by Laura Klappenbach, science writer ~ www.animals.about.com
Bird watching is a rewarding hobby that’s open to all ages and can be enjoyed throughout the year. It’s also a wonderful way to get to know the unique nature of the Seaside area and its bird life. If you’re just starting out as a birder, there are a few things to consider as you prepare yourself for a successful bird watching experience:
- Binoculars and field guides ~ Bird watching requires just two simple pieces of equipment—a field guide and a pair of binoculars. Before venturing out into the field to watch birds, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with your binoculars and your field guide so you don’t lose precious bird viewing time struggling with your gear.
- Clothing ~ You should also give some thought to your clothing. Like any outdoor activity, bird watching is best enjoyed when you’re dressed to deal with fluctuations in temperature or the occasional rain shower. In sunny weather, consider packing a visor or sunhat for good measure. When selecting your outfit, pick items that will blend with the surroundings. The less conspicuous you are to the birds you watch, the more freely you’ll be able to observe them.
- Your bird watching destination ~ After you’ve organized your gear, it’s time to pick a place to watch birds. National parks and forests are always good bird watching destinations, but you’re not limited to pristine areas to view birds. You can watch birds almost anywhere—in towns and along roadsides, even in your own backyard. No matter which destination you select, be sure to acquaint yourself with the birds and habitats you’ll be observing before you go. Read through species check lists for the area and look-up the listed birds in your field guide. Glance over the distribution maps and habitat descriptions for the various birds—it’s helpful to be familiar with which birds are common or rare to the area at a given time of year. For lists of birds in Seaside and nearby areas, refer to the Seaside Bird Check List and the Surrounding Area Bird Check List.
After you’ve planned and geared-up for your bird watching trip, you’re ready to get out in the field and start looking for birds. The tips below provide you with some insights as you learn your new hobby. The most important thing to keep in mind is that you don’t have to identify every bird you see, just be sure to have some fun and try to learn something new about birds along the way.
Tip #1. Keep your attention focused on the bird ~ The most important aspect of bird watching is the careful observation of birds. When you spot a bird that you hope to identify, spend as much time as possible watching it. Note its shape, color, distinct markings, and behavior. Be patient, if a bird is sitting motionless in a tree, take time to study its feather patterns, tail shape, bill shape, and any other field markings that are best observed when the bird is sitting still. If a bird is moving around, pay attention to the way it moves, they way it holds its tail, how it flies, the shape of its wings, the way it forages. If the bird moves out of sight, don’t give up. Listen for its calls and song. Take note of the habitat in which the bird was sighted. Different species that are very similar in appearance may reside in different habitats and this may provide valuable clues to the bird’s identity.
Tip #2. Note the bird’s general size and shape ~ Look at the bird as a whole, get a general sense of its appearance. Estimate how big the bird is by comparing it to familiar birds. Is it the size of a sparrow, a robin, a pigeon, a seagull, or a turkey? If possible, observe the bird’s silhouette and note its posture, the way it holds its head, the angle of its tail, the way its wings sit on its back. Does it have a crest atop its head? Are its legs long and skinny? Is its neck narrow and curved? These general features will often help you to narrow down the possible groups to which the bird belongs.
Tip #3. Study the bird’s movements and flight patterns ~ The way a bird moves often reveals much about its identity. Birds fly in different ways. Some fly along straight trajectories, others undulate in arcs across the sky. Some birds power their flight with short bursts of wing beats, others glide on updrafts of air—their wings barely moving. Also observe how the bird moves along the ground or in trees. Does it wade along the water’s edge, scurry across the ground, or hop from one perching vantage to the next? Does it creep downward along tree trunks or dart in and out of thickets and dense shrubbery?
Tip #4. Listen out for bird calls and songs ~ The vocalizations a bird makes—calls and songs—are often useful in bird identification. Calls are shorter, simpler vocalizations than songs, which can be complex and melodious. Calls enable birds to communicate warnings of nearby predators or declarations of territory. Songs are often used during breeding season to attract mates. Most field guides include information about bird calls and songs in their species descriptions. You can also learn more about identifying birds by their songs and calls in the Peterson Field Guides audio series, Birding by Ear.
Tip #5. Observe tail shape and length ~ Look for distinguishing characteristics of the bird’s tail. Is it broad or narrow? Is the tip of the tail square, rounded, or forked? Note any markings on the tail such as bars or color variations. The length of the tail is also important to observe. Is it short? Do the tail feathers extend beyond the primaries when the bird tucks its wings against its torso? How long is the tail in proportion to the rest of the bird’s body, is it half as long or of equal length? Does the bird flick or wag its tail?
Tip #6. Spot any distinct facial markings ~ When examining a bird’s head, make note of any patches of color such as crown stripes, eye lines, eye rings, cheek color, throat patches, or nasal tufts. When describing facial markings, it helps to be familiar with the different groups of feathers on a bird’s head. Most field guides include a diagram of the various feather groups that cover a bird’s body. Such a diagram will help you describe in detail the markings you observe in the field.
Tip #7. Note bill shape, color, and size ~ A bird’s bill can be a useful feature in the identification process. Notice the shape and color of the bill and its proportion to the bird’s head. Is the bill straight and dagger like? Or is it hooked downward or curved upward? Note if the bill is conical or flattened and whether or not the bird has a gular pouch beneath the bill, like that of a pelican.
Tip #8. Look for wing markings, wing shape, and wing span ~ The wing markings that are visible on a particular bird depend on whether the bird is in flight or perching with its wings folded over its back. If the bird is in flight, look for patterns and colors in the underwing feathers. When a bird is resting, look for patches or bands of color. It is helpful to know the basic feathers of the wing (primaries, secondaries, coverts, and axillaries) so you can use them in identifying the species. Refer to your field guide for diagrams of the various bird feather groups and their names.
Tip #9. Keep a birding journal ~ A birding journal enables you to record your bird sightings, make note of field markings for a particular bird, and jot down observations about bird behavior. There’s no need for perfection and your journal entries can be short or long, detailed or succinct. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to identify every bird you see on your bird watching trips, especially when you’re just starting out. But if you get in the habit of taking notes or sketching what you observe, you can quickly improve your identification skills. The next time you encounter a previously unidentified bird, you’ll have prior observations on which you can build. In time, you might collect enough information to make an identification.
Tip #10. Join a bird watching group ~ If you want to learn a lot about the birds in your area, one of the best things you can do is join a local bird watching group. Such groups often include experienced birders who are often eager to share their expertise with novices. You can learn a great deal about bird watching from expert birders and you might even pick up some of their good habits. Field guides and books on birding, no matter how well written, are no substitute for on-the-spot advise from experienced bird watchers who know their local avifauna. In the Seaside area, organizations such as The North Coast Land Conservancy, Necanicum Watershed Council and the Sunset Empire Park and Recreation District offer periodic bird watching programs and workshops.
Bird watching is both a hobby and a learning process. Be patient and observant, don’t get frustrated if you cannot identify a bird or spot anything other than Canada geese or herring gulls. Even the most common species offer you the opportunity to learn about bird biology and behavior. In time, you’ll develop your skills as a birder and there’s always a chance you might encounter a new bird just around the corner.
Websites about birds and bird watching:
Websites about binoculars:
Books about birds and bird watching:
- Alderfer, Jonathan. Birding Essentials. Washington DC: National Geographic, 2007.
- Sibley, David A. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
- Walton, Richard K. Birding by Ear: Western North America (Audio CD). New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999.
- White, Lisa. ed. Good Birders Don’t Wear White. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007.