Tony Beck - Photography, Nature and Birding Tours, Local Birding Excursions

Beginning Birdwatching

Northern Raven chasing light morph Rough-legged Hawk

Northern Raven chasing light morph Rough-legged Hawk

So, you want to start birding?

You’ve got Blue Jays, Cardinals, Black-capped Chickadees and White-crowned Sparrows visiting your back yard – little treasures brightening the day as they frolic through your garden. But, where are all those other birds I see in books, TV, and postage stamps? Do I have to be a part of  David Attenborough’s camera crew to see those?

If you only birdwatch from your back-yard, then you’ll only observe a limited number of species, typically ones that prefer suburban habitats.

If you’d like to enter an entirely new world of birds then you’ll need to travel beyond the neighbourhood. Many species prefer different habitats to urban settings. And, each different habitat attracts different species. In order to see great diversity, you’ll have to visit as many different environments as possible.

Most communities have set aside greenspace for recreational use – walking trails through forests, boardwalks through wetlands, even grassland trails and open space along water edges…  There’s likely several of these within proximity of your home. And, then there are the more elaborate parklands, often federally funded and organized. Take advantage of these whenever you can.

But, where do you start?

Try Google first. The internet is full of good information about where to find birds in your area.

Use the word “birds” plus the name of your town, city or neighbourhood. Enter them into the search engine and see what comes up. You might find volumes of information there.

Next, make sure you have a good set of binoculars (click here to read my blog entry about selecting binoculars for birding: ).

You’ll  also want a good reference book to check your sightings.

The “field guides” I recommend the most for North America are as follows:

1)  National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America

2)  National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern North America

3)   National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of Western North America

4)   The Sibley Guide to Birds

5)   The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

6)   The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America

You now own good binoculars, a couple of excellent field guides, and you’re keen to observe new species. Is there a way to observe more effectively and efficiently?
Although each of us observes birds differently, there is a general, systematic approach to bird-identification.

Most times, all we need is a quick glimpse of something and we know what it is. A bold colour, a certain shape…  our mind reacts instantaneously to what we see.  And, the more we observe, the quicker we’re able to react.

However, there are other times we need to think carefully before making an identification – the bird might not be familiar, or the bird is not clearly in view.

Here are some of the steps to follow:

* SIZE – compare the size of your bird to other birds you’re familiar with. Common species like sparrows, crows and geese all offer a reference in which to compare a bird you’re unfamiliar with.

* SHAPE – This is critical! Often this is the easiest way to recognize differences between similar species. How long is that beak? How short is the tail? How plump is that bird? Is the tail forked or flat? Is the head round or square? What do the legs look like? What shape are those wings? Even when you can’t see colour or plumage detail, subtle details of shape can stand out.

* BOLD CHARACTER – When we observe birds, some characters are obvious – bold colour, distinctive shapes, bold contrasting marks… Some species have unique characters that stand out. Once you’ve recognized them, your identification process need go no further.

* HABITAT – Every species has adapted to a specific set of conditions. In order to survive, each species needs to associate itself with the environment it’s best adapted to. Otherwise, it has to re-adapt, and that requires effort and energy.

For example: a Wood Thrush is comfortable in a deciduous woodland. It will have trouble surviving in a wetland, or urban environment – habitats they’re not adapted to. A Bobolink requires grassland to breed, and find food. It can’t find what it needs in a forest or swamp. If you know which environment the species prefers, or which species you’re likely to find in the habitat you’re exploring, you are better prepared to make correct bird identifications.

* TIME-OF-YEAR – Birds have wings, and can travel great distances. Birds sometimes breed in different places to where they spend the non-breeding season. Understanding this dynamic will help you identify species. A Chipping Sparrow looks a lot like an American Tree Sparrow. However, an American Tree Sparrow has never bred in my home-patch while the Chipping Sparrow is a common nester. The reverse is also true – A Chipping Sparrow is rare in winter while the American Tree Sparrow is common. Some species are common as passage migrants (spring and/or fall) while some species are here only in the summer . Others are here all year. Knowing what time of year each species is present in your area will greatly enhance your ability to make correct identifications.

* BEHAVIOUR – As unique as a bird’s appearance is the way it behaves. Each species moves in a way that can sometimes assist in revealing its identity. Does it pump its tail? Does it bob its head? How does the bird fly? Does it fly straight, or does it undulate in a rhythmic pattern? How deep are its wing beats? How does it forage for food? On the ground, does it hop or walk? How does it perch – vertical or horizontal? Does it swim, soar, run, swoop, flap, glide… all these things can help in determining its identity.

* SOUND – every species has its own unique language. Some species have a wide variety of sounds it makes. Many have elaborate vocalizations during courtship. Some have simple call notes while others make sounds with body parts. Recognizing the language of each species will enhance your birdwatching experience greatly.

* PLUMAGE DETAIL – finally – after sorting through all the above items, you need to study plumage detail. This is when you need to know the birds “topography” – like studying a map of the bird. You can start by looking at the bird’s head, working your way down the back, side, front, wings, rump, legs then tail… constantly noting colour, pattern, shape, or any other subtle characters. With difficult bird-identification challenges, this is the only way to make a correct bird-identification.

Now you have it… you’re a birdwatcher. The exciting world of birds awaits you. There is adventure around every corner!

Blue Jay

Blue Jay

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