So you have a field guide. You have binoculars and/or a bird feeder. You’ve downloaded the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Merlin Bird ID app for your iPhone. And after you spend an hour flipping through your field guide and swiping through your app, you still don’t know what that little brown bird might have been. Google suggests it’s a once-in-a-lifetime vagrant plover from Siberia, but you have your doubts.
Friend, I’ve been there. In the beginning, birds are kind’ve hard, but not impossible. Here are some of my personal tips for getting started.
Study that field guide. Flip through the guide a few times to get a feel for the different bird body plans. Figure out what makes a sparrow a sparrow, a thrush a thrush, a sandpiper a sandpiper, and so on. Then do yourself a huge favor: examine the maps in your guide, and use a pencil to circle the birds that actually spend time in your area. This way, you can zero in on the most likely birds when you go back for an ID. You’ll save brain space and frustration, since you’ll be able to ignore tons of species you’ll only see on vacation.
But not too much. Leave the guide at home. Lots of people (even experienced folks) whip out a guide to nail down an ID as soon as they lay eyes on anything with feathers. Take a breath, and watch the bird. Its habits might be an ID clue in the end, but also when you let your eyes wander over the bird, you’re really letting it sink in to your memory. And they’re more fun to watch than to name, anyway.
Use your optics right. Binoculars give you tunnel vision, and you’ll miss a lot if you walk around with them glued to your face. Rather than scan every branch with your bins in your face, use your bare eyeballs to search out movement, color, sound. Lock on, then raise your nocs to your eyes. You’ll waste less time looking for birds (“Which tree are you looking at?” “I’m on the little twiddly branch at about 2 o’clock. Where’s the bird now?” “What kind of bird are you looking at?” are actual things I’ve heard birders say), and you’ll save yourself a lot of frustration.
Ok, ok. But what am I actually looking for? AhHA. I knew you were going to ask that, so I made a high-tech graphic with my magical computer.
Super professional-and-otherwise-amazing birders can name a bird from its silhouette on a dark, rainy morning while you’re still rubbing the sleepies out of your eyes and fogging your bins with your first cup of coffee. Believe me, I’ve seen it happen. To me. The rest of us focus on a few tell-tale points, called “field marks,” until we learn the General Impression Size and Shape (GISS or *ahem* jizz to the cogniscenti) of a species. So once you’ve figured out you’re looking at a sparrow, for example, take mental notes on as much as you can see:
Now you can open your field guide. When you get back from your enjoyable walk out in nature, pull out your guide, flip to the right section, and try to narrow down what you might have seen, based on the field marks you remember. Don’t worry if you can’t figure it out with 100% confidence. If you can get it down to 2-3 birds, study those and try to sort out what you would need to know to distinguish between them in the field the next time.
I don’t think this was too frustrating while I was doing it (I’ll let you know the next time I meet a bird I don’t know. Probably tomorrow.), but even still, I think this kind of system pays better dividends than thumbing through a book with one hand while you’re trying to find obscure field marks through your binoculars. The bird always flies away.
The best thing you can do, in my opinion, is learn how to see the birds before trying to name them. All the time you spend watching birds is like digging a hole to plant their names in. The more hours you spend with them, the deeper they grow into your heart.
Now if only someone could tell me how to do this with mushrooms. Or dragonflies…
I’m going to stay close and try to answer any questions you might have, so leave yours in the comments and check back later!
Bonus birds. Do you recognize any of these?
Answers: Hermit Thrush, Savannah Sparrow, Brown Thrasher, Snowy Owl. Lots of stripedy birds, but they all have different body plans, which helps you tell the difference! Ok, the Snowy Owl was a gimme… but still.