Sometimes I get questions from readers about identifying the birds they are seeing.
All birders have this problem in varying degrees. Here is a comment posted yesterday about this very issue:
I’m still very new to trying to ID birds, and while I pick out the most distinctive features to keep to memory, often my bird book still doesn’t include the bird I see, or the picture isn’t quite right. Sometimes I remember to take the camera with me, and this helps plenty with identifying the birds later. While I enjoy just watching birds, I have this need to know what they are called. It’s all fun!
If you are having trouble getting the ID of birds rights DON’T PANIC!
You are in very good company. Even the most experienced birders have trouble – or get it wrong. A photo can help but sometimes just confuses the issue further.
A standing “joke” amongst birders is identifying those infuriatingly difficult LBBs – “Little Brown Birds.” They can all look the same.
Some general hints to help narrow the possibilities:
1. Size: compare the unknown bird with something you know – is it the size of a wren or a magpie or a duck?
2. Shape: Many species have a distinctive shape eg most honeyeaters are similar but are not the same as the shape of a duck, a hawk or and emu.
3. Behaviour: some only feed on the ground, some in water, others in the foliage. Knowing the preferences of each species will help.
4. Habitat: Study the preferences of each species as detailed in the field guides. Mallee birds are generally not found on the beach, water birds usually are near water etc
5. Distribution: Study the field guides and memorize the normal distribution of each species. You won’t see a Cassowary in a private garden in Adelaide (if you do – PHONE ME IMMEDIATELY LOL). Be aware that the birds haven’t read the field guides and are sometimes a long way from where they are “supposed” to be. This makes the hobby so interesting – odd things pop up in unexpected places from time to time.
These 5 steps will help you to narrow the list of possible species to perhaps half a dozen – hopefully less. Identifying a bird is often just a series of eliminations.
If you dip out and can’t ID something, it’s not the end of the world. Remember: the bird knows what it is.
Above all: Have fun.
I have only had a limited experience at birding in an unfamiliar country. In late 2005 and early 2006 I spent four days in Thailand and three weeks in Nepal. A handful of species were easily identified; I recognized them from birds I’d seen here in Australia. Most species were a struggle to identify, despite doing over six months of study in the relevant field guides before leaving home.
Many birders would recommend hiring local birding guides. These guides have local knowledge about where to find the best birds and most will be able to show you the best ways to identify what you are seeing. I only had the benefit of a local guide on two occasions. He was made available as part of the package deal from the travel agent I used. He was actually a general guide but his specialty happened to be birds; this was a bonus for me.
For birders travelling on a restricted budget, hiring a guide may be out of the question. The next best thing is to access someone through Birding Pals. This is a worldwide service provided to travellers who are birders. I understand that this is largely a volunteer service to birders everywhere.
Disclaimer: I haven’t used the service provided in this way, so I cannot say whether or not it is a worthwhile way to go. It just sounds like a great way of contacting and meeting fellow birders in another country. If any of my readers has any experience of Birding Pals, good, bad or indifferent, please leave a comment for the benefit of others.
Some time ago I write a series of articles called How to be a birder – some hints. This series of 20 articles covered many aspects of being a birder, with hints for the beginner through to more experienced.
How to watch birds is an article on another website. It has some very useful information for beginners to this fascinating hobby, including what equipment is needed. Its information about binoculars is most detailed and useful. The sections on bird books, including field guides is for American birders only so readers from other countries need to seek out those resources relevant to their own region of interest.
Here in Australia we have many useful resources (go to the links section for relevant places to seek out books, field guides and equipment).
One of the great and constant delights I have in my interest in birding is to witness the constant movement and activity of birds in our garden. Many of the articles on this blog come directly from observations of birds in the garden. Many of the photos appearing on this blog and in my photo gallery have been taken in the garden or nearby.
People who have an interest in birds often ask “How can I attract more birds to my garden?” There are some simple ways of ensuring a greater number of birds in your garden which will, in turn, bring many hours of pleasure over many years. Here are some simple “rules” to help you:
- Water: Provide a constant source of water, such as a pond, bird bath or dripping tap into a bowl.
- Food: Provide a variety of native trees and bushes that become a suitable food source. (In Australia – never put out food like parrot seed for them).
- Protection: Never let your cat roam the garden – and actively discourage neighbour’s cats from entering your garden.
- Safety: Provide a safe environment for the birds by not using any poisons like snail bait in your garden.
These are simple and effective methods of ensuring a safe and happy habitat for the birds in your garden.
For more information, go to the Bird Observers Club of Australia website. They have available two downloadable leaflets on attracting birds to your garden. Highly recommended.
- Attracting Birds to your Garden – part 1
- Attracting Birds to your Garden – part 2
- Bird Observers Club of Australia – one of our largest birding clubs.
- Garden Birds – over 80 articles from my archives about birds in gardens, mostly our garden.
Some months ago I ran a series of articles on “How to be a Birder.” Included in that series was one article about choosing binoculars. I’ve recently come across a good explanation of how binoculars work and how to choose those that will suit you. This advice is in the form of a downloadable file called “Choosing Binoculars for Birdwatching” from the Bird Observers Club of Australia (BOCA) [Update: sorry – that link no longer exists.]
- How to be a Birder – some hints.
- How to be a birder – Part 3 – Buy some binoculars.
UPDATE: More recently I found the following website with some very useful hints on choosing binoculars for birding: Optics Planet. This is a commercial site selling a wide range of optics for all kinds of activities. I am not endorsing the store, just the section on choosing binoculars.
UPDATE November 2013: some links on this post not longer exist. Sorry about that.