One of the most important lessons that any beginner birdwatcher can learn is, "don't be afraid to ask." If you don't know what something is, then someone else probably does, but if you don't ask them, you'll never learn. The second part of this lesson is, "don't be scared to make mistakes." We can't be expected to know everything, and as with everything else in life, we can only learn from our mistakes.
Sharing our birdwatching experiences with others is part of the fun of birdwatching. At many nature reserves you will find enthusiastic volunteers who are there to help. Our volunteer guides like nothing more than helping visitors to learn and identify something new. If there aren't any volunteers present, then many other visitors will be equally happy to help, if only we were brave enough to ask them. All too often, they will be struggling over the same bird as you are, but by talking through it together you are more likely to come to a correct identification.
However, more often than not you will be on your own, without the opportunity to ask for help. What do you do then? I've lost count of the number of conversations that start something like this: "I was in East Hide a couple of hours ago and I saw a bird..." In many cases, I'm only given one, or at most two, features to use to identify the mystery bird, one of which will be size. When we rely on our memory in these cases, we often focus on one obvious feature, and don't keep a mental record of the other important features.
This is where note taking comes in. Traditionally, note taking involved carrying a notebook and pencil (which are still very important items of birdwatching equipment), but modern technology often replaces them now. Most of us, afterall, carry a mobile phone, and most phones now have a camera and video mode, which are useful for recording identification features. Even a poor photo or video can help with ID, but you can also use your video mode to record you dictating identification features. This makes it much easier for us to subsequently try to identify the bird. (Of course, the same applies with insects, flowers, mammals, etc, too.)
So, what type of features should you be looking for?
Size: in many cases, size is most useful only when there is a direct comparison with a nearby bird. Otherwise, perspective and light can adversely influence our perception of size. Luckily, there is often something familiar nearby, so saying that a wader is similar in size to a moorhen is possible when there is a moorhen on the same island. Size alone can be very subjective- think about the fisherman's tales of how big their fish was, and it's easy to see how size can be exaggerated. As an example, with nothing to compare it too, how big is this bird? Moorhen sized? Mallard sized? Sparrow sized? (For those want to know what it is, this a juvenile black-headed gull, so a bit bigger than a moorhen.)
Colour: again, this may be more useful for some species than others. Our perception of dark brown or light brown may vary, and can be influenced by the lighting conditions or distance, but nevertheless, colour is important. You will, however, need to break the bird down into separate parts and record the colour of as many parts as possible - crown, head, back, breast, wing, tail in simple, layman's terms. More experienced birdwatchers will refer to such things as scapulars, secondaries, coverts, etc, but don't worry too much about the technical terms. Coulour also varies considerably between the sexes or seasons in many species.
Shape: is another tricky one, as how the bird is standing or flying can affect its shape considerably.
While all of the above are useful, they can be too subjective to confirm an identification without other features. Here's a few of the most useful features to look for.
Leg length and colour: especially for species such as waders and gulls, but it can be useful for some smaller songbirds too.
Bill length, shape and colour: is one of the most useful features for all birds. Small birds may have a thin, slender bill (like a robin or dunnock) or a short stubby one (like a chaffinch or house sparrow). Waders may have straight, down-curved, or even upcurved bills. The bill may be hooked (birds of prey and shrikes) or crossed (crossbills). Bill colour may help to determine Sandwich tern (black with yellow tip) from common tern (red with black tip), though Arctic tern (deep red) is a bit harder using bill colour alone. Bill length is most useful for waders, and I find that a good measure is to compare the length of the bill to the depth of the head. Lapwings, for example, have a short bill that barely measures the same length as the head, while snipe have a long bill (more than three times the head length).
Putting this into practice, bill length and shape is a useful feature to distinguish common redshank (1.5 times head) from spotted redshank (twice head length), as seen in the pictures below.
Presence or absence of wingbars or different rump colour. This is a really important feature, but it is not always obvious on perched birds, so you may need a bit of patience for them to preen or fly. With garden birds, a yellow wingbar should suggest goldfinch, greenfinch or siskin, for example. It is particularly important with waders, and is the single most useful feature to use when distinguishing bar-tailed and black-tailed godwits. Bar-tailed godwits have barred tails, a white triangle up the back, but no wingbar. Black-tailed godwits have black tails, a square white rump and broad white wingbars, as seen in the photo below.
Head markings. does the bird have a plain coloured head or a different coloured crown or cap? Is there any sign of a pale eyebrow (called a supercilium) or coloured eyering? Does it have a paler (or darker) throat? Are there any moustachial stripes? All of these will be really useful to help with ID, as will breast colour.
Using just a few of these features in combination should narrow down the identification to just one or two species, especially when used in conjunction with habitat, location and time of year - you wouldn't, for example, expect to see a swallow in December or a snowy owl on a Suffolk beach - though both of these have occurred in recent years!
One final feature that can be important is behaviour. If it is perched in a tree, it is probably not a wader. If it is swimming it's unlikely to be a songbird. Some birds skulk in the shadows, others prefer open habitats. Some walk, others hop. Some soar, some hover, some flap slowly, others have rapid wingbeats.
Taking notes is not easy, but if you can add just one or two these features to your initial impression of size and colour then it will certainly help. Better still, if the features are written down, or recorded in some other way, then you can more easily look them up at a later date. To help with this, we also now provide a fieldguide in each hide so that you can look the birds up as soon as possible after watching them - but take the notes before looking them up or the bird may have flown away.
If all of this sounds daunting, then there's always the easier option of getting someone to identify the birds for you and explain the salient ID features, by joining a guided walk. We have regular guided walks at Minsmere, including our Surprising Summer Wildlife walks on Tuesdays and at weekends, or our special Birdwatching for Beginners walks on alternate Wednesdays and Sundays, including this coming Sunday. Bookings for our guided walks are made on line and places are limited, so book early - especially as bookings close 24 hours before the walks start.
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