Many birdwatchers struggle with identifying birds and trust us, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Birds can be just too quick, too shadowy, too hidden, or simply too diverse compared to their image in field guides.
Fledglings, birds during moult, sexually monomorphic birds, breeding or winter plumage – there’s just too many variations on a theme to be right all the time.
Don’t be afraid to break that book spine and just read it on through.
So, it may please you to know there are several things you can do during your birdwatching escapades that can help, and we will take you through each one below. Some may not be right for you, but some may be just what you need.
These tips can be applied in every scenario of birdwatching too, either at your feeders or in deepest darkest Borneo.
#1 Look at the book
If you’re anything like me, you will have bought at least two field guides, shiny and new and full of amazing pictures and facts. Don’t be afraid to break that book's spine and just read it on through. Leaf through each section, and become familiar with the particular layout of that book.
Most field guides follow a standard pattern with larger, more exotic birds near the front and the more common ones as you go on. Some have waders and water birds first, then going down in scale from huge birds of prey to tiny warblers and finches.
Familiarise yourself with the sub sections – songbirds are vast in their species, but over time certain ones have been grouped together – “Tits and their allies”, or birds that share similar habitats like larks and pipits will be close together. Know what to expect in each species section – does your guide cover flight patterns, diet, breeding cycles?
If you own them, practice with your binoculars. If you don’t own them, get some, and practice.
If so, these will always be in the same format and you can skip down the page finding the section you need. Try not to become too obsessed with the pictures, but do take note of certain aspects of plumage – a black or striped crown, for instance, or a white belly and black tail. Some field guides also offer highly useful comparison boxes at the end of each description – birds often confused with this bird, with a list of differences to help with elimination.
#2 Work your way down
When you see a bird, and if it stays put long enough, try to observe it in stages rather than just hoping the name will leap out of the ether at you if you stare at it long enough. Starting with the head, see if it has a different coloured cap or crown or hood to the rest of the head; does it have eye stripes or spots or markings on its cheek or neck? What is the colour and shape of the beak?
Then, move to the chest – is it streaked or spotted? All one colour? Which colour? Look carefully at the wings folded on the back next, and note any obvious changes in colour – white wing bars among black and brown flight feathers, olive greens merging into lemon yellows.
How long are the tail feathers in relation to the body, and are they all one colour as well?
What shape does the tail at rest have? Does the bird hold or move the tail in a particular way?
Lastly, the legs and feet. These may not seem important but they can often help make that final decision – some subspecies never have black legs; some have pink when young then brown as they age. Are the feet webbed, strong-looking, even maybe have one really long claw at the back?
#3 Through the looking glasses
If you own them, practice with your binoculars. If you don’t own them, get some, and practice. We understand that not all budgets or abilities can accommodate these devices but if you can, we strongly urge purchasing them. Bringing that bird closer, even if only momentarily, truly enhances the experience.
Practice turning the focus wheel whilst trained on a range of objects at varying distances – get familiar with which way you turn it depending on how near or far the object is. Get used to holding them comfortably and steadily whilst you do this.
Once you’re happy, move on to actually looking at birds, but don’t get disheartened if you miss them or they go in or out of focus all the time, it will come with practice. Also, one of the most important things is, keep them in the same place every time so you know where they are if you suddenly need them.
After ten minutes of hunting, long after the flock of 100 or so bee eaters had passed overhead, I once found mine in the fridge.
#4 Pop the question
Don’t be afraid to ask. If you find yourself in the vicinity of other birdwatchers, pipe up and ask how they knew it was a marsh harrier, a black-capped chickadee, a dark-eyed junco. Most will be happy to explain and pass on, often modestly, their knowledge, and tips on how to recognise certain species.
You don’t have to wait for them to speak, either – true, many birdwatchers prefer silence, as of course this leads to the likelihood of any nearby birds staying put for a while, but an even and low-pitched comment or query conveys that no harm or disruption is intended, just a genuine need for information.
#5 Picture this
Release your creative side and carry a sketchbook around. Even a few circular scribbles with some stick legs and beak can help you refer back to the image later, and if you don’t use colour then make sure you add arrowed notes to the drawing – black beak, red cap, green chest and so on. If you are handy with a pencil or a brush then these sketches can be essential to narrowing down what you saw.
Over time, a certain month becomes synonymous with the imminent arrival of familiar species.
If you think drawing or painting is beyond you, try carrying a notepad instead, make lists of what you thought you saw and why you thought that, then refer back to the field guide later.
Remember to date the sightings too – these lists, if kept up over periods of time, can also prove invaluable when figuring out seasonal variations, breeding cycles and the sudden proliferation of fledglings confusing the mix, and who is likely to show up as the winter or summer approaches.
You’ll find that over time, a certain month becomes synonymous with the imminent arrival of familiar species. These acts of putting information on paper also helps consolidate your recall and trains your memory.
The main thing to remember is that birdwatching is fun, whether you know the name of that bird or not; don’t forget to enjoy the moment and the simple state of observing a wild animal going about its day, and have faith that the name will come.