A few more tips which come in handy when you are just starting out in the world of birdwatching.
Birds don’t always look like they do in the guidebooks!
The image in the field guide was painted (or sometimes photographed) in perfect lighting conditions, using a specimen that had vibrant colors and a perfect plumage. You may run into these same conditions in the field, but don’t count on it. With variable lighting, changing plumages and plain old wear and tear on the feathers, a bird in the bush doesn’t always look like the bird in the book.
All species replace their feathers on an annual basis and many species have several different plumages as the bird matures from juvenile to breeding adult. So bear this in mind when you see a bird which looks kind of like the image in the field guide but not quite.
Keep an eye out for fugitive birds
Keeping birds as pets is a popular hobby. And farmers also keep birds in captivity, usually ducks, geese or game birds. Sometimes these captive birds will escape and attempt to live in the wilds.
With truly exotic birds, like parrots or other tropical birds, it can be obvious that they don’t belong as part of the normal bird population in your area. In that case, you should report the bird on the local bird hotline, an action which will guarantee a horde of experienced birders fanning out to try and identify the exotic escapee.
A bit more problematic are the species which resemble the native birds or who interbreed with them. Among the former group are the popular aviary birds, the finches. Some of the dull-colored pet finches can resemble the native finches that come to your feeder. However, there are usually traits which distinguish them as non-native birds, such as the color of the beak or legs.
The most common instances of non-native birds interbreeding with native species include ducks and geese. It’s not unheard of for a group of experienced birders to stand at a pond for a considerable length of time, trying to determine if that distant duck is an unusually colored native species or a hybrid between a common species and a farm duck.
Albinos and leucism
As with every other animal group, birds are occasionally born as albino or leucistic birds. Albino birds have a complete lack of pigment in their skin and feathers. As a result, they are completely white. They are also very rare and seldom seen, as white animals cannot camouflage themselves and are thus, obvious targets for predators.
Birds that are partial albinos will have strange white patches on their plumage, a trait which can confuse birdwatchers looking for a uniform plumage color.
Leucistic birds are those with imperfect albinism, and as a result, their plumage is not white but looks as if it has been slightly white-washed. Leucistic birds that normally have a dark plumage, like blackbirds, magpies or crows, appear to have been slightly spray-painted with white. They are often referred to as ‘ghost birds’.
Birds have a very good way of conserving body heat when the weather turns cold; they fluff out their feathers. This has the same effect as covering your own body with a blanket; it keeps the body heat close to the body and prevents it from escaping into the air.
The result is that small birds can survive in very harsh winter environments. It also means that the birds appear as fat, rounded balls of fluff.
Learn the Anatomy
You should become familiar with the names of different parts of a bird’s body. This will allow you to easily discuss markings and descriptions with other birdwatchers and will help you to make quick and accurate notes.
Research your destination
With the incredible array of information easily available on the internet, it’s possible to research almost any area for information about its birdlife. So if you plan to visit a new area, check it out first on-line. This will provide you with several useful kinds of information: access in the region, the availability of bird checklists for the area, other potential good birding spots (i.e., natural areas, parks, forest reserves, etc), even the location of coffee shops if the day turns from sunny and warm to windy and rain-filled.
If you cannot find any relevant information through an on-line search, you can do what many experienced birdwatchers do: find an on-line bulletin board for that state (or county or province) and post a request for information. On some bulletin boards you will be flooded with information form birders knowledgeable about the area. You may even get an invitation to tag along with the local birding crowd.
Maintain a high level of ethics
Birdwatchers take a very dim view of people who harass birds just to get a better view of them. Part of the ethos of birdwatching is being part of the experience, not influencing it in a negative way.
The “Code of Birding Ethics”, prepared by the American Birding Association, should be your guide to the proper way to treat birds and conduct yourself as a birdwatcher.
Practice makes perfect
Once again, we should mention that the more birdwatching you do, the better you will get at not only identifying birds but also at finding them.
And remember that if you have a question about birds and you come across a group of 100 birdwatchers, throw your question into the group. Of those birders, 99 of them will be happy to answer your question (the remaining birder is probably just having a bad day). Before you know it, you will become the 101st member of the flock.
Find a mentor
Try to find someone who would be willing to teach you about birds and birdwatching. Contact the local bird clubs or natural history societies. If you can’t locate them, try the nearest museum; chances are pretty good they will have employees who are themselves members of the bird club.
The entire reason for having a bird club is to chum around with a group of people who like to go birdwatching. Get a hold of their field trip schedule and sign up for some trips. If you volunteer to drive on a few trips you will always have willing birdwatching partners, often people who have been birding for many years.
You should remember that even though the membership cards say ‘Bird Club’, these organizations are, at their very heart, social clubs for people who like to flock together in pursuit of a common passion.