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Gearing up for Spring Field Trips with Birding Apps, Optics, and Gear

Spring is not only a great time to see migrating birds, it’s also a good time to revisit your gear for birding. Do you have a good backpack and do you like your field guide? Is this the time to consider a new pair of binoculars or to get to know a birding app? We've put together this short article as a checklist to get you going.


Binoculars are the most important tool for bird watching. Like most people, you’ve certainly used them before. But if you don't own any, or if you've inherited an old set, you should consider a new pair as advances in lens technology have a quality pair more affordable than ever before.

The cost of binoculars varies tremendously, with some of the higher-end models selling for over $3000. If you’re just starting out, you should be able to get a good pair for $200-$500, depending on the size, weight, and clarity. Binoculars selling above $500 will have more subtle differences in optical quality. They tend to be better in low light and slightly sharper, which may be important to the serious birder. Most binoculars come in these popular configurations: 8x or 10x magnification with a 32mm or 42mm lens. Spark Birding can recommend a pair for you depending on your budget and intended use. Peter Alden suggestes a pair from Opticron base on quality at an affordable price.

Digital Bird Guides

Being light on your feed can make your nature outings more enjoyable. Many new to birding may be prefer field guides that are digital for their smart phones or other devices. Digital guides often leverage technology that go beyond the paper versions. For example, they can play bird songs to help with identification. Here's the scoop on some top digital guides:

  • Audubon Bird Guide: This one's packed with over 800 species, featuring photos instead of drawings. It's got a solid selection of bird calls and loads more info than the paperback version, including details on where the bird hangs out and nests. Plus, it hooks up with eBird to help you track down nearby bird sightings.

  • Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America: This gem covers 810 species with drawings, maps, and descriptions. Unlike the paper version, it's got over 2,000 recordings of bird songs and calls, a tool to compare species, and a nifty search function with filters by color, shape, and location.

  • iBird: This one's strictly digital and mobile, offering up 940 species with both pics and illustrations. It's got solid audio recordings and links to similar-sounding birds. Plus, it's loaded with info on each species and a killer search filter. You can snag it in different versions depending on your budget, including a free one.

Now, let's talk apps for Bird ID:

Merlin Bird ID: Highly recommended for newbies and intermediate birders, this app helps you ID birds by asking five simple questions. It then shows you photos and descriptions of likely birds, and it's pretty darn accurate. Plus, the Sound ID feature makes it easy to ID birds around you and learn their songs and calls.

Birding Quiz: This website was created by a hobbyist and serves up a visual quiz with random bird photos. You'll see a bird pic for a few seconds, then you'll get quizzed with multiple-choice answers. It's a fun way to test your bird knowledge! You can use it to reinforce what you've learned from a Spark Birding field trip or course!

eBird: This one's more than just an app—it's a massive database and a key tool for citizen science. You can log your bird sightings and share them with conservationists, plus it tells you what birds are common in your area.

Now, onto other gear:

Scopes: When binoculars don't cut it, a spotting scope can help you get a closer look at birds from afar. Look for one with zoom options and a sturdy tripod to keep it steady. The leader on a birding field trip will likely bring theirs to share.

Clothing: You don't need fancy gear to go birding—just wear comfy clothes in colors that blend in with nature. If you're heading into the bushes, consider insect-repellent gear and waterproof jackets.

Journal: Taking notes in the field is clutch for remembering what you've seen. Let a journal with a waterproof cover or use your phone to keep track of your sightings.

Cameras: For casual birders, a smartphone or a simple point-and-shoot camera will do the trick for documenting your sightings. Save the fancy bird photography gear for others unless you are a serious photographer.



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