How to Choose Your First Birdwatching Guide

If you've decided to take up birdwatching, you have probably already noticed the overwhelming variety of birding guides available at your local bookstore. This article discusses some factors to consider when deciding which guide is best for your first birdwatching experience.
Birdwatching, or birding, is an excellent hobby for almost anyone. There is no special time commitment, so birding can be rewarding whether you have a few hours a month or a few hours a day to devote. Birding can also be done almost anywhere. Options are wide ranging, from locating and identifying birds in your neighborhood, to making exotic excursions to the countryside or even other countries. And unlike seasonal hobbies, birdwatching is exciting year round. Migratory bird species change location depending on the time of year, so you can observe different birds in the summer, fall, winter, and spring. Perhaps the best thing about birding is that, once you have acquired a few inexpensive pieces of equipment, it can be entirely free.
Choosing a Birding Guide
When you've decided to give birding a try, the first thing to do is to purchase a good birdwatching guide. The variety of guides can be intimidating at first, so it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with the various aspects of these guides before you decide which one is right for you. If you're not happy with your first guidebook, you may become discouraged on your first few birdwatching excursions, and you may drop the hobby altogether. To prevent this from happening, there are a few things to consider when making this first important purchase.
The Price
The first and most obvious factor is the cost. Like anything else, guides run the gamut from cheap, $5 pamphlet-style guides to relatively expensive editions. The most expensive guides may look nicer, but are probably best saved for when you are more experienced. More expensive guides also tend to be larger and heavier, and can therefore be difficult to haul around. The cheapest versions, are, of course, also to be avoided due to their lack of information or the small number of species they cover. Its best to choose something in the $15-$30 range for your first guide.
Local or Global?
The second factor to consider is the type of birds covered by various guides. Some guides are specific to small geographical regions, like the Western United States. Some very small guides are even specific to individual cities. Other guides attempt to include birds from all over the world. Which guide is right for you will depend on how serious you are about your new hobby, and where you live. If you think you would like to begin locally and branch out only later, a small regional guide is best. One benefit of these smaller guides is that they tend to include more detailed identification information, which can be useful for a beginner. However, if you would like a more comprehensive guide, choose one that covers your broader region, continent, or hemisphere. These guides will allow you to take your hobby anywhere and identify more unusual species.
Photos or Drawings?
A third factor in choosing your first guide is the identification information it contains. As a beginner, you will probably want to choose a guide that has fairly detailed identification information. Some of the better guides show pictures of birds with prominent arrows pointing to the most easily identifiable features of each species. Most guides will also include prose descriptions of the birds and information about their size and geographical range. These are crucial elements. Variation occurs in the identification pictures in each guide. Some guides have photographs of each bird for identification, while others have detailed drawings. Although photographs may seem to be a better choice, drawings are almost universally preferred among birders. The reason is that, although the drawings may not be photorealistic, they draw attention to the most important features of each bird, making identification easier.
Go with Your Instinct
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when choosing a guidebook is that you should aim to be really happy with your choice. As with any new hobby, if you start out with equipment that doesn't make you excited, you will probably give up before you have really gotten the hang of it.
The above words of advice will help you get started sorting through the wide variety of guides available, but, in the end, the one that catches your eye and makes you want to go out birding immediately is the one to choose.