1. Getting Started
Learn to See Details
One of the biggest differences between the expert birder and the novice is that the expert has spent years training to see details. The beginner must literally learn how to see them.
The challenge of seeing and interpreting details in birds is complex, and all of the issues are intertwined. A patient and deliberate approach and an absence of distractions are prerequisites. Active study, asking questions while observing, is important. Anything that promotes detailed study-such as sketching or taking notes-is also very helpful.
It is easy for a beginner to be overwhelmed by details and by the challenge and excitement of just seeing a bird. Not having a clear idea of what to focus on can result in an observation that yields no useful information. Experience will cure this, but as a general rule it is best to focus on the bird's bill and face. The shape of the bill will help you to place the bird in a broad group of related species, while the bill and the face together are a distinctively marked part of almost every bird.
You must not only practice seeing details but also practice seeing details at a distance. The field marks birders use at a distance are different from the marks used at very close range. Be conscious of this and study the birds to see how distance changes perception.
Watching a bird after you have identified it can be a very useful exercise. Watch it fly, watch it move around, watch it forage. Watch a bird as it flies away, but challenge yourself to identify it again based on what you can see at a distance. It's very important to know what you cannot
see on a distant bird. You'll often hear experienced birders say something like, "I didn't see the white patch but I don't think it would have been visible at that distance," or "I didn't see the white patch, and it really should have been visible." This expertise can only be acquired by experience and by consciously testing the limits of perception.
Watch for Patterns
A large part of identifying birds is knowing what to expect. Having an idea of what you should
see and simply looking for confirmation is far simpler and more productive than looking at a bird with no preconceptions. Every aspect of the birds' lives and appearance follows a pattern, and expectations of what species should be present and what they should look like are the precursors to quick and accurate identifications.
Birds are found at predictable times and places, and this information can be a very powerful clue. For example: A meadowlark seen in California can be safely identified as a Western Meadowlark based on the fact that the Eastern Meadowlark simply doesn't occur there. You do not need to study plumage details or hear call notes to feel confident in its identification as a Western Meadowlark. On a more subtle level, if the Red-tailed Hawk is the most common large hawk in your area, you can start with the assumption that any large hawks seen are Red-taileds. Then, looking specifically for a reddish tail, white speckling on the scapulars, the correct overall size or proportions, or dozens of other characteristics might be enough for you to conclude within a fraction of a second that you are looking at a Red-tailed Hawk. There is no need to consider other possibilities unless something doesn't match up.
Seeing and remembering all the details of variation in birds' appearance, habits, and distribution is much easier when one understands the underlying patterns. By paying attention to patterns, one develops a sense of the expected range of variation and can then quickly recognize and study any bird that doesn't match the expectations.
One of the most basic patterns that the bird-watcher needs to understand is the groupings of related species. Everyone knows that ducks are ducks and hawks are hawks. The birder knows that, among ducks, the diving ducks and puddle ducks are different; and that among the diving ducks, the eiders, scoters, scaup, mergansers, and others are all different. Even within the mergansers the Common and Red-breasted Mergansers are similar, while the Hooded Merganser is distinctive. Learning the characteristics that group related species together helps an observer to distinguish a duck from a loon, an eider from a teal, or a Red-breasted Merganser from a Hooded Merganser.
Again and again in this book I will stress the importance of experience. There is no substitute for it. The methods and clues I put forth will be meaningful only after you have had some personal experience with them. The book covers some of the larger concepts; refining the ideas and filling in the details is up to the individual.
It is only through experience that you will be able to develop the detailed mental image of each species that is necessary for rapid identification. You should seek out more experience whenever possible, making an effort to see each species in different seasons or habitats. Seeing a bird in a different plumage or setting will give you a better idea of the range of variation in the species. More importantly, through this type of experience you can learn the essential characteristics of the species, the things that do not change regardless of plumage, season, or habitat. This information is essential in order to refine your mental image, prioritize the field marks, and arrive at an accurate identification.
One shortcut to gaining experience is to go out in the field with experienced bird-watchers. From them you will quickly and easily learn the basic techniques of birding as well as the common species in your area. Many birds are never seen well and so are difficult to identify without experience. To the novice this is just frustrating, but if an experienced observer can name the bird it becomes an opportunity to study field marks and to learn some valuable things about that species.
Most nature centers, parks, refuges, Audubon chapters, and bird clubs organize periodic bird walks, and the people who run these are always willing and able to help a new birder.
Learn from Your Mistakes
Another important bit of advice is to view mistakes as an opportunity for learning. Ask yourself why the mistake occurred. Perhaps you were just being lazy, perhaps jumping to conclusions on limited data, or perhaps you were misled because the bird was unusual or doing something unexpected. Perhaps you are familiar with the bird in a different setting and didn't know that it could look or act a certain way. Mistakes occur because of the pressure to make an identification quickly, based on limited clues. Analyzing your mistakes and those of others can be very enlightening.
It can be difficult to accept the fact that a lot of birds have to be identified as "possible" or "probable." There is nothing to be gained by convincing yourself that you have seen a certain species. Talking yourself into something or denying your mistakes will only slow the learning process and cause problems in the long run.
Bird-watching requires very little equipment. In fact it is possible to take up bird-watching with no equipment at all, but a pair of binoculars and a field guide are considered the minimum. I also strongly recommend a field notebook.Optics: Binoculars, Telescopes, and Other Gadgets
Many beginning birders are frustrated when they struggle to see the field marks that a more experienced birder is pointing out. The problem may be not the beginners' eyesight or ability but their binoculars. If you find yourself in this situation, you might want to investigate the possibility of buying better binoculars, as these can make a huge difference in the quality of your bird-watching experience.
Buy the best pair you can afford, and be sure to try them out before you buy. Seek advice from other birders and/or from a specialized bird-watching shop. Price depends more on the quality than on the power, and an image seen through more expensive binoculars is almost always brighter, more colorful, and sharper than one seen through a less expensive pair. The more expensive binoculars also tend to be more durable. Different makes and models have slightly different specifications. You might find that you prefer one model over another if, for example, brightness or close-focus is more important to you than weight, or you may simply want the brightest, sharpest model available in a certain price range.
I strongly recommend 7- or 8-power binoculars. The detail you see depends more on the resolution (sharpness) of the image than on the power. The advantages of these over the stronger 10-power binoculars is that they are usually lighter in weight; they present a brighter image; the inevitable vibrations from hand movement are less distracting; and the field of view is wider (you will see more of the habitat surrounding the bird). All of this makes it easier to locate, follow, and study a rapidly moving bird.
It's important to spend some time learning how to use your binoculars. Practice lifting them to your eyes and focusing on an object. Practice finding a specific leaf in a large tree by looking for landmarks with your naked eye and then following this "map" with the binoculars to locate the leaf. In time you will become proficient at locating even a flying bird in the binoculars.
For many types of birding-generally waterbirds such as sandpipers, ducks, and seabirds-a telescope is an essential tool. The telescope is useful not just for studying very distant birds but also for seeing fine detail on close birds. As with binoculars, you should buy the best telescope you can afford. I recommend a 30-power eyepiece with wide-angle view, if available. This is the highest power that can be used easily. Higher power magnifies the inevitable shake and wind movement, as well as atmospheric distortion, and is much more difficult to use to locate birds. You'll also need a sturdy tripod to mount the scope for viewing.
Many people pursue hobbies such as photography or sound recording along with birding. These can be useful to document what you are seeing for your personal enjoyment or to prove to others the sighting of a rare bird. The advent of digital cameras has made it very easy to take photographs or video directly through a telescope.Field Guides
These are relatively compact books that describe and illustrate the key identification features for each species of bird. Most birders end up owning a variety of different field guides, and since each guide offers a different interpretation of the birds, it can be useful to consult more than one. At the same time, since using the guide requires a familiarity with the author's style of interpretation, you will probably develop a favorite guide, one that you feel comfortable relying on.
The field guide is a reference book as well as a learning tool. You should strive to learn the information included in it rather than use it as a constant reference. Too often, a birder barely looks at a bird before opening the book. By studying a bird, taking notes, and checking the book later, rather than immediately flipping open the book, you will learn far more. Similarly, by studying a bird even after the identity has been established, you can learn a great deal about that species.
You should mark up the book as much as you want. Write the date and location of sightings to help remember each species. Use a highlighter or add colored stickers to draw attention to the species that are most frequently seen in your area and help familiarize yourself with both the book and those birds.
Even though field guides include range maps showing which species might occur in your area, you can obtain much more detailed information from a local checklist or regional guide. Study this and mark in your field guide the species you'll be most likely to see.
Finding More Information
Allow birding to take you in other directions. Browsing technical journals can provide insights and bits of information that will help you to understand the birds and their identification. The more you learn about a bird and its habits, the better you will be at identifying that species the next time you see it.Further Reading
As a bird-watcher, you should include at least one field guide in your library, and most of us find that over time we accumulate many books about birds. The second book in your library should be a guide to the status and distribution of birds in your local area; such books exist now for virtually every part of North America.
Allow your curiosity about birds to take you in other directions. There are literally hundreds of books about birds and every aspect of bird life. Remember that every bit of information you learn about a bird and its habits will help you to understand and identify that species in the field. Technical journals for ornithologists, such as the Auk, Condor,
and Wilson Bulletin,
provide fascinating reading for the motivated birder. Less technical journals catering to birders include Birding
(the journal of the American Birding Association), Birder's Journal,
and Western Birds,
Comprehensive references such as the Birds of North America series, the Handbook of Birds of the World series, and Arthur C. Bent's Life Histories of North American Birds series provide detailed information about the natural history of the birds. For a more general overview of this topic try the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.
For details about plumages, molt, subspecies, and other identification issues, the Identification Guide to North American Birds,
by Peter Pyle, is an excellent reference. Many specialized books have been published recently on the identification and natural history of single families of birds, and more information is constantly being published. Yet even with all of this there are still questions that you will have to answer for yourself, and the path to increased knowledge involves both book study and field experience.
2. Finding Birds
One of the things that makes bird-watching exciting is that the birds are so mobile. You never know what you will see, whether you are going for a walk around the block or into a wilderness area. Similarly, the bird you see might be in view for only a few seconds before it flies off to some unknown place, and many species are simply elusive and secretive, reluctant to show themselves at all. To see birds you must be constantly alert, watching and listening all around.
* Move quietly: Birds are not necessarily disturbed by noises, but you may be distracted by them. Often the first clue to a bird's presence is some small rustling of leaves or soft call notes. Any noise or distraction, such as conversation or swishing clothing, can prevent you from noticing these signs.
Excerpted from Sibley's Birding Basics by David Allen Sibley. Copyright © 2002 by David Allen Sibley. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.