Aside from birding with those more experienced than me and learning as I go, below are a few things that really helped me out as I endeavored to be the best friend to birds that I can. Open minds are always learning!
Houston Audubon Society — They are pretty much the bulk of our patch birding along the upper Texas Gulf Coast. If you’re not in our area, look for your local Audubon Society and sign up!
eBird — Find out where the species are, who’s hopping at what hot spot, and keep track of your lists. You’ll also want to get the app (below).
Cornell Lab of Ornithology — These guys are really into birds. Before buying a bunch of equipment or books, start here and get the scientific lowdown on bird species right in your backyard. It is media rich, so be sure to turn up your speakers. You’ll want to have a large screen for viewing these feathered gems from the comfort of your easy chair, unless you’d rather use the binoculars out the window instead.
‘Bird Migration’ by Texas Parks and Wildlife — more information about migratory species in Texas than you can fly around.
iBird Pro — a ‘pocket’ field guide that includes photos, searches, and birdsong. It doesn’t replace books for trickier ID’s, but it really lightens up the backpack! Create ‘Favorites’ lists ahead of time to narrow down what you might possibly see in the hotspot you are. Open it up and have it in your front pocket while you bird.
eBird Checklist — keep track of species counts at specific birding ‘hot spots’ or report rarities on-the-fly. When also juggling a heavy camera and field lens, it’s way better than a pencil and notebook.
For a list of Texas Master Naturalist approved field apps — not just for birding, pages 4-6 — to use with your smartphone, check out this fantastic clickable PDF compilation!
Leopold 8 x 25mm — for a narrow inter-pupillary distance like mine (narrow-set eyes), this field lens is both lightweight and durable with easy ‘pop-out’ eye relief for use without sunglasses. Works well-enough for dim lighting situations even though the aperture is not very large (40mm or bigger). At $80, it is much more affordable than the a more coveted glass (Zeiss, Swarovski).
Of course, there are more lenses than you can shake a stick at. Audubon has done a nice job of listing them all here.
Species ID Guides (Books)
Birds of North America — a coffee table book at roughly 6 lbs. of bulk, this is not a good field companion. But it does help quickly narrow down ID’s to 3-4 species with all you’ll need (ranges, behavior, flight pattern, molt variances, sex differences) on as many pages. We use it often when comparing with field photos. (ISBN# 978-0-7566-6588-3)
Sibley Guide to Birds — Still a bit hefty for a long hike, it is still a wonderfully illustrated compendium that details many of the differences of one species on a 1-2 page spread. Sibley adds common field mis-ID’s alongside the bird so that two species can be adequately compared. Sparrows, sandpipers, hawks, and hummingbirds are some species which require a more thoughtful poring over. This book really helps. (ISBN# 978-0-307-95790-0)
Stokes Field Guide To The Birds — If actual photographs are what you want (rather than illustration) to compare differences in seasonal plumage, this guide is for you. Species families are tabbed along the bottom by color for quick access in the field. It is also a rather chunky book but remains available in the car for every birding excursion. (ISBN# 978-0-316-01050-4)
Peterson Field Guide: Eastern Birds — This one is for the backpack! If you are the other side of the United States, Peterson has one for western birds as well; if you’re unsure where you lie in the middle, they are lightweight enough to carry both. Illustrations offer enough variation between sexes/molts to be able to distinguish the likely species. (ISBN# 978-0-395-26619-9 )