Advice for searching for birds with binoculars

I have a pair of 8 x 35 binoculars. In non winter months, I use them to try and find birds in trees. Often I can hear the birds, but when I use the binocs, I can rarely find them. Does anyone have advice on how to improve my odds of spotting a bird, or is it a lost cause?

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I was pretty bad at this when I first started. I basically just got better through practice. I find the bird by (unaided) sight first, and then find that spot in the binocs. I practiced by just picking random spots (crook of a branch, lichen spot, etc.) and then raising my binocs to eye and finding it. It’s definitely improved my ability to get initially close to the spot I want to see on first glance through the binocs.


Reminds me of sitting in the yard with new binoculars, practicing. I’d pick out an obvious spot in a tree, then try to lift my binoculars to it. Or I’d pick a non-obvious spot, note it’s relationship to an obvious spot, sight in on the obvious spot and move to the less obvious spot. All this becomes easier.

As to finding singing birds in trees, that’s a problem due to bird behavior. Singing birds are more obvious than silent ones, not only to us but also to hawks and other predators. Some go ahead and sing at the tip of a branch, but many sing from a perch more internal to the tree canopy, where they may be hidden by leaves or branches, from your point of view. Seeing them is difficult, sometimes impossible, and that’s just reality.


If you can first find it with your eyes (just movememnt of it), it’s an instant solution, if not, then learning voicec and species behaviour will help (just knowing a general group is ok and helps if you know it’s a thrush that will sit on the branch easy to be spotted). But have in mind what you can hear as loud and nearby song can be a bird on the top of the tree 100 metres from you, far from all birds you hear you will actually see.


Some species prefer to sing from the tops of trees and bushes. For example if you hear a Brown Thrasher, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to find it fairly easily. On the other hand warblers (especially ones on migration) often sing at the same time as feeding, so they’re moving all over inside the tree.

When there aren’t any leaves, you can look for bird-shaped objects on the trees with your bare eyes and check those. If they aren’t moving, they’ll usually be nuts, old leaves, burrs, etc. When there are leaves, you’ll have little chance unless you see movement. Bird songs and calls often sound like they’re coming from somewhere slightly off where they actually are. Even when someone else has found a bird and is describing exactly where it is, I often have trouble finding it unless it has contrasting colours or moves.


I think it’s often really hard to find a bird in a tree with binoculars just on the basis of your thinking it is there because you can hear the bird singing, unless you also are lucky enough to happen to see the bird fly into the tree, or notice it moving from one branch to another, and plus it has distinctive color or markings which make it easy to spot.


Don’t find them with the binoculars. It’s really tricky, with the limited field of view. Look with your regular eyes first, then keep your eyes on the bird or bird-like thing and raise the binoculars to your face. Also, look at it with your eyes, note what it’s near (things like “okay, it’s in the fork of that particular branch, next to that one dangling leaf”), and find those things in the binoculars.

Also, you may have some luck if you learn a few bird songs by sound. It can be helpful to know roughly what bird you’re looking for. Is it a wren-shaped bird in the top of the tree? A warbler hopping around the middle? That sort of thing.


Thanks to all of you. I do basically look for movement, but often when I get the binocs out, they have moved. And then there is the matter of getting the camera out! Again, thank you all for the feedback.

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