Birding on a Budget

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Like all most hobbies, birding is expensive. This hobby has specialized optics, electronics, books, clothing, plus for those interested in backyard birding/bird feeding there are pole systems, feeders, specialty food, bird baths, bird houses, and more. Oh, and let's not forget the trips and workshops around the world to see and photograph birds, and all the interesting online birding courses. As a new birder coming into the hobby, learning about all of this "stuff" can be quite overwhelming, and wondering how you're going to pay for it - particularly during these uncertain times - can be downright disheartening. In all honesty, you don't really need anything to birdwatch. But of course, there are some things you can purchase that can make it a more enjoyable experience. Here's a list of some of the "must-have" birding supplies, and the best ways to get them on a budget. 

Small flock of Purple Finches

Field Guides: When getting into this exciting hobby, learning the species in your area is a great place to start. The best way to do this is to research using field guides that are local to you. Having an encyclopedia of the world's birds is nice to have, but not very useful when you're trying to look up a species that may only live in certain parts of North America. Often you can find field guides at thrift stores and used book shops for under $5 each, a fraction of the cover price of most field guides. Some other useful tools that don't require a physical book - or money for that matter - are smartphone apps. There are plenty of free or inexpensive apps out there that can help you identify birds local to you, and globally. Some of these apps include Merlin Bird ID, Peterson's Birds of North America, iNaturalist, and Song Sleuth which actually allows you to record birdsong and upload to the app which generates possible matches. 

Binoculars: Binoculars are one of the most important pieces of equipment you will buy as a birdwatcher. If you were going to invest in one thing to buy new, I'd say this should be it. Most companies guarantee their products for several years, and provide excellent customer service to help with any issues you may experience with their products. A good pair of binoculars is likely to last you ten or more years, so they are worth the investment. When purchasing new binoculars, be sure to check out local shops (Wild Birds Unlimited carries a great selection of optics) for deals and the best service possible. Often smaller shops are more knowledgeable when it comes to the products they carry, and are happy to help you find a set of binoculars that work for you and your budget. If buying new is not an option, check out online classifieds for people selling used pairs, and just be sure to test before purchasing. Also ask your friends and family members if they have any kicking around that they're not using. Binoculars are one of those things that a lot of people seem to wind up with for no apparent reason, and they end up sitting on a shelf somewhere. You may just score yourself a pair for free! 

Indigo Bunting photographed with a DSLR camera at 600mm focal length

Camera: I'm a photographer at heart, so this is where I might ramble. Most birders carry a camera along with them to document their sightings. It's definitely not a requirement, but it is nice to have photos of the birds you've seen for memory's sake, and also for identification purposes. The type of camera you choose will depend on what you plan to use it for. A regular point-and-shoot style camera is great for slipping into your pocket or a small carrying case, and most modern point-and-shoot cameras have fantastic digital zoom range that allows you to see and photograph birds up close without being weighted down by a heavy lens and camera. These types of cameras are great for most birders looking to share their sightings on social media, in community science projects, or just to keep for themselves. If you're looking to get into bird photography a bit more seriously, then a DSLR with a long-range zoom lens (at least 300mm) is the way to go. No matter the type of camera you choose, there can be a hefty price tag attached. Thankfully there are many avenues for purchasing camera gear including refurbished or gently used from photography specialty stores, pawn shops, online classifieds like Kijiji or Marketplace, or (if you feel like investing) purchasing new from a shop is always an option. Personally, I have purchased camera equipment both new and used. The number one benefit to buying new is that there's typically some sort of warranty from the store, and also from the manufacturer of the gear. You also know that camera has not been used by another person. Buying used can be a little nerve-wracking in this sense, because you never really know how a person has treated the equipment before selling it to you. Use your best judgement in this case. Try the camera out before purchasing, ask lots of questions, and if anything seems off, just wait for the next one to pop up in your notifications. 

Backyard birding supplies: Not everyone who is a birder feeds wild birds, and not everyone who feeds wild birds is a birder. But they do typically go hand-in-hand. Backyard birding is a great way to bring the birds to you, and get up close and personal with the birds that live right in your backyard. Backyard bird feeding is almost a hobby within a hobby, and as such, comes with its own set of equipment and accessories. The best place to start is with a foundational feeder, such as a FeatherWeight Seed and Suet Feeder, which is a hopper style feeder that holds a decent amount of seed along with two suet cakes. The WBU FeatherWeight line was designed for birders on a budget, without compromising durability and functionality. There are thousands of bird feeder options out there, and lots of DIY designs online, but please remember that above all, feeders should be easy to clean. When birds congregate at feeders it can be a breeding ground for bacteria and disease, which can be fatal. Homemade feeders are typically made of wood with lots of cracks and crevices that hold bacteria and mold, and ultimately aren't safe. Keeping feeders and bird baths clean is of the utmost importance to keep the birds safe and healthy. As far as foods go, the most budget friendly food that will still attract a wide variety of birds is black oil sunflower seed. Black oil sunflower is loved by nearly every species of feeder birds including nuthatches, chickadees, grosbeaks, woodpeckers, and more. If you're not able to keep up with cleaning feeders or purchasing seed once every month or so, try just simply offering a bird bath in your yard. Water is essential to all birds, and is a great way to attract a wide variety of species to your yard including those who do not eat at bird feeders. Some people even find owls and other birds of prey taking a dip in their bird baths! 

Red-bellied Woodpecker on Featherweight Suet Feeder

If none of this is attainable to you at this time, reach out to other birders via online forums, Facebook groups, etc. This community is a warm and welcoming one, and are happy to help spread the joy of nature and birding in any way possible. Always remember that anyone can bird at any time, from anywhere, without any sort of special equipment - and that is the beauty of birding. 

Happy trails!
- Shayna

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