Yesterday while birding along the Betar Byway (that will be up soon enough!) I finally did the math...I have only really been hardcore outdoor birding for about 5 months. Yup, you read that correctly, months. Not years. Not decades.
This surprised me, because I can chat with apparently the 'best' of the region without too many hiccups and was able to give a decent presentation to third graders only about a month or two in. But what surprised me even more is remembering all the fellow birders or even nonbirders who have admitted to feeling terribly intimidated by my knowledge of birds, ability to identify them without breaking much of a sweat, and talk about them at length in detail to the point where the other person becomes exhausted. I nearly partially ran a bird walk only about two months into my outdoor birding as well, and this was encouraged by someone who likely has been birding for two or three decades! People ask me questions all the time about identification and migration (I love questions). It is easy to forget that one has not even been hardcore birding for a year yet. It blows my mind.
Every now and then someone hints at wishing I would tell them the magic I have worked at learning birds so quickly. Quite a few of these people have been birding for a few years now and wish they could be at the level they perceive me to be at (and that I likely am). Well, I am going to tell you what I have done to get to where I'm at so far. There is no magic. There is only hard work and insane passion (you have to be a little insane to be obsessed with our feathered friends). I also had Kronos by my side, being miserably unemployed for most of that time (and now unhappily underemployed). Here we go! I'll write them as tips for you, it's easier to read that way:
- Go find some dead specimens. This was how I began, in a lab in college, with dead birds laid out in front of me. I know it's harder these days to find some, what with the downfall of shotgun ornithology. There are a few waterfowl species at the Nature Center in Moreau Lake. It's totally worth seeing their loon up close, and I think the wood ducks are still there. You may not see all these details from far away when you are birding, but you get a better understanding of how birds are put together. I've been told the Pember Museum in Granville, NY has some! Check all nature centers, museums, and colleges.
- See if you have a nearby bird bander (check with Audubon), and find out if the bander appreciates someone stopping by for a chat or to help out. Again, you get to see birds up close, and the bander will definitely be able to help you ID birds and show you what to look for aka field marks. Ask questions! Banders are highly knowledgable (they have to be just to even get a permit).
- Get yourself a quality field guide. You might desire to start out with one that has photos. That's fine. However, illustrations are better as many are purposely created to point out specific field marks - photographs don't do this, and field marks in birding = highly important. Also, make sure your guide has range maps. Check out Peterson's, Sibley, and Nat Geo. Heck, get all 3 out at the library if they have them! Comparing before you buy can be helpful, all guides are a bit different, and different people like different guides.
- Study that guide when you are not birding! That is what I did intensely for months before these 5 months. Look at the illustrations. Note which field marks the guide points out. These are what you will look for when you see the real live bird.
- Those range maps? Take your guide and make a list of all the birds the range maps show to be in your area. Leave out those that are not. Pay no attention to those that are not at this time. If you are not going to see the bird, why waste your time as a newbie?! I found it beneficial to also split the list up into two - those only here for breeding (spring and summer), and those year-round and only in winter. This helps as a beginner, then you will know what to expect by the season you begin birding in. Also, if you visit a trail and it has a list of birds seen there, take it and study those specific ones even more intensely.
- Get to know the common birds! Start with your backyard feeders, if you have any. I can't stress this enough. I have been finding beginners that feel the pressure to know all the deep forest birds, to be able to ID everything on long day trips in the mountains, and that they shouldn't be "wasting time" on those goldfinches and blue jays in the yard, because it's supposedly not what the experts do. How did the experts become experts, though?! They watched all birds. You can learn to ID the rares later on! Plus, how are you going to be able to recognize that something is a rare, an out-of-ordinary, if you don't 'know' the common species? That rare will not stand out in the crowd to you if you don't. Know the neighboring blue jays. Name them if you have to. Study them just as you would a painted bunting.
- Find books that emphasize the differences between very common species. They will talk about the subtle differences between very similar species, and if you get to where you understand and can do this, you will appear lightyears ahead of everyone else. Birders struggle terribly with gulls, sparrows, and some raptors because they're so similar, or because they have extended life stages with subtle plumage variations. Check out Identify Yourself by Bill Thompson III.
- LEARN BIRD SONG! I cannot emphasize this enough. After spending time around all levels of birders, I cannot understand why so many pay very little attention to the actual songs/calls rather than just the fact that 'something' is making noise and trying desperately to see it because they don't 'know' the song. A song can even be diagnostic! You could be staring at a "little brown job" for 30 minutes, frantically searching your guide, and still confused, but as soon as little brown job opens it's big mouth you can be certain of who he is. Also, there's a grouping of flycatchers that usually can only be IDed by song. Get yourself some CDs or check out the Macaulay Library here: http://macaulaylibrary.org/index.do
- Learn mnemonics. In the birding world, these are often phrases that it sounds like the bird is saying. Some are universal in the birding world, and easy to learn and hear - you may be familiar with chick-a-dee-dee-dee. Even more fun, you can make up your own and share with others! None of them are set in stone. Some people hear the Carolina wren as "tea-kettle tea-kettle tea-kettle" but my buddy Sue and I hear "cheeseburger cheeseburger cheeseburger!" Also, this stuff can be more fun if you understand the way birders describe the "quality" of the song. Learn what a "trill" is or what a "buzzy" call sounds like, or "hoarse" and you can differentiate those calls that sound very similar but have a vaguely different quality.
- Do not concern oneself too much with the life list. When I began, I was driven NUTS by birders who would not stop harping on the life list, with nazi attitudes about it. Your life as a birder is not over if you simply don't care that much about one. If you are that competitive and it motivates you, do it! Also, some programs create one for you as you input your 'data' from your birding adventures. Less work for you and you get to show off.
- Don't stall and worry about not having the best binoculars. I still bird with a $15 pair from Wal-Mart and people still are impressed with how good of a birder I am. There are benefits to having bins that cost a couple thousand, definitely, but you can start off with those crappy ones in the section of the redneck store in redneck department, believe me. Plus I think as a beginner you are more apt to mishandle them because they feel new to you. Would you rather break a $15 or a $3,000 pair right off? The exception here is if you want to start out watching raptors. Then you might want to chuck some money out for a great pair or a spotting scope, because let me tell you, those birds will not be up close and likely soaring at a high speed.
- Find some good bird blogs with photos (yes, here's where photos are good) that tell you what they are. Make them part of your daily internet reading.
- Go on a guided bird walk! GO GO GO. An experienced birder will be leading, and will point out birds that you would probably miss if you were on your own. He or she will also ID singing birds, and likely give you time to find it yourself. Ask questions! Don't fear that you will seem stupid or that everyone else knows everything. There may be shy beginners or someone else with the same question. Plus, every answer given is useful to everyone in some way. Some questions, no one has ever thought to even ask! Also, if there is a bird you really hope to see, let the guide know - the guide I had was more than happy to try to help me see certain birds! Birders love to share and love to convert people over to the birding cult. :P
- When you are watching birds, watch their behavior. This is supremely important! Also, watch what they eat. Both of these things can be clues to identification. Some flycatchers flick their tails and fly in an elliptical pattern to catch flies. I have been able to ID silhouetted birds just by behavior alone! Also, it's just fun to watch. It's cute seeing cedar waxwings pass berries to each other and blue jay behavior can be hilariously good fun.
- That pesky bird diagram somewhere in your guide with all the seemingly foreign words pointing at various body parts? Learn it. Seriously. Many of those scarily labelled parts contain vital field marks. As a starting point, the ones I use the most are: crown, supercilium, lores, eye stripe, upper & lower mandible, throat, moustachial stripe, malar stripe, breast, flanks, undertail coverts, and rump. Also, know what "wing bars" look like, and keep an eye out for tail markings and markings around the eyes - vireos often have spectacles, other species have eye rings of various colors. Also, learning the shapes of some body parts can help - tail shape is a common one. And if you are learning raptors, learn all the names for the underside of the wings!
- Learn about habitats. You don't need to be a genius, but it helps you to determine what birds you might see where. There's obvious ones, like you're not likely to find a duck on top of Buck Mountain, and unless you have a pond you probably won't get a great blue heron in your yard. Some species are 'endemic' to certain habitats, meaning you will only find them in those. Many grassland birds are a good example, you will not find them anywhere else but a grassland habitat. This is more of a general guide otherwise, however - during migration, most species can be found almost anywhere and sometimes wind up in very unexpected places. Not many people expected to see merlins in a town park in Oneonta this spring, yet there they were!
- Depending on how you want to learn to ID birds, you might want to choose a certain season to go all out. I chose spring. It's easier to ID birds at this time because breeding males are obvious, brightly colored, and loudly singing to find a mate. The drawback, however, is that you can be met with an utter cacophony of sound where it is hard to individually separate songs and the sheer variety of species can be overwhelming. Late summer and autumn is better if you want to learn those you will likely see all year, and since most breeding birds have left by then, you have less species to learn and won't be so overwhelmed. The drawbacks here are that the birds are singing less and thus a bit more difficult to find (keep an eye out for movement), and now you have all those birds hatched this year to figure out. Young birds can be very confusing to ID because they do not yet have the colorings and markings of the adults and likely will not even remotely match those you learned in your guide, unless you have something like the Sibley Guide to Birds of North America (and not the smaller Eastern or Western guide).
- Buy yourself some permethrin-based insect murdering spray (like Repel Permanone). You may be wondering what the heck this has to do with birding. Well, you will be outdoors, and often out in grassy areas where ticks LOVE to chill out in. You may even come across a tick nesting spot full of hundreds of them! DEET does not repel them one bit. They will still climb up your boots and dig into your flesh. Mmmm... Trust me, you won't regret the cost or the pain-in-the-neck spraying of your clothes every 2 weeks. This is coming from someone who has been bitten by 6 ticks and contracted Lyme Disease twice. I don't care if you think you're superman or superwoman or have the best immune system known to man, if you come down with Lyme Disease, you will not be birding. For one, your neck will probably get so stiff that you can't look up. Also, carry some needle-pointed tweezers and alcohol wipes. The quicker you can pull the tick off you, the better and easier.