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Birding for Beginners

Why Birding?

Before we look at the many ways that you can improve your skills as a birder, we should spend a few minutes looking at the many reasons why you might want to in the first place. Why is bird watching such a popular activity? What is the attraction?

The simple fact is that bird watching, or birding as it is usually referred, is FUN! It gives you a great excuse to leave your television behind and venture out into the elements. Need a good reason to head out and go for a walk? Bring along your binoculars. It provides a healthy activity that just about anyone can enjoy. You donít need good knees like skiing. You donít even need to be able to venture beyond your own back yard. Bird feeders placed on window sills allow individuals with limited mobility  (like skiers with broken legs) to enjoy birds with little or no effort.

I should warn you though. Birding can be addictive. You may find yourself obsessed with some rare species that may have been reported locally. You find yourself getting up earlier and earlier to put in a few hours of birding before work. You begin looking at your landscaping in a whole new way as you start planting more bird friendly plants, installing feeders and bird baths and reducing the use of harmful chemicals.

You donít need to be smart, thin or good looking to be a great birder. Most of us can already recognize a few local species. With a little effort you begin to become aware of a multitude of other species that are found all around you. In time, the air is filled with the calls of familiar friends and the silence of the forest is replaced by a feathered symphony.

Becoming an expert on visual identification takes time and patience. Some groups of birds are much easier to definitively identify than others. The vireos and flycatchers are a challenge for even the most experienced ornithologist. On the other hand, the jays are very easy to learn. Begin by focussing on those groups that are both common and distinctive, and then, when you see an unknown species take a visual inventory of its unique characteristics. How large is it? What is the shape of the body? Does it walk, hop, waddle or wade? Notice the shape of its beak. Is it long, narrow, stalky, flat or hooked? Is there a crest on the head? Does the tail extend beyond the body? Is the tip round, square, forked or fan shaped? Take a careful inventory of the colours of the bird. In particular look at the head, wings (are there bands on the wing?), and tail. In flight, the colour of the rear edge of the wing, or speculum, is one of the key identifiers for waterfowl.

When the bird moves, take note of its behaviour. This is often as distinctive as its physical appearance. How does it hold its tail? Is it found on the ground, perched in trees, or soaring high above? When perched,  does it hold its body upright or horizontal? Does it use its tail as a brace as in woodpeckers? If it climbs along the trunk, does it tend to climb up the tree like a creeper or down like a nuthatch?

If it lives in and around the water notice how it swims. Does it merely tip its bill into the water leaving its tail above the surface, or does it dive completely underwater? When it takes off, does it jump straight into the air or does it require a long runway to become airborne? If it wades, take note of how long its legs are. Does it slowly stalk like a heron or rapidly run along the shoreline probing with its beak? Does it bob up and down like a dipper or teeter like a spotted sandpiper?

When airborne, does it have a constant rhythm or does it undulate like a woodpecker? Does it generally fly in a straight line or perform aerial acrobatics like a swallow? How fast does it beat its wings? Is it alone or in a flock?

Also taking note of the habitat and season may help identify a bird, or at least help distinguish between two similar species. Birds like scoters are generally migratory, appearing in large flocks on open water in the fall and spring. Knowing their habitat and annual cycles can often form the last key element in an identification.

All Material © Ward Cameron 2005