Part Two: Identifying Birds
By now you're familiar with the organization of field guides and with some of the different families of birds. You have binoculars and can spot an object with your naked eye and then look at it through the binoculars without having to search for ten minutes. Most importantly, you've avoided the frustration - so far - of trying to associate a particular name with a particular bird. Now, to accomplish this feat, let's go over some helpful techniques for learning to identify families and species of birds.
The first thing to remember is: don't make bird identification hard on yourself. There are two general rules to keep in mind during your first few months of birding: 1) eliminate as many species as possible from consideration before you ever attempt to identify anything, and 2) the bird is most likely a species that commonly occurs in your area, not some strange exotic that blew in from a thousand miles away.
These rules are closely tied to one another, and they focus on making birding easier by reducing the number of choices you have to consider. For example, in Florida there is only one type of hummingbird that occurs regularly, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird (verify this from your field guide, if you like). Small numbers of other hummingbird species make their way to Florida (typically in winter), but why worry about trying to identify these uncommon vagrants until you have more experience with our most common species?
I received a long-distance phone call one day from a woman who thought she had a Spotted Owl in her backyard. She wanted to know why she couldn't find the bird in her field guide of eastern birds. It's no wonder! Spotted Owls occur in several western states but they're as rare as two-pound diamonds east of the Rockies. This woman had recently seen a picture of a Spotted Owl in Natural History magazine, so when she saw an owl that looked like the picture she immediately went looking for Spotted Owls in her field guide, passing right by Barred Owls, which look similar and, more importantly, are common throughout the Southeast. It took me approximately ten minutes to convince her that it might be a Barred Owl and that perhaps she should look more closely at this bird. She eventually agreed with me, but this was a perfect case of a beginning bird watcher making things harder than they had to be.
One of the easiest ways to exclude birds is to go through your field guide and put an "X" next to those that do not typically occur in your geographic area. Put these aside for the time being. By doing this, you drastically reduce the number of birds you have to worry about identifying from the 900 birds in your guide to the 300 or so birds that are regularly seen in Florida! By the way, don't worry about marking up your field guide. A field guide personally adjusted to meet your needs is the best friend you can have when alone in the field. I kept extensive notes in my first field guide. In fact, on one page it was hard to see the drawings amid all my scribbles. Just make sure to use a pencil or permanent ink so that the words won't smear if you leave the book in the rain or drop it in the mud occasionally.
Another way to eliminate choices is to consider the time of year the bird might occur in your area. The range maps included with field guides display this type of information. Some beginners might even find it beneficial to place colored dots next to birds in their field guides. For example, put a red dot next to birds that are year-round residents, put a blue dot next to birds that are only winter visitors, put a green dot next to birds that are summer visitors, and put a black dot next to birds that only pass through Florida during migration.
These procedures will quickly eliminate a lot of confusing birds from consideration. For example, there are approximately 170 native birds that breed in Florida and another 30 or so that hang around in small numbers during the summer. So, if you see some unknown bird in the middle of July, don't consider the 900 species shown in your field guide. Instead, you only have to choose from 200 or so different birds that occur within Florida during the summer. Simple, right?
The way that some birds skulk about, you'd think that they were afraid of showing off their pretty colors and didn't want anyone to identify them. And this is the case, no doubt, as they must somehow evade predators from both above and below. Often, their quick movements allow us only a glimpse. Still, you will be able to identify even the most secretive bird using the key clues to identification described here.
There are five basic clues you can look and listen for that will allow you to solve the bird identification puzzle: 1) the bird's silhouette, 2) its plumage and coloration, 3) its behavior, 4) its habitat preferences, and 5) its voice. This may seem like a formidable amount of information to gather, but in truth you often need only one or two of these clues to identify a bird. Sometimes, the key to identification is simply knowing which clue to look for first when you see an unfamiliar bird. As your birding abilities increase, you will be able to pinpoint the important clues with greater ease and certainty.
Silhouette - Shape and Size
As you become familiar with your field guide, you will be able to quickly categorize most birds into families using silhouette alone (remember, each family has a diagnostic shape and size). This will immediately put you at an advantage compared to the average observer because by placing the bird you see into a particular family, you have already narrowed down the possible birds you could be seeing from the 900 in your field guide to only about 15 or so birds - the 15 birds within the family you have identified. As mentioned earlier, you can then further eliminate any species in the family that do not occur in Florida during that season. You can do this even in the worst of lighting conditions when birds are backlit, in low light or in shadow. It doesn't matter. The overall shape is unchanged. Many birds are even identifiable to species by outline alone.
Of course, it will not be easy to accomplish this feat at first. You must learn to note carefully all the details of a bird's shape. Is the bird large or small, short-legged or long-legged, crested or not crested, plump or slim and sleek, short-tailed or long-tailed?
The shape of a bird's bill is also an extremely helpful clue that is obvious from a silhouette. Cardinals, finches and sparrows have short, conical bills for crushing seeds. Woodpeckers have chisel-shaped bills for working dead wood. Hawks, eagles and falcons, on the other hand, have sharp, hooked bills that make quick work of meat. Shorebirds have slender bills of all lengths for probing at different depths into the sand and mud.
Size is also an important field mark, and field guides do list the size of birds next to pictures. However, if you don't have some type of scale in mind, these numbers are of little use. The "ruler" I use in the field is a mental association of three familiar birds with three general size classes. For example, a Chipping Sparrow is 5-6 inches in size, a Northern Mockingbird is 8-10 inches in size, and an American Crow is 17-21 inches in size. Now, using phrases like "larger than a crow" or "smaller than a sparrow," you have an immediate impression of the approximate size of any bird. You also have an immediate frame of reference for your field guide if you associate each of these three species with 5-,10- and 20-inch size classes.
Plumage characteristics are what really draw a lot of people into birding - they like seeing those beautiful colors. The distinguishing plumage clues that identify different species are known as "field marks." These include such things as breast spots, wing bars (thin lines along the wings), eye rings (circles around the eyes), eyebrows (lines over the eyes), eye lines (lines through the eyes) and many others.
Some field marks are best seen when a bird is in flight. A flying Northern Harrier can be identified from nearly a mile away with good binoculars because the bird has a bright white patch on its rump.
Some families of birds can be broken into even smaller groups based on one or two simple field marks. For example, warblers are fairly evenly divided between those that have wing bars and those that do not. So if you see a warbler-like bird, look quickly to see if it has wing bars. Sparrows, on the other hand, can be separated into two smaller groups based on whether or not the breast is streaked. Look for other broad distinctions for other families.
A bird's behavior - how it flies, forages or generally comports itself - is one of the best clues to its identity. Hawks have a "serious" demeanor, crows and jays are "gregarious" and cuckoos are... well, not really. Woodpeckers climb up the sides of tree trunks searching for grubs like a lineman scaling a telephone pole. Flycatchers, on the other hand, wouldn't climb a tree trunk if their lives depended on it. They spend most of their time sitting upright on an exposed perch. When they see a bug cruising into range they quickly dart from their perch, snag the meal, then return to the same perch or another one nearby. Finches spend a lot of their time on the ground in search of fallen seeds, as do Northern Mockingbirds, Gray Catbirds and Brown Thrashers. Some wading birds, such as Snowy Egrets and Reddish Egrets, are very active foragers and chase their prey around in shallow waters. Other wading birds, such as Great Blue Herons, are less impetuous and hunt slowly with great patience and stealth.
Even the way a bird props its tail gives some clues as to which species or family it might be. Wrens characteristically hold their tails in a cocked position and often bounce from side to side. Spotted Sandpipers and Louisiana Waterthrushes bounce their tails and rumps rapidly up and down as if doing a stylish dance step. Some thrushes and flycatchers, on the other hand, move their tails frequently but slowly, with a wave-like motion. You can even identify some birds just by the way that they fly. Most finches and woodpeckers move through the air with an undulating flight pattern, flapping their wings for short bursts and then tucking them under for a short rest. One group of raptors, the buteos or soaring hawks, circle the sky suspended on outstretched wings. Most falcons, another group of raptors, fly with strong wing beats and rarely hover. Yet another group, the accipiters or bird hawks, usually fly in a straight line with alternating periods of flapping and floating.
Even if a range map shows that a bird occurs in your neck of the woods, this doesn't mean the bird will be common wherever you go. Birds segregate themselves according to habitat type and are sometimes quite picky in selecting an area as home. Wading birds and ducks, for example, prefer watery habitats rather than dry upland areas. Pine Warblers and Brown-headed Nuthatches associate primarily with pine woods and are less common in areas containing large numbers of oaks, hickories and other deciduous trees. Some Florida birds, like the Snowy Plover, are restricted primarily to the sandy coast, while others, including the Limpkin, occur mostly along river swamps and freshwater marshes.
Beginning birders must usually spend many hours afield before they are able to associate different species with different habitat types. I suggest you develop a key to habitats you frequent and keep notes of where you see different species. Make the habitat key simple at first, using terms like salt and freshwater marsh, pinelands, deciduous forest, beach, urban area, field and pasture, etc. Then elaborate on this key as you learn to distinguish among different Florida habitat types. You can put abbreviations such as "SM" (for salt marsh), "PW" (for pine woods), and "FP" (for field and pasture) next to the pictures of birds in your field guide after you have some feel for where the birds occur. Most field guides actually provide this information in the written description, but this abbreviated system may help you remember the habitats where each bird occurs.
I've often thought it would be rewarding to teach blind people how to "bird listen." Birds have unique songs and calls, and voice is often all that's needed to identify many of the birds you encounter. If each species didn't have a distinctive call or song, there would be a lot of confusion out there when birds tried to communicate. Just as you can tell that the person on the other end of the phone is Uncle Ted and not Aunt Jill, so too can you learn to distinguish the different voices of birds.
Listening to recordings helps considerably when you are trying to learn bird vocalizations. Many are currently available on CD. Some excellent recordings include: Peterson Field Guides Birding by Ear (2002) and More Birding by Ear (2000) by Richard Walton, Robert Lawson and Roger Tory Peterson; Peterson Field Guides A Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern and Central North America (1990); Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs: Eastern Region (1997) by Donald and Lillian Stokes, and Lang Elliot; and Bird Songs of Florida by Geoffrey Keller (1997). However, no matter how many recordings you listen to, there is no substitute for going out into the field. There's something about the association of voice and bird that helps to fix both in memory. Plus, bird vocalizations are complex and no set of recordings can hope to encompass all the variety and geographic variations that can be experienced firsthand out in nature.
Going afield with experienced birders can often help to speed you along the bird identification learning curve, and a variety of private and public groups offer bird tours throughout Florida. Your local chapter of the National Audubon Society is perhaps the best starting place to find out more about birding trips in your area. National organizations such as the American Birding Association also offer a multitude of birding information in the form of magazines, newsletters, annual meetings, guided trips, and retailers of birding books, recordings, binoculars and other equipment. In addition, birding festivals occur throughout Florida and offer an opportunity to participate in guided field trips for a minimal fee.
Birding is always more enjoyable when you have information on where to go and what species to look for. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) developed the Great Florida Birding Trail to help you find Florida's birding hot spots and birds of interest. To download or request free copies of these trail guides, visit www.floridabirdingtrail.com.
To keep track of all the birds you encounter, the FWC has prepared a "Checklist of Florida's Birds." Single copies of this publication are available for free by writing to: "Bird Checklist," Great Florida Birding Trail, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, 620 S. Meridian St., Tallahassee, FL 32399-1600. Checklists and other birding information are also available free through the "Wings Over Florida" program which awards certificates at a variety of achievement levels to birders who keep track of their life lists of Florida birds. Write to "Wings Over Florida Application Packet" at the same address.
Birding is not the easiest sport in the world to learn, but it is definitely one of the most rewarding. To offset those first outings when you flipped through your field guide with frustration, there will be many years' worth of pleasant and intriguing field trips. You see, birders experience something new every time they go out. Even if they don't see a new species for the first time, they might see a new behavior, hear a new vocalization, or just explore a new and wild corner of Florida. They might even come across something startling, like a rare European bird that somehow strayed far from home.
The constant variety and challenge of birding are two important attractions, but so too is the camaraderie. About 48 million people in the United States are casual bird watchers, feeding and observing birds around their homes. A smaller number, around 20 million, take trips for the primary purpose of watching birds. Still, that's a lot of people poking their heads into bushes and craning their necks toward the sky!
I've developed a good number of lasting friendships as I've cruised some isolated road and happened across a kindred soul bedecked with binoculars and a field guide. We shoot the breeze for awhile, exchange notes on what we've seen that day, and then walk along together for a short while to find out what new birds are hiding in the bushes ahead. Birding is always filled with a world of new people and new experiences.