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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Birding Tip: What Are You Seeing?

We recently took some friends birding who were very interested in birds and wanted to learn more. One of the first things we try to teach people is to describe what they see, BEFORE THEY NAME THE BIRD. The human temptation is to quickly plunk a name on a bird and often how "advanced" a birder is, is judged by how quickly he or she can identify a bird before anyone else has even raised their binoculars. Naming birds at the speed of light may be highly impressive, but it does not help beginner's build skills.
One of the biggest gifts Don and I try to give learning birders is an improvement in their observational skills and a sense of empowerment that they can learn birds on their own, even when Don and I are not with them.
So, for starters, we looked at birds and answered the question, what are you seeing, based on criteria such as:
- What size is the bird? Is it robin sized, crow sized, sparrow sized, etc.?
- What is it's posture, if it is sitting? Upright? horizontal across a branch? Upside down on a tree trunk?
- What is the shape of each feature of the bird? Does it have a long or short tail? A big or small head? Is the bill long, short, medium, down-curved, straight, conical, dagger-like, longer than the width of the side of the head, or shorter, etc., etc. Is it plump, slender-bodied, heavy-chested, elongated, bullet-shaped, etc.? Are the legs long, short, medium, thick, thin, etc.?
- How is the bird moving in flight? Flapping fast, slow, erratically, in regular bursts, undulating, straight, diving, etc. etc.? Are the wings crooked, slender, wide where they meet the body, rounded at the end, pointed and swept back, etc.?
Notice we haven't even gotten to color yet. We actually think it is best to try and first focus on the above items as they carry a great deal of information, often overlooked, about the bird and will help you sort out difficult species from one another.
Try answering these questions about the birds above. Don't worry about their names, we will tell you tomorrow. Building great observational skills will fast forward your birding and enhance your enjoyment of birds.

Photos © Lillian Stokes, 2008. All content of this website © Lillian and Don Stokes, 2008.


Anonymous said...

Hi Don and Lillian, The Audubon of Florida has a live web cam on an eagle nest here in Port St Lucie. 2 eagles have hatched and they are now visible on The Audubon of Florida's website. Fascinating viewing this all day.It's getting world wide attention. Hope your readers get to see this. CAA

Parus said...

Your first bird is Dove sized (aka Robin sized), long straight tapered wings, small head, small short bill, long squared off tail, rather sleek looking, obviously a fast flyer, probably fast wingbeats, probably a straight flyer, overall color is light grey/tan, seemingly two-toned with the head and neck being darker. most likely a EC Dove.

Parus said...

Your second bird is much larger (crow size or bigger),
big heavy hooked bill, medium size head for the size of the bird, short tail, long narrow pointed wings, long legs, webbed feet, upright posture, sleek looking, strikingly colored, solid black and pure white.
Black Guillemot or Razorbill?

birdchaser said...

Great points!

Therese said...

What should an unexperienced birder do when they cannot identify a bird? Is there a particular forum that you would recommend? Our wildlife camera took a photo of an unusual bird feeding with Cardinals and sparrows and it has us stumped. It is three to four times larger than the Cardinals, although it is a similar red. The head is smooth and red, not shaped like a Red Bird's. Is there such a thing as a mutant Cardinal? Cardinal-Grackle hybrid? LOL!

Lillian and Don Stokes said...

If you can get a photo of a bird you cannot identify it is a big help. You can then either send it to someone who is more experienced, or you can look it up in a field guide. You can send an email to us at the email address on the front page of our blog and we will tell you where to send the photo.

Here is the address for the eagle webcam, but you may need to download a mediaplayer before you can view it.

Mary C said...

Thanks for the birding tips, and thanks for the eagle web cam site.