Preparing to Watch Birds

Step 1: Become Familiar with Birds around You

To start bird watching, the basic step is to become familiar with birds that can be found around where you live, work or study. This can be practiced while on the way to work or school, or just by looking out of the window. Spotting birds is fun! Birds can be found everywhere in Hong Kong. Even on busy Nathan Road, five or six bird species including Crested Myna, Rock Dove, Magpie Robin, Red-whiskered Bulbul, Tree Sparrow, and Spotted Dove can be easily found within minutes.


Step 2: Get the equipment

Optical Instruments

Our eyes are the essential “equipment” for bird watching . However, we need optical instruments to watch birds that are too far away for the naked eye.

1. Binoculars – These are used for watching birds that are not too far away or birds in flight.
Binoculars carry a set of numbers such as 10 x 40  7.3°:

[10 x 40] means the magnification is ten times and the diameter of the objective lens is 40mm
[7.3°] means the binoculars have a field of view of 7.3°


The following specifications are important in selecting a suitable pair of binoculars:

Magnification Binoculars for bird watching normally have 7x to 10x magnification. Lower magnifications can not show enough detail, while higher magnifications can create problems with vibration and a dimmer image. The objective lens should be 35 to 50mm. A bigger lens means more weight and hence not suitable for prolonged use in the field.
Relative brightness Relative brightness can be estimated from the formula (diameter of the objective lens ¸ magnification)2. A pair of 10 x 40 binoculars has relative brightness of 16. Values between 9 and 25 are most suitable for bird watching.
Coating Binoculars with transparent coatings are preferred.
Field of view It is better to have an angle of view greater than 5.5°.
Weight Binoculars will usually be carried around the neck, normally the weight should be below 900g.
Focus Centre-focusing binoculars that focuses both barrels at the same time are preferred. Auto-focus binoculars are not suitable for bird watching. As for shortest focusing distance, the closer the better.
Prism Porro prism designs are more simple. However, inherent from their design, porro prism binoculars are heavier. Roof prism binoculars are compact, light and comfortable to hold. Some roof prism binoculars are nitrogen-filled and are entirely dust-free and waterproof.


2. Telescopes – Telescopes have much higher magnification than binoculars but a smaller field of view. They are used for watching birds that are relatively inactive from great distances. Objective lenses between 60 and 80mm are preferred. Where used, zoom eyepieces should be from 20x to 60x.

3. Tripod – A telescope should be placed on a sturdy tripod especially to reduce vibration caused by strong winds. Quick release features on some designs can facilitate deployment.


Field Guides

A good field guide aids field identification, and also gives information on general characteristics such as habitat, distribution and behaviour. They come in two types: photographic guides and drawing guides. In addition, serious birdwatchers in Hong Kong should get a copy of “Birds of Hong Kong and South China” by C.Viney, K. Phillipps and C.Y. Lam, available in both Chinese and English editions.  

Size matters - pocket size is preferred. Perfect-bind is also much better than hard cover, being cheaper and lighter to carry around.


Notebook and Pen

It is best to choose a small pocket-size hardcover notebook with lines. A small rubber band can keep it open at the right place, while a ball-pen reduces the risk of ink running when the pages get wet.

Use the notebook to take field notes on unfamiliar birds. Then seek help from experienced bird watchers, perhaps by posting your query on the forum of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society website (

Field notes should include the following information: date, place, weather, features, behaviour, calls, number, and altitude.


Step 3: Preparing for the Trip 

It is always best to try and match the environment, which means wearing suitable colours, especially green, blue and brown. Avoid bright colours.

The best time for bird watching is different in different habitats. If you are going to watch woodland birds, choose early morning when the birds are more active. Viewing wetland birds depends on the tide. Arrive at the bird watching site before or after high tide. The best tidal level for waterbirds at Mai Po boardwalk is about 2.1m, while for Tsim Bei Tsui is about 1.4m. If you are looking for raptors, it is best to go to more open locations around noon, when these birds soar using convection currents. For farmland or urban birds, early morning and late afternoon are the best time. Birds are generally not too active around noon. For seabirds, we need to go to remote islands during summer. Good views can be obtained from a boat. It is not necessary to land on the islands, and doing so disturbs the birds.

To prepare for a successful outing, it is good to collect information on habitat and season, and to search the field guide for information on possible species, their identification and abundance. Good preparation leads to more impressive and productive trips.

Tips of watching birds:

When you find a bird, avoid unnecessary movement. Look at the bird immediately using your binoculars. If it is too far away, try to approach it indirectly and look again. Always avoid unnecessary disturbance of birds .

To use binoculars: Keep looking at the bird, then hold the binoculars to the eyes, adjust the position and focus at the same time. Speed in locating birds with binoculars can also be increased by a quick scan to establish the location of large branches or objects in the vicinity, helping to confirm where exactly the bird is.

Submit your Records

Since 1957, the Records Committee of the Hong Kong Bird Watching Society has collected records of birds of Hong Kong, and reviewed their status. All this information is very important for the conservation of birds and the protection of their habitats.

We encourage readers to submit records to us after each birding trip. We welcome records of both common and rare species which can help us to analyze migration patterns and population trends, as well as providing useful background information for us to initiate relevant studies.

You can download the record sheet from our website ( The record sheet also includes an updated checklist of the birds of Hong Kong. A record form for rare species is also available there. Records can be submitted by e-mail (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) or by mail to: 14/F., Ruby Commercial Building, 480 Nathan Road, Kowloon, Hong Kong.

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