include features that leverage technology to go beyond the contents of the paper versions. For example, they can play bird songs to help with identification. The main disadvantage is the ability to see images and text clearly, particularly if bright light.



  • Audubon Bird Guide - Contains over 800 species, with photos versus illustrations. Has a good selection of audio recordings and more descriptive information than in book format including habitat, range, and nesting information. Has a “find birds” tool connected to eBird to find nearby reports of specific bird species.


  • Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America - Contains 810 species and with all of the drawings, maps, and descriptions. Unlike paper version, has more than 2,000 recordings of songs and calls, a compare species function, and a search tool with filters by color, shape, and location.


  • Merlin Bird ID – Highly recommended app for beginning and intermediate birders as an excellent tool for bird identification by asking 5 simple questions: Where were you? When did you see it? About how big was it (relative to other birds)? What were the main colors? And what was it doing? Then shows photos and descriptions of likely birds and is extremely accurate.


  • eBird – eBird is more than an app. It is a massive database and an essential tool for citizen science. The program collects sightings from birders around the world and shares them with conservationists. Users log their location and submit checklists directly from the field. It also provides the frequency of sightings in your area to indicate what you are likely to see in any area.  


  • Birdsnap – This app helps you identify a species from your photo. Upload the photo, frame the bird in the app, and Birdsnap will match it against its extensive database. The better your photo, the more likely to get a good match,


  • Song Sleuth – The Song Sleuth app provides the tools you need to determine which is the correct bird. If you hear a bird song, the app records the sound and provides the most likely matches with the bird name and sample song. Save and share your recordings, and learn about each bird with the built-in David Sibley Bird Reference.


It may seem odd to think of a bird list as part of the “gear” you need. The practice of “listing” is part of the fun and anyone who enjoys birdwatching typically has a “life list” of the birds they have seen over time. Beginning birders will want to start out with a tool to track the birds they see so the sightings are lost forever.


A bird life list includes not just the species, but the date, location, and any notes about the siting. Like a personal journal, it will conjure up memories of the moment. Keeping a list helps you learn species better, preserves the experience, and keep you hooked.


Computer or digital lists are easily found online from different programs. They can be downloaded or reside on your device. You will want to try them out for ease of entry. eBird is a common tool to store your bird list and has many advantages. It connects with Merlin for easy bird identification and is a great way to help with citizen science.


Having a traditional paper journal still has advantages. It’s easy to take with you in the field, doesn’t need to be connected, and can record sketches. Many birders still prefer a traditional journal and use a computer list as a supplement.

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