Is bird identification a skill, an art or just good science? Well, in fact, it’s a combination of all three. For instance, it takes some skill to tell one species of warbler from another, whereas distinguishing between juvenile Empidonax flycatchers is an art form, and both talents combined result in good field science. But no matter your level of diagnostic expertise, all birders look for the same basic field marks and information to put a name to their quarry.
While mastering the skills of bird identification can take years of patient effort, there are a number of things that novice birdwatchers can do which will help them identify birds right from the very start.
Get to know your field guide.
The first way to become familiar with the many species you will encounter is to find a comfortable chair. From this vantage point, you can learn a great deal just by leafing through a field guide; look for the birds which should be expected in your area and what they look like. Pay special attention to how the birds are organized in the guide; birds in the same groups will be found together. Knowing where these groups are located in the field guide will eliminate a lot of time otherwise spent in frenzied spasms of page flipping.
Get to know ‘the bird’.
In the front of your field guide will be a diagram illustrating the ‘topography’ of a bird – the names of its various body parts. Get to know these parts so that when you see an unknown bird you will be able to describe it using the same vocabulary as the field guides and as your fellow birders.
Study the bird carefully.
Once you are in the field and you encounter an unknown species, avoid the tendency to immediately pull out your field guide. Spend some time just looking at the bird, gathering as much information about it as you can. Start at the tip of the bill and work your way down along its body, looking at its markings, colors and body shape.
How does the bird move?
The way in which a bird moves provides important clues about its identity. Does it climb up and down the tree trunk or does it flit from branch to branch? Can it sit motionless, or does it slowly pump its tail, or even bob up and down continuously?
Watching a bird fly is not only an inspiring experience but also a useful identification trait. Is the flight pattern straight and level or highly undulating? Is the wing beat slow and steady or blurringly fast? Some birds, as a form of territory advertisement, will sing as they fly, fluttering down slowly or swooping down at high speeds.
Don’t open the field guide just yet.
Instead, pull out a notebook and record your observations, in as much detail as possible. Get the bird’s image fixed in your mind, and on paper, as much as you can. You want to avoid the problem of having your mental image of the bird influenced by the pictures in the field guide.
Open your field guide, and open your mind.
Don’t commit yourself to the first bird picture you see which looks ‘close enough’. Find the group to which the bird belongs in the field guide. Look for all the possible matches. For some groups, like the ducks, similar species will be easy to distinguish based on just one obvious trait (for example, the Common Goldeneye vs. the Barrow’s Goldeneye).
For other species groups, like the sparrows or gulls, several traits will often be necessary to definitively distinguish one species from another. And don’t forget to carefully consider all related species, because they will sometimes quite similar in the field, especially under adverse conditions. For example, if it’s windy, raining, your feet are wet, binoculars even wetter and your cold and tired, was that really a Mountain Chickadee you saw, or a Black-capped Chickadee?
Avoid the ‘pretty picture’ syndrome.
Don’t decide on an identification just based on the picture alone. Does the bird in front of you match both the picture in the field guide and its accompanying description?
Beware the identification based on plumage alone.
Plumage is a highly variable feature of a bird and it changes on a regular (usually annual) basis, especially during the latter stages of the breeding season when most birds undergo feather molt. If you’re not paying attention to other things, such as the bill shape, vocalizations, behavior, leg color, etc., you may well mistake one species for a closely related one.
Plumage can also change color according to the angle at which it is viewed. Does that Scaup duck have a greenish sheen on its head, or is it closer to purple? That’s one of the differences between a Lesser Scaup and a Greater Scaup.
Is your bird within the range specified in the field guide?
Field guides usually provide a range map for each species, often color coded for which region the bird occupies in different seasons during the year. So, if everything tells you that your bird is Species X, but the range map indicates that a more suitable location is hundreds of miles away, then you had better take another, more detailed look at the bird.
Having said that, you must remember that birds can be found outside their normal range. Experienced birdwatchers know that, given the choice between the bird that is common to their area and the bird that looks similar but is very rare, chances are good that the common species is the correct choice. However, they will always look closely, just in case it is the rarer species.
One of the exciting features of birdwatching is finding a species where it is not normally found. It’s the equivalent of opening your wallet expecting to pull out a ten dollar bill but finding a thousand dollar bill in its place.
Pay close attention to the plumages of immatures and females.
Different plumages within the same species can lead to considerable confusion, especially once the breeding season has ended and the newly fledged young are flying about. The plumage of female birds is often look a little different from males, and sometimes completely different, as is the case with the ducks. And juvenile birds can often look different than either of the adults.
Don’t use body size as the sole criteria.
While body size can be a useful field mark, it is often most useful when used for comparative purposes. For instance, describing the bird as “bigger than a robin but smaller than a crow”. But at a distance, and in the absence of other birds for comparison, size can be a risky field-mark to rely on for novice birders.
One notable example is the Yellowlegs. The Greater Yellowlegs is certainly larger than the Lesser Yellowlegs, but unless you see them side by side, or are very experienced, it’s quite difficult to tell them apart based solely on their size.
Where does this bird live?
Some birds, like Magpies and Robins, are found almost everywhere. Other birds are specific to certain habitats. Longspurs are generally restricted to prairie grasslands while Dippers are found only along fast moving streams in the mountains and foothills. Habitat can be a good accessory fact when determining an identity.