Many of us often see birds that we don’t recognize. The question is, what can the bird tell us to help identify it correctly. “Birding 101” as I like to call it, indicates that there are four keys to identifying birds, namely, shape and size, color, behavior and habitat.
Shape and size
Overall size and shape are the first things to consider. Once you have decided on the broad picture, you can look for the more subtle differences related to size and shape. Bill (short, long, thin, thick) and tail (long, short) are important ID markers right off the bat. Once these more general characteristics have been noticed you can move on to more subtle differences, such as head shape, neck length and body shape. Body shape is an important identifier. Your impression of the shape counts. Does the bird look like a duck, a goose, a crow, a raven, etc. Regarding neck length, it is important to determine whether the bird has a long or short neck? Great egrets have long necks, where as a robin has a short neck. Head shapes also differ. Ducks have different shaped heads than a hummingbird, woodpecker or swallow. Put these things together and you are well on your way to identifying the bird.
Color pattern also helps to tell the tale. Overall color is a good marker. One question to ask is whether the bird is light or dark. The overall main colors come next in the sequence of identification. Male American goldfinches are bright yellow and black. The hairy woodpecker is black and white, and a Caspian tern is mainly black, white and gray with a dark red bill.
Behavior is another factor in bird identification because how a bird behaves may be particular to the species. Behavior includes whether a bird is sitting or perched. Some birds like flycatchers sit at the top of a tree, fly off to snag an insect and then return to the same perch. Whether it is swimming, flying, and/or singing can tell you a lot about the bird you are trying to ID. If it is flying, perhaps it is a bald eagle, red-tailed hawk or a common raven. If it is singing from the top of vegetation in a wetland it may be a Marsh wren or a red-wing blackbird. The spotted sandpiper walks over stones and rocks at the water’s edge, and all the while bobs its back end up and down. Another important feature is whether the bird is alone or in a flock. Shorebirds, such as dunlin and sanderlings, flock on our beaches. The snowy plover tends to be a loner in that it doesn’t congregate with hundreds of other shorebirds. It is uncommon and a special bird that we make an effort to protect on our Peninsula.
Habitat is one of the most important clues to bird identification and should be considered both first and last. Woodlands and forests, aquatic areas, scrub/shrubby areas, and open habitats tend to be specific to certain species. Aquatic habitats, for example include wetlands, ponds, lakes, sloughs, rivers, oceans and streams. Red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, northern pintails, mallards, and sooty shearwaters are most likely to be seen in an aquatic habitat. The northern harrier most often flies low over an open field or a wetland when on the hunt. Sparrows tend to frequent open, weedy fields and shrubby places, while Steller’s jays, chestnut-backed and black-capped chickadees most often frequent woodlots and forests.
We are fortunate to live on the Long Beach Peninsula. It is a birdy place, and one of the best I have ever lived in. Not only do we have a wide variety of birds, but we are also able to enjoy many other critters. I see birding as one of the ways to help keep my brain sharp. It gets its exercise as it sorts through what I observe to make an accurate identification. The brain often has to make connections with very little information such as only seeing a wing, a tail, or a bill. The beauty is that as one’s skills improve the brain can get it right with just a tidbit of information. In the end let the bird tell you what it is or what bird it reminds you of! Happy birding!