Bird Watching 101

Have you ever seen a brilliantly colored bird disappear into a thicket of brush and wondered what it was?
Steller's Jay
A Steller’s jay. Photo by © Wayne D. Lewis.

Have you ever seen a brilliantly colored bird disappear into a thicket of brush and wondered what it was? Maybe while walking along one of Colorado’s many rivers you saw a small, robin-sized bird dipping and diving about in the rocks and were amazed at how the bird managed to cling to the rocks as water tumbled over it. Or perhaps while you were washing dishes at your kitchen sink you happened to see all the birds at your feeder scatter as the shadow of a mysterious hawk flashed across your yard. Whatever the case may be, bird watching and bird identification is an ever-growing hobby, almost an obsession, for many folks throughout the country. Here in Colorado, we have countless opportunities to view many species of birds in a variety of habitat.

Getting Started

Getting into bird watching is fairly simple. Here’s what you need to get started:

Getting started in bird watching requires very little equipment. Photo by © Brian Marsh.
Getting started in bird watching requires very little equipment. Photo by © Brian Marsh.


One of the most important and essential pieces of equipment is a good set of binoculars. There are many different brands on the market with different magnifications and just as many opinions on which pair is the best. I personally like binoculars with a magnification of 8×42. With this magnification, you can hold the binoculars steady while keeping them zoomed-in to the highest power. Binoculars can be expensive, but this is one area where spending a little more money will go a long way toward a quality pair of optics. You should be able to purchase a good pair for around $300.

Field Guide

Another very important piece of equipment is a good field guide. There are many different guides available. Many have photographs, while others have realistic illustrations showing the different color phases of birds and key identifying marks. My best advice is to look through several guides and see which one you like best. Or, if you’re like me, you may end up buying several of them. A good field guide will also have detailed range maps of where you can find specific species. Some also provide descriptions of bird sounds. One other consideration for a field guide is size. Many field guides will fit in your back pocket, however, some will not. Get one that you can easily carry in the field and use for quick reference.

Colorado Birding Trail  Guides

TIP: Colorado Birding Trail  Guides
The Colorado Birding Trail Northeast, Northwest, Southwest, and Southeast Trail Guides are available on a limited basis at many birding trail sites with a visitor center, as well as Colorado State Parks and Colorado Parks and Wildlife Offices. Please keep in mind regional trails were completed at different times and could be out-of-print. However, downloaded guides are mobile-friendly, so we encourage you to download each trail to help you explore all regions of Colorado!

Keeping Notes

A roadrunner in southeast Colorado. Photo by Brian Marsh/CPW.
A roadrunner in southeast Colorado. Photo by Brian Marsh/CPW.

One last item I would recommend is a small notebook to take with you in the field. You can use the notebook to keep a list of the species you see, log when and where you saw them, and make notes and drawings of birds you couldn’t quite identify. You can make it as simple or as complex as you’d like. One thing many birders do is keep a life-list of all the birds they’ve seen. Some of the field guides have a checklist in the back, which works well for keeping your life-list and field notes.

Optional Equipment

If you’re like me and become addicted to bird watching, there are several other pieces of equipment you may want to add that can help enhance your identification skills and make you a better birder. Some of these items include: a spotting scope with a sturdy tripod for viewing birds at a long distance, an electronic bird-call identifier for those pesky birds that stay hidden, yet chirp loudly and, lastly, how-to books on bird watching. There are many good books available to help you improve your bird-watching skills.

Where to go?

Barr Lake State Park is one of the top bird watching locations in Colorado. Photo by © Jerry Neal/CPW.
Barr Lake State Park is one of the top bird watching destinations in Colorado. Photo by © Jerry Neal/CPW.

There are countless areas across Colorado that offer great bird watching. Start in your backyard or take a stroll through your neighborhood. You could also plan a trip to a state park like Barr Lake, where more than 400 different species of birds have been observed. Many of our state parks also offer birding programs. In addition, there are numerous birding trails throughout Colorado, covering diverse habitats from shortgrass prairie to alpine tundra. You can also contact the local Audubon Society or nature center to schedule a guided birding tour with experienced birders. A great way to learn how to identify birds is by sharing the field with an experienced bird watcher.

So, if you’re looking for a fun way to enjoy the outdoors and see some amazing critters, give bird watching a try!

Story written by Brian Marsh. Marsh is a district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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