UPDATED: Oct 19, 2019
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Bird watching from your car is an excellent way to learn about and enjoy birth watching without being exposed to rain, snow, mosquitoes, mud, or any of the other things that come along with finding the perfect vantage spot in nature. Just make sure to clean the windows in case you decide to trade in the binoculars for a camera and snap a few perfect pictures of the birds as well.
If you are a passenger in a vehicle, consider bird watching while on the traveling down the road. See how many unique types you can identify while the car goes through a variety of environments. Some birds prefer marshy areas, and some can usually only be found along the seashore, while others can be found more often on farmlands. Zooming through multiple kinds of habitats may give you a chance to glimpse some of our more unique feathered friends, even if only for a moment.
- National Ocean Service: Year of the bird
- ERIC Institute of Education Sciences: Birding fun and science
What to Bring
Bird watching can be done without any special equipment, but good binoculars, a bird identification book, and food and beverages to sustain you are recommended. A camera with a telescopic lens may be useful as well. If you do plan on leaving the vehicle in search of a particularly elusive bird, consider bringing waterproof boots, a rain jacket or winter jacket when appropriate, a pocket knife, insect repellant, and a GPS in addition to what you would normally carry with you for car bird watching.
- Audubon: The Audubon guide to birding gear
- Brooks Bird Club: Beginner’s guide to birding
- West Virginia Department of Commerce: Get started bird watching
Farm Fields – these fields are often large open areas that make them a particularly good location for spotting birds. Look close to the ground to discover small birds that may be picking through leftover seeds and vegetable matter. Common birds to see in a field include barn owls, pipits, horned larks, and longspurs.
Prairies and Grasslands – Prairies and grasslands are some of the largest expanses of bird habitats in the United States, although agriculture and expanding cities have begun to encroach on the areas and they have shrunk over the years. Still, there are many remaining across the country and can be viewed on long road trips in particular. While you are in the area, see if you can spot some magpies or American kestrels during your bird watching.
Wetlands – Marshes are a wonderful place to spot birds among the reeds, grasses, water, and cattails. They’re also quite insect-filled and muddy, so staying in the car is helpful if you want to enjoy nature without wet feet or trying to swat away insects. Herons, ducks, and blackbirds are among the birds that you will find in these roadside locations.
Shorelines – Where the water meets the land, birds can be found in abundance. Look for seagulls, brant, scoters, long-tailed ducks, and scaup along the shore. Conditions can get quite cold and windy near the water during spring, fall, and winter; so inclement weather is one more good reason to bring along the car on your bird watching adventures. Enjoy the beauty of the beach without sand in your shoes or struggling to keep everything from flying away in the wind.
Deserts – Deserts, despite their reputation for being too hot and dry for survival, are locations filled to the brim with a large variety of wildlife, including birds. Check out the other animals while you are there. Rabbits, lizards, moles, and more will dot the landscape. Also, see if you can spot a Gambel’s quail in their favorite desert habitat. Just don’t forget to bring sunscreen if you plan on leaving the vehicle.
Parking Lots – While we don’t normally think of parking lots as an ideal bird watching location, there are still some treasures to be found on occasion. Among the pigeons, seagulls, and sparrows you may find rarer specimens that have come to forage outside of their natural habitats. This can be especially true if the parking lot is near grasslands or wetlands. Think about the bigger picture and what bird habitats are in the area before ruling out the possibilities of bird watching in a parking lot.
- Massachusetts Government: Winter bird watching
- Porter County: Porter County birding guide
- SeaGrant Louisiana: Louisiana birding
Tips and Techniques
- Get a good field guide for your region to help with identifying local birds.
- Invest in a good pair of binoculars.
- Consider getting a spotting scope to see birds that may be further away.
- Bring a camera! If you don’t have a good one, try digiscoping. It is the practice of pointing your camera through binoculars or a spotting scope. Even the camera on your phone may work for this.
- Learn how to identify birds by their primary characteristics such as shape, color pattern, size, behavior, and habitat.
- Missouri Department of Conservation: Bird watching
- Tennessee Valley Authority: 8 tips for better bird watching
- Polk County Iowa: Bird watching
Things Not to Do
- Do not do any birding while driving. Stop the car first!
- Do not be loud. It will scare away the wildlife.
- Do not be impatient. Sometimes it takes a while for the perfect bird to arrive.
- James Madison University: Birding: A general introduction
- Harvard University: Happy Birding: A Step by Step Guide to Birdwatching
- Arizona State University: Ask a biologist’s beginner birders’ guide
Are you still looking for more resources? These will help you along your way to becoming an expert car bird watcher:
The National Park Service can help you locate good bird watching areas in your location. Check out their page: Bird watching in the national parks.
West Virginia Wildlife Resources has a great guide for learning how to identify birds. You can find it here: What to notice about a bird
Cornell has an online bird guide: Online guide to birds and bird watching
Stanford has a list of helpful bird watching resources for beginners at: Birding and environmental websites
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