Best Gear for Spotting Birds

I mostly got into the outdoors through trail running – but while I’m not the fastest runner going around, it didn’t leave me as much time as I’d like to appreciate nature as I huffed and puffed along the trails. More recently, I’ve channeled my love of both photography and the outdoors into wildlife photography, with a particular focus on birds.

A finch sits on a tree branch

You don’t need to be a photographer to appreciate the Diamond Firetail Finch.

It turns out that what seemed like a fairly straight-forward transition required both a bit more thought and equipment than I originally considered. Here are some of the things that have come in handy for me along the way.

First of all – as I’m not just into spotting birds but photographing them too – it’s fair to say that learning to use the camera equipment has been a slippery slope. My lenses have become both progressively longer, and more expensive – but I’ll save the camera talk for another day, and instead give you an insight into what else I take with me on my adventures.

A close up of a Merrell boot

A good comfortable pair of boots are the most important part of your gear.

A great pair of boots will take you far.

Coming from a trail running background, I never really understood why hiking boots were so great. Wouldn’t my trail runners do just fine? Well, I quickly discovered that the extra protection and support come in super handy when you’re covering the sort of ground I do.

I took a punt on the Merrell Moab boots and could not be happier. I’ve travelled who knows how many miles in these things – both across Australia in all kinds of conditions, and through the jungles of Java and Cambodia. Cold, hot, wet, dry, they’ve been amazing. If you’re going to be standing around for long periods as well as hiking, comfy boots (and socks!) are a must and these get the two big thumbs up from me. And my feet.

A person wearing gaiters as they step over a running stream of water

My gaiters changed my life. Image: Sea to Summit

My gaiters changed my life.

I also happen to have a bit of a phobia of snakes. Yes, I know there’s probably a higher chance of being struck by lightning than bitten by a snake – but I’m still super sketchy on narrow trails in warm weather. I’m happy to say that my Sea to Summit Quagmire Gaiters have been truly life-changing… and I’m not exaggerating. They’ve completely transformed my enjoyment out on the trails.

They’re even more important when you consider that bird-spotting requires keeping as quiet as possible and looking up… which is the exact opposite of what’s recommended to avoid snakes. So, boots and gaiters really do make my bird-nerding far safer and more enjoyable.

A rosella splashes about as it floats on the water

Wearing long pants means I can comfortably lie down to get a good angle on my shots.

Pants. With pockets.

I’m not overly keen to put this to the test, but I’m told that pants of even a standard thickness (about two millimetres) can prevent a snake bite as well – not to mention scrapes, scratches, and various other bug bites. Regardless of how hot or humid it is, a good pair of long hiking pants is on my list – better yet with extra pockets for batteries, memory cards, lens cleaners, and other bits and pieces. 

A man stands on a trail in the forest wearing camouflage gear

Wearing my camo gear is no fashion statement, but it works for better bird spotting.

Camo (it’s not a fashion statement, but it works)

Although I started off with standard, neutral-coloured clothing, I’ve gravitated towards camouflage gear as I’ve grown keener to snap better shots. If you don’t want people to look at you funny, this isn’t necessarily something I recommend – but in particular circumstances, it has certainly helped me snap some shots that I otherwise wouldn’t have managed to.

I also wear merino because, when you’re standing still and waiting to capture that perfect shot, it’s easy to become cold. In winter or chilly conditions, layers of merino insulate far more effectively than any other fibre – so I pile them on.
They’re good on the flip side too. When it’s hot, or you’re wearing the same clothes for a few days at a time, natural fibres like merino help you keep stink-free!

Cover Up!

It sounds obvious, but a decent hat for sun protection is also right up there on my list. In cooler weather, I’ll opt for the warmth of a Buff, or neck gaiter – and as much as I love some of the brightly coloured ones, neutral colours are the way to go for birding. While I’ll always go for sun shelter provided by natural shade, sometimes there is none – and we’re all aware of the issues around spending long periods of time in the sun. Cover up, people!

A hiker holds a Grayl filter water bottle

A decent water bottle keeps you hydrated and refreshed. Image: Grayl

Keep Your Cool

Speaking of the heat, there’s nothing better than a nice, cold drink when you’re out and about for long periods of time – and a decent drink bottle makes that much more enjoyable. I’ve always kept it pretty simple with a regular flask, like a Camelbak – but these days, I quite like some of the insulated bottles that keep my drink cool well into the day. 

Binoculars, to get up close and personal

My eyes aren’t what they used to be – so when I’m not peering through my camera viewfinder, I’ve got an old pair of field binoculars to help me spot and identify birds at long range. My pair is quite heavy and bulky, so I’ve got my eyes on a more lightweight pair. The specifications vary a little, so it really depends on where you’ll be and at what distance you need to spot things. On a recent tour, I used a pretty fancy pair that I later found out was about $4,000 to buy! Needless to say, I didn’t get a pair of those (…yet). For most people, a regular pair will do the trick just fine.

A full dry bag sits next to a kayak at the edge of a river

I pack all my gear into dry sacks when I go birding in my kayak. Image: Sea to Summit

Staying dry (even when it’s not raining)

Another must-have for me is a couple of dry sacks for equipment – “just in case”. It’s obvious to protect gear from the rain – but even on a hot day, I put valuable equipment like batteries and memory cards in dry sacks. This protects them from any perspiration within my pockets or even my backpack.

It’s a bit like insurance! I always hope I don’t need them, but they’re there if something goes wrong. Plus, sometimes I go birding in my kayak – so I heavily rely on my dry sacks to protect everything when I’m out on the water. 

A lightweight hiking chair set up outdoors in a shady and grassy spot

Super light but able to hold up to 130kg, the Pegasus is a great chair to take on the trails.

Take a Seat

Standing around or crouching beneath bushes is all well and good…but if I’m planning a long day out in the field, I’ll pack my hiking chair. As I’m carrying everything with me while I’m on the trails, I keep my chair lightweight and easy to carry – but it still has to be comfy!

A comfortable backpack, for all my bits and pieces

Oh, yeah – it goes without saying that a backpack for all your bits and pieces is pretty handy too. There are all sorts of brands and styles out there – but I’m personally using an Osprey day pack, which has been pretty perfect for what I need. Not too big, not too small, and easy access to the various compartments if I need to grab something fast. The last thing I want is to finally spot the bird I’ve been after, then miss the shot. 

A scarlet robin bird sits on a small branch

Learning how to find and identify native birds, like this male Scarlet Robin, is very satisfying.

So – whether you’re out on the road for days at a time or more of a dabbler doing a few hours here and there, those are some of the items I take with me. If it’s something you’ve never tried before, there are all sorts of resources and information online about how to both find and identify the birds you see to help you on your way.

Just be warned – you can go from being a perfectly regular member of society on one day, to hiding behind bushes in full camouflage, trying to spot a Crested Shrike Tit or another feathered friend. It’s a slippery slope. 

Have you ever gone birding, or are there other kinds of wildlife you love to spot?