Birding for beginners: Spot birds in your backyard and beyond

May 8, 2020
birding in Colorado - A broad-tailed hummingbird feeds from a flower
Broad-tailed hummingbirds are the most common hummingbirds in the Colorado Rockies. Photo: Getty Images.

Need a new hobby that will bring serenity to your life or a dash of color to brighten each day?

Then, you might love birding.

From a backyard feeder to your neighborhood park, wetland, patch of prairie or mountain forest, you can spot beautiful birds to soothe your soul.

And the great thing about birding is it’s free and accessible to people of all ages.

“Bird watching doesn’t require binoculars or even a field guide. It’s as simple as enjoying what you see,” said Zach Hutchinson, a community naturalist and community science coordinator for Audubon Rockies.

If you wish to take it up a notch, you can bring a small pair of binoculars with you when you venture out for a walk and challenge yourself to spot one bird a day.

“What’s so great about birding is the diversity. You could live a lifetime and never see every bird that it’s possible to see just in your own state. Every migration brings in new birds,” Hutchinson said.

Birding for beginners - a mountain bluebird perches on a branch.
A mountain bluebird perches on a branch. Photo by Evan Barrientos, courtesy of Audubon Rockies.

If you want help on the go learning about birds, seeing photos and hearing their songs, download the free bird guide app from Audubon. (You’ll need to enter an email address.) You can also search Audubon Rockies’ “Coronavirus Care Package,” a collection of resources and ideas to help birders of all ages for all stages of their hobby.

Hutchinson says birding appeals to all different personality types.

Are you someone who simply enjoys hearing birds sing or seeing a quick flash of red, yellow or orange from a feathered creature? Then birding is for you.

If you’re competitive with yourself or others and want to track every bird you see, then birding is for you too.

Or, if you love serving your community, then you can create bird-friendly gardens and log sightings to help scientists track bird populations and migration patterns.

Thanks to help from Hutchinson and Audubon Rockies, we’ve got tips to help you get started.

Birding for beginners: Start with your backyard

You might think you have to be an early riser to love birding. Certainly, to hear birds singing in nature and to witness optimum ornithological activity, it helps to get up early.

But, if you create a bird-friendly backyard, you can see birds every day, all day.

How to get started:

  • Provide a small source of water and clean it regularly.
  • Get a simple platform bird feeder.
  • Fill the feeder with birdseed that will attract a variety of common birds. Hutchinson recommends black oil sunflower seeds.

“That will bring in birds that are common along the Front Range like blue jays, goldfinches, juncos and a variety of sparrows,” Hutchinson said.

birding for beginners. Robins gather in a bird bath.
Providing a clean source of water for birds is a great way to draw them to your yard. Here, American robins gather in a bird bath. Photo by Rosemary Gillan. Courtesy of Audubon Photography Awards.

And, here’s a pro tip from Hutchinson. If squirrels are stealing your birdseed, sprinkle a thin layer of cayenne pepper over the top of the seed.

“It doesn’t harm the squirrels, but it’s a deterrent,” Hutchinson said. “The birds are unaffected by the capsaicin (in the cayenne). Birds will still eat it whiles the squirrels feel the heat.”

To attract hummingbirds to your yard, Hutchinson said it’s best to skip feeders (and definitely don’t buy commercial hummingbird nectar since the red dye can harm hummingbirds).

Instead, plant flowers that attract hummingbirds. Not only do you bring hummingbirds to your yard, but you also provide the nectar they need.

Hutchinson suggested three flowers that will attract hummingbirds in Colorado. (Of course, there are many others.) But, you can plant great blue lobelia, narrow-leaf fireweed or scarlet skyrocket. All have tubular flowers that hummingbirds love. Audubon provides a native plant database. Just type in your ZIP code and you can access a database of native plants that will do well in your area while attracting birds.

Birding for beginners: rufous hummingbird feeding on a flower.
A rufous hummingbird feeding on cleome serrulata, also known as Rocky Mountain beeplant or skunkweed. Photo by Tom Koerner/US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Hutchinson said hummingbirds have already arrived in Colorado. Many people see hummingbirds with red on them and think they’re seeing the ruby throated hummingbird. But, Hutchinson said the most common hummingbird in the Rockies is the broad-tailed hummingbird. The male has a red throat and green on the sides and back. Another hummingbird that has already made its spring debut in Colorado is the black-chinned hummingbird. The males have a tough-to-see band of purple around the neck and a more obvious white collar below that.

Bringing birds to you is the easiest way to see them.

“If you turn a normal, green yard into a plant habitat, then you can enjoy birds all day, every day,” Hutchinson said.

Venture out to hear a ‘morning chorus’

Heading out to see birds is great too.

Just be respectful of Colorado’s “safe-at-home” order and don’t venture too far from home or to mountain communities that can’t handle visitors yet.

You can start by keeping an eye out for birds in your neighborhood or parks near you. Urban parks with a lot of green grass will attract fewer birds than those with native habitat.

Birds will sing all day, but it’s easier to hear them in the morning.

There’s a name for all that singing, Hutchinson said.

“It’s called the dawn chorus. The birds will be singing before the sun comes up,” he said.

Birding for beginners. A blue jay with seeds.
A blue jay feeds on peanuts. Photo by Terri Cofiell/Great Backyard Bird Count.

“The males show off a little. There’s a lot that goes into those songs. We probably don’t understand the full effects of what the singing is all about. But the birds are establishing territory, competing with rivals and attracting mates,” Hutchinson said.

His advice is to get outside, be as still as possible, listen and keep your eyes open.

If you feel that you’re not seeing birds, you’re probably in too much of a hurry. While the pandemic has forced us all to slow down, make the most of quiet, peaceful moments.

“We’re often in a hurry. Birding isn’t about accomplishing something. It’s about enjoying the moment. If you’re looking for birds on a trail, you’re not worried about getting to the end of the trail,’ Hutchinson said.

To see smaller, more secretive birds, Hutchinson has learned to blend in with his surroundings, then to pause and stay still.

“I’ll enter an area and will wait for three to five minutes. When the birds see a potential predator, they’ll stop everything they’re doing. People who are moving quickly will often miss a lot,” he said.

But, if you stop and quietly blend in, the birds often will become active again, Hutchinson said.

If you want to venture beyond your neighborhood, here’s a great resource for you. Check out the Colorado Birding Trail.

The trail links outdoor recreation sites, both public and private, into a network through a designated driving route. There are 54 trails containing almost 800 sites where you can go birding and look for wildlife. Some trails include hiking or walking paths where you can observe wildlife and scenery.

Get started on birding: Look for these common birds

To help get you started, Hutchinson recommends trying first to spot these common birds.

American robin: Start with an easy bird to find. “This one can be found pretty much anywhere,” Hutchinson said. “Right now they’re singing.”

Robins have a brick-red chest and a gray back with streaks of white on the chin. Hutchinson said robins are especially easy to hear since they sing so loudly. The females are sitting on their eggs now. You’ve heard the phrase robin’s egg blue. These eggs are a lovely pale blue, but of course, you’d never want to disturb a bird’s nest.

Bonus: “This is one bird you can find in mowed parks,” Hutchinson said.

American goldfinch:  “The goldfinch is vibrantly yellow and you can see them year-round throughout the Rocky Mountains,” Hutchinson said.

A little-known secret about the goldfinch: “Their plumage changes in the winter. Many people don’t recognize the goldfinch because they turn brown in winter.”

Killdeer: The killdeer sports two black chest bands and a white collar. They are shore birds that nest on the ground on sandy areas. “They are easy to see, but their eggs are camouflaged,” Hutchinson said. While these birds are attracted to water, they don’t necessarily nest only near water.

Fun fact: Killdeer females are talented actresses who use trickery to protect their eggs. “If you approach the nest, the female will feign injury. She’ll drop her wing and act like she can’t fly. Then, she’ll hop away to draw the predator away from the nest,” Hutchinson said.

Red-winged blackbird: These birds are a study in contrasting colors. They are black, of course, and sport a bright red patch on their wings, with a smaller border of bright yellow. These birds love a good view and they are loud singers. Think of them as the operatic stars of the bird world. “Their singing isn’t necessarily melodic, but they do sing their hearts out,” Hutchinson said. When the female nests, she becomes very secretive and will hide to stay close to her nest.

Great horned owl: You will probably hear an owl before you see it. Listen for the “hoo hoo” in the late morning and early evening. Listen carefully and you’ll hear owls singing together. “You’ll often hear a pair singing a duet. The male and the female both sing, and usually they’ll do so near their nests.”

Birding for beginners - a great horned owlet.
A great horned owlet perched on a tree in Denver. Photo courtesy of Sonny Hutchison.

The owls can vary greatly in color. Sometimes you’ll see the pale, ghostly gray color, while others are a cinnamon or dark brown.

Little-known fact: Owls are opportunists or thieves, depending upon your point of view. They don’t bother building their own nests. They steal them from other birds or small animals including hawks, magpies or squirrels.

Western tanager:  Typically, the tanager is easier to see at higher elevations, but Hutchinson said some late storms at higher elevations pushed the birds to lower areas and they are showing up throughout Colorado now. Look for the vibrant yellow tanagers with black wings and candy-apple red faces.

Bullock’s oriole:  If you love color, you’ll love this bird. “It looks like a flying bottle of orange Fanta,” Hutchinson said. Another fun fact about orioles is that they build hanging pendulum nests. “You’ll see big bundles of grass swaying from trees. Those are their nests. You’ll see them all the time. They’re all over the Front Range.”

Birding for beginners
If you love color, keep your eye out for a Bullock’s oriole. Photo: Getty Images.

Western meadowlark: You are much more likely to hear a meadowlark and its beautiful whistling call than to see it. Meadowlarks live in grasslands, so they’re excellent at staying camouflaged. They have speckled backs that help them hide, but if you can see them fly, you’ll spot white tail feathers and a yellow belly. Hutchinson said grassland birds are underappreciated. There are very few crowds in parks along the plains, so if you’re trying to steer clear of people, head to the prairie and listen for the meadowlarks.

However you decide to start enjoying birds, benefits await you.

“For some people who are retired, birding helps them try something new. It gives them challenges and a sense of purpose,” Hutchinson said.

For others who are feeling stressed with a busy job or financial challenges during the pandemic, there’s a stillness and serenity that is soothing.

“Having those moments when you’re quiet and you can reflect and not think of anything for a moment is absolutely valuable,” Hutchinson said. “Bird watching is good for you both physically and mentally.”

About the author

Katie Kerwin McCrimmon is a proud Colorado native. She attended Colorado College, thanks to a merit scholarship from the Boettcher Foundation, and worked as a park ranger in Rocky Mountain National Park during summer breaks from college. She is also a storyteller. She loves getting to know UCHealth patients and providers and sharing their inspiring stories.

Katie spent years working as a journalist at the Rocky Mountain News and was a finalist with a team of reporters for the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of a deadly wildfire in Glenwood Springs in 1994. Katie was the first reporter in the U.S. to track down and interview survivors of the tragic blaze, which left 14 firefighters dead.

She covered an array of beats over the years, including the environment, politics, education and criminal justice. She also loved covering stories in Congress and at the U.S. Supreme Court during a stint as the Rocky’s reporter in Washington, D.C.

Katie then worked as a reporter for an online health news site before joining the UCHealth team in 2017.

Katie and her husband Cyrus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, have three children. The family loves traveling together anywhere from Glacier National Park to Cuba.