Primer for Beginning Birders
When someone who is just beginning birding is with an experienced
birder, he or she is often amazed at the birder's ability to identify
a bird after seeing it for a just few seconds. But this is only because
the birder knows what to look for on the bird. Think about a Robin
and how you know it is a robin. It has an orange breast, right? This
orange breast is called a field mark; field marks are characteristics
that birders use to identify birds.
Field marks are not just colors on a bird; size, shape, habitat,
voice, and behavior are all field marks, as well. By recognizing and
recording field marks, it can be easy to identify a bird using a field
guide, a book with pictures and descriptions of many species. The best
place to learn to identify birds, (besides Woodland Dunes Nature Center!)
is in your yard where you can spend time observing common species.
Although not absolutely necessary when learning identification, binoculars
are very helpful for seeing birds better. When you find a bird you
do not know, try to spend as much time watching it as possible. A note
pad and pencil can be used to jot down notes on what you observe.
Some important field marks to look for are:
- Size: It is often helpful to compare the bird in question to a familiar
yardstick bird. Is it larger or smaller than a robin? a sparrow? a
Shape: Is the bird's body slim? Is the tail long or short? How long
are the legs or toes? Head shape is greatly influenced by the bill,
which may be short and thick in seed-eating birds, long and thin
in sandpipers, flat and broad like a duck's, or hooked at the tip
as on a hawk.
- Colors and Patterns: Colors are probably the most noticeable field
marks for birds, but it is also important to note where the color
is placed. Many birds have a colored head, throat, breast, or rump.
Often the colors are in distinct patterns like streaks, bars, or
spots. Many songbirds have contrasting wing bars, lines of white
or another color created by the colored tips of certain wing feathers.
Other birds may have white on the tail sides or on the tip of the
- Habitat: Most birds prefer a specific habitat
for feeding or nesting. Waterfowl prefer lakes or rivers. Robins
frequent woodlands and grassy lawns. Rock Doves (pigeons) like both
urban and agricultural areas. It is also important to notice where
in the habitat the bird is. If the bird is in a woodland area, is
it close to the ground or high in the trees? If on a lake, does it
remain close to shore or stay out in the middle?
- Behavior: While observing the bird, try to note
how it acts. Does it catch insects on the wing, or does it probe
in the dirt or mud? Does it walk or hop on the ground? Does it fly
in a straight line or does it bounce up and down as it flies?
- Voice: for many birds, especially songbirds,
the voice can be helpful in identification. The song is used to attract
a mate or declare a territory and usually consists of multiple notes,
while a call is one or at most a few short notes often used to stay
in contact with other birds.
Using what you observe, browse through
a field guide and try to find a photo or illustration of a bird that
resembles yours. When you find one, check its description and range
in the text to see if it matches. But be sure to check all the birds
that resemble yours; the text may also mention similar species with
which it could be confused. It also helps to spend time looking through
a field guide when not trying to identify a bird so that you may
become more familiar with a variety of species.
Along with a field guide, a binocular is about the only piece of
equipment a birder needs. Any binocular is better than no binocular
but some models are better for birding than others.
- Power and size: binoculars are usually described
with two numbers: 8 x 40, 10 x 42. The first number is how many times
the binocular magnifies what you're looking at. The second number
is the diameter, in millimeters, of the large objective lenses through
which light enters the binocular. Most birders use 7x, 8x, or 10x
- Field of view: this term refers to how wide an area you
see when you look through a binocular. It is usually expressed as
a field width at 1,000 yards, although some manufacturers describe
the field of view as an angle. The wider the field of view, the easier
it is to scan a large area or to follow a flying bird.
- Eye relief: is a measure of how far
away from the binocular's eye-piece your eye needs to be. This distance
is usually given in millimeters; depending on the binocular it may
be from 8 mm up to 24 mm or even more. Longer eye-relief makes binoculars
easier and more comfortable to use, and is especially important if
you wear eye-glasses.
and fit: It's important to buy a pair
of binoculars that feels comfortable when you use and carry it. If
possible, you try out a model in the field before you purchase it.
Most birders avoid pocket-sized compact binoculars, but for young
birders with little money and small hands, a pair of compacts may
be a good option. At the other extreme very large binoculars may
be too awkward to carry for a full day of birding.
- Price: As with most
things, you get what you pay for with binoculars. Most cheap binoculars
(less than $80) simply don't work well enough to do the job in the
field. At the other extreme, some models cost around a thousand dollars.
These are incredibly rugged and give amazing, sharp images but few
beginners are able or willing to pay that much. Many beginning birders
spend between $100 and $250 for their first pair.