Look, Listen, and Enjoy
People have different approaches to bird watching and bird identification. Here are a few tips to help the new birder remember details before reaching for the guidebook. Even if you only remember two or three points, those might be the ones that will help you make a correct identification. With practice, the number of details you remember each time will increase.
Look at the bird for as long as you can before it flies away. The longer you look, the more details you will absorb. In other words, don’t glance at the bird and then immediately reach for the guidebook. By the time you look back, the bird will most likely be gone.
Organize where your eyes travel. If the bird is cooperating, take a long careful look starting at the top of the head and working down—and then back up again, absorbing as much detail as you can.
Shapes. Notice the basic shape of the head and bill. Is the tail long? Concentrate on the bird’s overall shape as well and then try breaking it down logically:
Head - is it peaked, flat, rounded, or crested?
Bill - is it long, curved, upturned, pointed, blunt, thick, or tiny?
Tail - is it long, forked, rounded, or pointed?
Legs - are the legs long, like a shorebird or shorter, like a robin? Do the legs seem to have a cast of yellow or white to them?
Wings - are you are able to see the bird in flight? Are the wings short, long, broad, pointed, angled or straight?
Size. A number of factors can affect the perceived size. On overcast days, small dark birds can look larger than they actually are. Sometimes, young birds might appear larger than their parents and a puffed-up bird on a cold day looks significantly larger than it would in summer heat. And, in general, it is often more useful to compare your bird to other nearby birds or objects rather than trying to gauge its length or height in inches. For instance, noting that a bird is larger than a robin but smaller than a crow will help to narrow things down.
Color. Everyone, beginners and experienced birders alike, tends to get more excited about the really colorful birds. For instance, just try staying calm when you spot the male Indigo Bunting! Also, coloring will change, often drastically, from birth to adulthood. Juvenile coloring will usually be quite different from adult coloring. Remember also that what we see is influenced by our viewing conditions at the time, the bird’s seasonal molt, and individual variations from bird to bird of the same species:
Body - is the body all one color? Is the chest area different from the back area? Are the wings another color? Did you notice the tail color? Are there vertical or horizontal stripes of color on the chest or contrasting circles of color around the neck? Was any part of the body speckled with a different color and what was the color of the speckle?
Head - is the head a different color from the body?
Eyes - is there a ring of color circling the eyes or a horizontal band of color through the eye area like a bandit mask that contrasts with the rest of the head color and/or the body color? Do the eyes appear to be dark or yellowish?
And very important—hear their songs. Learn the songs and sounds of the birds you see most often. Knowing those songs will also enable you to know when a new voice arrives. Sound is often the first clue to a bird’s presence and sometimes, even though you can hear the new arrival for days, you may never see that bird at all, depending on how thick the cover is at the time. Hopefully, you will be able to actually see the visitor before he moves on. Be sure to thank him for his beautiful song.
Now that it’s time to reach for the field guide, you have many choices. Best for the beginner is a guide that is limited to your part of the country. Decide whether you like photos or drawings, and check out what is available. Consider downloading the free app, Merlin. This will ask you a few questions and narrow down your choices based on your answers. Many beginners find it very useful.
Photo by Jerry Goldner