Four Tips for First-Time Birders

Photographs by Gretchen Moran Towers

Cape Cod has everything for an outdoorsy vacation—pristine beaches, abundant fishing and boating, and miles of trails for hiking and cycling. The Cape is also home to hundreds of different species of birds, making it a destination for birders from across the globe. For experts and beginners alike, birding is a wonderful way to get outside, enjoy the beautiful Cape Cod landscape, and make some new friends, feathered or otherwise. Interested in birding but don’t know where to start? Just follow these tips from Cape Cod’s very own Bird Nerd, Gretchen Moran Towers.

1. Start with the Familiar

Cape Cod is home to hundreds of species of birds. But for beginners who cannot tell a tern from a merganser from a blackbird, embarking on a birding excursion can prove formidable. But as Gretchen points out, “birds can catch anyone’s eye, or at least their ear. Everyone has had an experience with birds or has a bird story.”

Years of study or experience are not necessary for a fun birding excursion. “The best way to start is to go with what is familiar,” Gretchen suggests. “Look for birds that you see all of the time—in your yard, around your house, while you’re driving.” Try spotting a robin, a blue-jay, or a chickadee—easily-recognizable birds provide easy birding practice and give beginners the confidence to continue exploring.

2. Always be prepared

Birds are everywhere, especially on Cape Cod. “There are so many conservation areas on the Cape,” Gretchen explains. “The Cape sticks out into the ocean, so it’s an excellent stopping-off resting point for migratory birds, and you can’t beat that the whole east coast is protected by the National Seashore. Habitat loss is the number-one threat to birds, but this makes the Cape a relatively safe haven, and it also makes the sightseeing spectacular.”

Gretchen advises aspiring birders to stay prepared, but the material requirements for birding are minimal—just pick up a sturdy pair of binoculars and a decent guidebook. “You don’t need super high-powered binoculars,” Gretchen says. “Just get comfortable with the low-powered ones. With practice, you can train your eyes to work with them.” Gretchen also recommends a pocket-sized guidebook or a phone app to help with identification. “Most of us who are that obsessed keep binoculars and guidebooks in the car,” she says. “You have to be careful when you’re driving behind a bird nerd.”

3. Use your ears

Often, the first indication that a bird is nearby is its song. “Usually, you hear the bird and then you have to observe where you are and see what the bird looks like,” Gretchen explains. “You have to put together what you’re seeing and hearing—there are lots of different puzzle pieces.” Although she says that “those with a musical mind or memory” may have an easier time at first, even the tone-deaf birders can get the hang of it. She suggests using pneumonic devices as an easy way to identify birdcalls. “One of my favorites is the American goldfinch,” she explains. “Its call sounds like ‘po-TA-to chip, po-TA-to chip.’ Once you hear it, you never forget it.”

For Gretchen, the incredible sounds that birds make are one of the most fascinating parts of birding. “Birds can make songs and sounds that we can never make,” she says. “Their anatomy allows them to make beautiful sounds, and there is so much we’re still learning about bird calls. “There are so many varieties—like different dialects—and we haven’t translated it fully.”

4. Stay curious

For Gretchen, birding is all about spending time outdoors. “We all need to get outside more,” she says. “It bothers me when people are afraid to go into the woods. I want to get people outside, and birds are the lure.” And once someone starts birding, Gretchen says that it can be hard to stop. “There’s a bit of a contagiousness to it. You always want to learn more—you meet wonderful people who care and you learn so much from each other.”

Ultimately, the only real prerequisite for a fun birding adventure is curiosity and a love for learning. Gretchen herself nurtured an innate curiosity about birds and nature into a life-long passion and is now a veteran birder with decades of experience. She regularly offers birdwatching classes at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History and at senior centers and day camps throughout the Cape. Gretchen, however, prefers the moniker “Bird Nerd” to any other. “I don’t consider myself an expert,” she says. “I dabbled in it for many years before I decided that I really wanted to commit to this. I’m just fascinated by birds, and I’m lucky that I get to share that with others.”

All photographs by Gretchen Moran Towers. For more information, visit Gretchen’s blog. Learn more about Birdwatching for Beginners, Tuesday Tweets, and Gretchen's other programs at The Cape Cod Museum of Natural History here.