Watching birds is the most important part of bird identification, but in order to properly identify birds, you must do much more than just look at them. Novice birders often spend too much time watching their field guides instead of the birds they want to identify, especially when the birds only offer a brief glimpse. Learning how to watch birds more carefully is an easy way to improve your bird identification skills.
Equipment for Watching Birds
To watch birds carefully, the proper equipment is necessary, including:
- Optics: Good birding binoculars or a spotting scope can help you see birds more clearly. Choose optics that best suit your viewing needs and your budget, and keep them properly focused and cleaned for the best possible views.
- Vision Correction: If you require eyeglasses or contact lenses, be sure they are kept in peak condition for both sight and wearing. An updated prescription is essential as well so you can see all the details of the birds you watch.
- Shade: Bright sunlight may illuminate the best colors on birds, but it can also wash out critical details for identification, and glare can make watching the birds less comfortable. Wearing a hat or visor to provide shade near the eyes is a good way to counter the effects of an overly sunny day.
- Sleep: While a good night's sleep may not be a piece of equipment per se, it can be just as crucial for proper bird identification as any optics. Your eyes will focus better if they are well-rested, so always be sure to sleep properly before you plan to go birding.
When You First See a Bird
When you first see a bird in the field, especially a species you are not familiar with, the most important thing to do is to stay still and let the bird realize you are not a threat. It will quickly become accustomed to your presence, and you can observe it more closely in order to identify it. As you watch the bird, you may want to take brief notes in a birding journal, using shorthand and abbreviations as much as possible so you can spend more time watching the bird rather than writing about it. As you watch the bird...
- Note the bird's size, shape and general proportions. This can help you distinguish, in general, what type of bird it is – passerine, gull, duck, game bird, shorebird, etc.
- Look at the bird's field marks first, noting special patches of color and other distinct markings. These are the best clues that will help you decipher its identity.
- Take note of the bird's habitat such as whether it is a coniferous or deciduous forest, a swamp, open grassland, thick brush, or other landforms that can give better clues to the bird's range preferences.
- Compare the bird to its immediate surroundings to help judge its size. Without specific measurements, you can compare the bird to more familiar species of a similar size, such as the size of a sparrow or robin.
- Observe the bird's behavior and any sounds it makes. Is it walking or hopping? Does its tail flick? How does it sound? These details may help you distinguish between very similar species.
So long as the bird is in view, take as much time as possible to watch it closely. Only after you've observed it well should you open your field guide to try to find a match, and the guide can give you additional clues you need to check to verify an exact species. You may need to move closer to the bird or move to a position that provides a better, less obstructed view, but always be slow and careful when moving so the bird does not leave.
More Tips for Watching Birds for Identification
Even with unobstructed, close views and cooperative birds, it isn't always possible to identify every bird species you see. If you are able to watch the birds carefully, however, and still have difficulty, these tips might help...
- Take a photo of the bird to compare to several field guides and online references later.
- Use several field guides, including a photo-based guide and an art-based guide, for ID comparisons.
- Compare the bird to others in the flock that may provide better views to see if they're the same species.
Patience, perseverance and practice are all essential for bird identification. By learning how to properly watch birds and taking the time to keep your eye on the birdie, you can learn more about the real birds you see instead of the photos or drawings in a field guide, and you will gradually become more proficient and confident when identifying birds.
Photo – Yellow-Rumped Warbler © Michael Woodruff