Introduction to Birds & Birding

Birdwatching, or Birding, is a hobby enjoyed by millions of people across the globe. From individuals who might spent time watching feeders outside the home, to those who are out scouring the landscape for the opportunity to observe a truly rare species, there is much entertainment to be enjoyed. I was only a child when my interest in birds first began, likely due to the winter species of Northern Minnesota that stopped in at our feeders where I could view them from the warmth of our dining room. Every birder has started the hobby off at some point, and how far a specific individual wishes to take it is up to him or her. Regardless of your level of knowledge there exists a vast wealth of resources in print, and on the web nowadays, for birders. Hopefully this page will provide information to individuals of all experience levels, and provide a framework for advancing that experience if it is desired. 

Field Guides

Probably the first question that every birder asked in the beginning was, "What kind of bird is that?" upon seeing something for the first time. In the early stages of interest, one might notice that certain birds be different colors, or have different body shapes, and noticing these might make one more interested to learn about birds. In Virginia Beach specifically, there are a lot species of birds, upwards of 300 in some years. Of these species, often times the males and females can look quite different from one another, and to make things often more difficult, the different age classes of a bird will look different as well. This makes for a seemingly never-ending study to know what species we are actually seeing. But, this is what makes birding so exciting, there is always the chance at seeing something new on any given day, and this is most exciting in the beginner stage, when essentially everything is being seen for the first time. If you don't have a family member of close friend who is already knowledgeable to ask, the best way to learn about the birds around you is to consult Field Guides. Field Guides come in all sizes and formats, but essentially they exist for the same purpose: to assist birders in identifying the species of bird being observed and provide some additional information on each species, like how common it is, what types of habitat it prefers, and if it occurs year-round or seasonally. Some field guides make use of photographs, while others use drawings and sketches. Once an individual becomes interested in birds, getting access to a field guide is the next crucial step. With that in mind, here is a listing of my personal recommendations on introductory field guides:

The Sibley Guide to Birds, 2nd Edition

National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America

The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America

National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th Edition

These guides cover all species found in North America north of Mexico. As such, each covers every single species that has been observed in Virginia Beach. While many of the species have never been seen locally, it will get the reader excited about the possibility of seeing some of the species while on vacations out of the area. When a birder feels they are ready for more advanced guides, each of these books might be of interest. Each focuses more on a specific set of bird species, and is therefore a bit more in depth:

Peterson Reference Guide to Seawatching: Eastern Waterbirds in Flight

The Shorebird Guide

Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America: A Photographic Guide

A Photographic Guide to North American Raptors

The Warbler Guide

Rare Birds of North America


After getting acquainted with how to use a Field Guide, beginning birders will soon be able to identify the more common species that they are likely to be seeing. As your skills progress in identification, it is probably time to start using optical aids, namely binoculars or cameras to help better observe birds that might not be as tame as the typical feeder species. I sort of went the wrong direction at this point in my birding career, going the route of buying a camera first. Most seasoned birders will suggest that binoculars should be the most important tool early on, as they teach you to spend time observing the habits and features of birds while it is in view. with cameras, one tends to focus more on getting the photograph, and studying it later at home. This is a great means to help in identification, but it suffers in that one will spend less time observing the bird's behavior which is often the best clue to its identity, more so in the tougher to identify birds. For these reasons, I recommend for all early-stage birders to purchase a pair of binoculars as soon as they can. These can cost anywhere from a couple hundred dollars to over a thousand dollars. But a decent pair for starting out won't break the bank. More information and reviews can be found on these sites, here they may also be purchased:

Swarovski Optik

Carl Zeiss Optic




Once a beginning birder has become comfortable with field guides, and with optical aids to assist in identifying birds, it is probably time to become aware of all the organizations around them filled with like-minded individuals. Organizations of all scale exist, with local level organizations like the Virginia Beach chapter of the National Audubon Society, to statewide resources like the Virginia Society of Ornithology, and all the way up to those that oversee all birding & bird information in North America (American Birding Association & American Ornithologists' Union). Of course, it is prudent to start at the local level, and to expand upward as your interest and/or skill increases. Local birding clubs offer up a vast wealth of knowledge that will likely have the most impact on you. As one becomes comfortable with local birds, it makes sense to expand to the state-level, and national levels though. Here is a listing of organizations dedicated to birds & birding, and are worth looking into for further information. Most of these have great resources available on their websites as well:

Hampton Roads Wildlife Enthusiasts

Virginia Beach Audubon Society

Cape Henry Audubon Society

Williamsburg Bird Club

Hampton Roads Bird Club

The Center for Conservation Biology

Virginia Society of Ornithology

American Birding Association

American Ornithologists' Union