What Gear do I need for Bird Watching?

When hiking, camping and climbing it is always great to see some wildlife. Birds can often be heard or seen out in the countryside. Keeping an eye out for birds can add another dimension to your outdoor experience. If you are going to do some birdwatching there is some additional equipment that you could take with you. The gear that you will need will depend upon the nature of your trip:

  • What time of year will you be going?
  • What are anticipated weather conditions?
  • What is duration of trip?
  • Where will you sleep overnight?
  • Will you be visiting a bird sanctuary?
  • Will you be using in a hide?
A man looking up into the trees through binoculars
A suitable pair of binoculars are essential birdwatching gear. Source: Flickr by CarbonNYC

It will also depend upon how seriously you take ornithology and the bird watching element of your trip. Will you be on the look out for birds in a general sense, or perhaps you will be hoping to spot a specific species or individual even if it means waiting in the same spot for several hours.

The equipment that you need can be broken down into two categories. Gear that is specific to birdwatching and gear that is not specific to birdwatching.

Gear Specific to Bird Watching

Choosing Bird Watching Binoculars

There is a vast array of binoculars available, but which are the best for bird watching?

Magnification for Birdwatching Binoculars

Binoculars are usually specified by two numbers, for example 8×40.
The first number denotes the magnification of the binoculars. The higher the magnification the more detail that can be seen. For general birdwatching low magnification (low power) binoculars are usually preferred, since they are easier to hold steady. Typically the magnification should be 7x, 8x or 10x, with a higher magnification recommended for use in hides or for viewing at estuaries and reservoirs. The combination of a telescope and a pair of lower magnification binoculars is often a good combination.

Objective for Birding Binoculars

The second of the two numbers used to specify binoculars is the objective, which gives an indication of image quality and image brightness. The objective is the diameter of the large lens. Birdwatchers recommend an objective of between 30 to 40 as being the best for birdwatching.

Birdwatching Binoculars Field of View

Another important feature of binoculars is the field of view. Binoculars with a wide field of view are especially suitable for scanning large areas. It is often easy to locate the bird in the sky with your eyes only, however once you start looking through the binoculars it can be difficult to find the right patch of sky. Also, when a bird is flying across the sky it can be difficult to follow its flight path. Binoculars with a wide field of view make locating the bird easier. However, having a wide field of view is not as important a feature in birding binoculars as good image quality.

Other Important Features for Choosing Binoculars for Birdwatching

Binoculars with a large exit pupil deliver more light to your eye. If you will be birdwatching when the visibility is quite low, for example at dawn or dusk a large exit pupil can make all the difference. The same is true if you are observing a bird that is perched in the shadows.

The weight is also quite important. If the binoculars are heavy you will not be able to hold them steady. And remember, you will probably need to carry them out to the hide or on your walk.

The ability to focus quickly using a centre focus is advantageous when tracking a bird in flight

Your birding binoculars should have multi-coated lenses. These lens coatings can increase light transmission and therefore make the image brighter.

Since you never know what the weather might do, your binoculars should be waterproof and fogproof.

Popular binocular manufacturers include Leica, Nikon, Olympus, Opticron, Swarovski and Viking.

Birdwatching Telescope / Spotting Scope

A combination of low power binoculars and a spotting scope will enable you to observe birds across a wider range of distances and habitats than having a single pair of high power binoculars.

The recommended specification for a general observation birding telescope is a compact 60mm spotting scope which has a wide-angled eyepiece with 20x or 22x magnification.

Many modern telescopes have interchangeable eyepieces allowing for a greater range of magnification from a single scope. For general observation wide-angled eyepieces of 20x to 30x are ideal, whilst 40x magnification enables you to make longer distance observations.

A birdwatcher taking a photograph of puffins
Capturing great pictures of birds is an essential part of birdwatching. Source geograph.co.uk. © Copyright sylvia duckworth and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence.

Other Gear for Birding

For most birders taking a snapshot of bird in action is an essential, but by no means easy task. With the ability to rapidly take many shots, a digital camera increases the chance of getting that perfect shot, when compared to using the old-fashioned film camera. Of course, patience and luck have a lot to do with it too! A detailed discussion about digital cameras is outside the scope of this article. However, it is worth mentioning that the quality of the lens, pixels and processor should be considered when choosing a digital camera. The number of pixels is commonly used to assess the quality of a camera and whilst this does matter, having a high number of pixels merely indicates that you can print out your photograph on a large sheet of paper.

A particularly useful bit of gear for birdwatching is a Digiscope or Digital Camera Adaptor (DCA). The purpose of this device is to connect a digital camera to a telescope, enabling you to take close up shots over a long distance.

A tripod, monopod or hide clamp can be used to keep your telescope steady and save your arms from aching! If you are planning to take photographs via your scope the use of a support will help ensure that your photograph does not come out blurred.

Most birds limit their flying activities to the day time, however some birds do fly at night, for example, owls and geese. For bird watching after dark you can use night vision goggles.

With all the optical equipment needed for birding, an organiser bag
will keep your gear organised and help prevent it from becoming accidentally damaged. A mircofibre lens cleaning cloth should be used to clean any dust or smears from the lenses of your binoculars, spotting scope or camera.

A Birding Vest, Gillet or Jacket with lots of pockets is an asset when bird watching. The pockets are ideal for keeping safe your lens covers and having quick access to your essential bird identification book and bird log.

The annual BirdFair at Rutland water provides an excellent opportunity for purchasing bird watching equipment. Many specialist birding retailers exhibit at BirdFair so all the latest and classic gear will be on sale.

Outdoor Gear Not Specific to Birdwatching

Whether you are going bird watching for a couple of hours or for a couple of days or weeks, you will want to stay warm, dry and comfortable. If you are blessed with good weather you will want to stay cool and may even need to protect yourself from sunburn.

Outdoor Clothing for Birding

You are likely to be motionless for long periods of time whilst birdwatching and so you could easily become cold. Therefore clothing with a high degree of thermal insulation will be vital if you are to keep warm.

To provide warmth and flexibility of controlling your body temperature wear several layers made up from a base layer, mid layer, outer layer and waterproof layer.

The most suitable mid- and outer-layers are fleeces. Tops and jackets made from fleece material provide thermal insulation and will keep you warm. For when the weather is really cold, a down jacket or synthetic insulated jacket will ensure that you stay warm whilst you are bird watching. Even during the summer it can be surprisingly cold at night, especially on hot days when there are no clouds. If you have had to hike a long way to your chosen bird watching site you are also likely to become cold after burning up all your energy.

A lot of your warmth can be retained by wearing a hat and a scarf.

Fast drying, moisture wicking walking trousers such as Craghopper’s Kiwi Trousers are comfortable and are highly recommended for hiking, birding and general use.

Waterproof Jacket and Trousers

If you get wet, your bird watching trip is likely to be a cold and miserable one, even if you do spot a rare species. If the weather looks good when you set out, it could still rain later. Therefore it is always worth taking a waterproof jacket and over trousers. The most comfortable waterproofs are made from fabric that allows you to breathe, such as Gore-Tex, eVent and Gelanots. Manufacturers that use these fabrics include The North Face, Berghaus and Sprayway. If you go walking and birding during the summer, lightweight waterproofs are best. For all year round birding, 3 layer waterproofs are worth considering since they are more durable.

Most waterproof jackets have a hood, which obviously helps to keep your head dry and prevents water dripping down the back of your neck. However these hoods do not tend to have any insulation, so it is worth taking a warm hat too. Also hoods can restrict your vision, so they are not always suitable when bird watching.

As mentioned above, a jacket with lots of pockets can help keep you organised and prevent you from losing small items such as lens covers.

If you do decide to buy breathable waterproofs, their life can be prolonged by following good fabric care advice.

Walking Boots

When going out bird watching you are likely to be walking at least a short distance. RSPB nature reserves can have several miles of footpaths which you can explore. These footpaths tend to be well maintained so sensible shoes or trainers will be adequate.

If you are planning to walk or hike further off the beaten track then you will need some stout walking boots. These will help keep you feet warm and dry, as well as protecting them from rough uneven surfaces. Hiking boots with ankle support will help to prevent you from twisting your ankle. Choosing a pair that fits well is important, so it is worth reading our walking boot advice page. For maximum comfort and to help prevent blisters, wear both a thin and a thick pair of walking socks.

Tent / Bivi Bag

The early bird catches the worm and the early rising bird watcher sees the bird! Sleeping in a tent or bivi bag makes it much easier to get up at sunrise in order to see birds that are active first thing in the morning. If you go wild camping in remote areas you should be able to see birds that do not venture into villages, towns or cities. The most suitable types of tent for bird watching will depend upon the exact terrain and time of year that you are making your trip. An ultralight tent or bivi bag would be particularly suitable for wild camping.

If you are camping you will need a sleeping bag and camping mat or Therm-A-Rest inflatable mattress.

Other Outdoor Gear and Accessories

If you hiking to a particular location then you will need a map, compass, emergency whistle. You could also take a GPS unit.

Birdwatching offers the opportunity to see a variety of bird species.
Canada Geese at the RSPB’s Leighton Moss Reserve. Source: Flickr by Gidzy.

Other useful gear includes a sitmat, survival bag, insect repellent, anti-bacterial hand wash, sun glasses, sun lotion, sun hat and waterproof hat. More information about general walking and camping equipment can be found on our camping gear advice page.

If you are hiking remember that anything you take will add weight to your rucksack. Your birdwatching gear will add to the weight too, so it is best not take any unnecessary items!

Birdwatchers’ Code

When you are out birdwatching or twitching, always remember the birdwatchers’ code:

  1. Avoid disturbing birds and their habitats – the birds’ interests should always come first
  2. Be an ambassador for birdwatching
  3. Know the law and the rules for visiting the countryside, and follow them
  4. Send your sightings to the County Bird Recorder and the Birdtrack website
  5. Think about the interests of wildlife and local people before passing on news of a rare bird, especially during the breeding season

Share Your Bird Watching Log

When out on hiking trips we often see grouse, buzzards, skylarks and lapwings to name a few. If you have sighted any birds whilst out hiking or camping please let us know. Use the comments link below to tell us what you have seen and where! There is an excellent bird identification guide on the RSPB website.

The RSPB are currently campaigning to protect birds of prey, so we would be particularly interested if you have seen any birds of prey.


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