How to Be a Better Birder: Top Tips to Improve Your Bird Identification Skills
Get to Know the Common Birds
There's a famous saying that applies in almost all aspects of life—practice makes perfect—and nowhere is this saying more appropriate than in the world of birding. The only way that any birder can become an expert is through spending as much time out in the field as possible. My own personal recommendation would be to find a local patch—a small wildlife oasis within a mile or two of home—and become familiar not only with the landscape but the 'regulars' that inhabit it.
Whenever one enters the world of birding, there is the temptation to dive headlong into the world of twitching and accumulating a huge list. However, a huge life list does not make you an expert. The ability to find your own rarities by eliminating the common species does. A notable example is being able to find and identify a Red-breasted Flycatcher by proving beyond all reasonable doubt that you're not looking at an European Robin.
Keeping an Open Mind
As eluded to, the key to correct identification is by becoming familiar with common species. However, if you do encounter something unusual, never automatically assume that it's a rare species. Remember that nothing is ever what it seems. An apparent rarity could merely be a common bird with an aberrant appearance. It could be a common bird in an unfamiliar plumage, or a hybrid or even a cage-bird that's managed to flee from its prison.
If you are really stuck with pinpointing an ID, especially in the case of a rarity, then either write a full description or take a photograph. If possible, get somebody else to take a look at the bird in the field as there is far better chance of an observation being substantiated if there are more eyes present. On the flip side though, try and keep an independent mind and come to your own conclusion about identification- do not allow the opinions of self-proclaimed experts to cloud your own judgment.
The Dawn Chorus—A Useful Way to Learn Bird Songs
Songs and Calls
In the world of birding, identifying a bird visually is never enough, and most good birders identify a large portion of birds through their considerable array of songs and calls. Sadly, there is no quick way to learning the calls and songs of species, and rather like learning a new language it can take many years of patient practice and perseverance.
Bird recordings can help to a degree and sites like Xeno Canto have a huge library of a variety of songs and calls for a huge number of species, but similar to visual identification, the best way to familiarise yourself with bird songs and calls is to simply to get out there and listen and learn within the framework of a bird's natural environment.
Sadly, over the years, the art of good fieldcraft has declined dramatically, largely due to the fact that many birders now watch from hides or simply turn up at the 'twitch' of a rarity to find their quarry already under observation and often have the bird pointed out to them.
Now, there's nothing wrong with this as such, and I have often benefited from being shown a rare bird, particularly after a long drive. However, it's worth remembering a few old rules—rules such as wearing appropriate clothing, e.g. clothes that match the colour of the environment, as well as moving quietly and smoothly. Birds, and indeed all animals are more likely to be flushed by quick and sudden movements.
Don't be afraid to actively stalk your quarry, crawling on all fours if necessary. Often, it's possible to get quite close to a bird even with very little cover by simply keeping low and below the skyline. Also, don't be afraid to duck and hide behind vegetation in order to get close to a bird as well.
Remember that in many ways, birding is almost exactly the same as hunting but instead of the 'kill' you have the 'tick' or the 'shot' in a photographic sense. In other words, you would never expect a tiger to simply charge at its prey—it stalks carefully and quietly before going in for the kill. Bear in mind, too, that a good hunter respects their prey; similarly, a good birder respects and cares about the birds that they are trying to see.
How to Make Notes in the Field
Every birder has been there before. You spot an unusual bird and you can't quite pin down the ID. In situations like this, then it's absolutely essential that you take notes on the spot whilst you are looking at the bird. If this is not possible, then write some notes on the same day before you go to bed, as sleep forces the brain to file away your photographic mental image into a different part of your brain, thus meaning that by the next day you will probably be unable to accurately recall what you saw.
It's useful to pinpoint any unfamiliar plumage types or anything that attracts your attention, as it all adds to the learning process. By far the easiest way to take notes is to draw a rough sketch of the bird and then take annotated notes. Don't worry too much about the quality of the drawing; if you share my artistic abilities (or lack of) then simply draw two circles—one for the head and another for the body. By doing this, all the identifications points should be checked.
When taking notes, try to remember the proper names of feather tracts (e.g. primaries, tertials and coverts etc) but don’t worry if you can’t as you can look these up when you get home. Even so, it’s best that you familiarise yourself with these terms, particularly how the feathers lie on the wing.
We live in an age where digital technology rules supreme. However, consider this scenario—you spot what you think is a rare bird but you subsequently fail to get that all important photograph. In order to convince a rare records committee of your sighting then you must write a description.
If you’ve already compiled field notes then you’re already halfway there, but with your written description its best to work in a systematic way- start with the head and then work backward from there, remembering to use topographical terminology accurately. Bear in mind that record committees have to deal with a large number of submissions so make sure that your notes are concise, easy to read and engaging.
It's best to start with an introduction, outlining the circumstances of the observation, then move onto a short summary of the bird’s appearance, highlighting any unusual features, going through the details of each feather if necessary. If possible, try to include a drawing as its easier for a committee to visualise a bird from that rather than purely a written description.
Moreover, describe exactly what you saw, rather than relying on textbook clichés, as often those minor features not found within the literature prove to be the most convincing evidence of a valid record. Don’t forget to include any notable behaviour, weather, distance from the bird, optics, names of other observers and details of your previous experience. A committee will take all of these into account when assessing a claim.
Living in the age of digital photography, it is perhaps understandable that description writing has largely been sidelined, especially when a birder can take excellent photographs with the aid of just a digital camera and a telescope. However, beware of relying exclusively on photographs, never forsake proper and thorough examination of the bird. As good as digital images are, they do have their flaws and can often mislead, especially when attempting to evaluate subtle differences in plumage.
All birders, regardless of experience and competence make mistakes. If you do happen to make a mistake then try not to dwell on it, instead learn and progress. Never feel ashamed of making a mistake and never allow anybody, birder or otherwise make you feel ashamed of making a mistake. Inevitably, the more time you spend in the field, the more experienced you will become, thus you should make fewer mistakes. However, birding has this annoying habit of throwing even the most experienced and competent birders a very big curveball, so never get complacent, because believe me you never stop learning.
© 2018 James Kenny