Nature’s curve balls: Strategies for improving bird-ID skills in imperfect conditions

Brown Creeper
Sometimes, your only view of a bird is a silhouette. With experience, your ID skills will help you realize this is a Brown Creeper. Photo by Lisa Cardoza Routh/Shutterstock

When we look at field guides, the birds are SO easy to identify. We can see every characteristic, every field mark: the heavy stripes on a female Rose-breasted Grosbeak’s head, the blotchy dark spot in the Song Sparrow’s breast, the two-tone bill of an American Tree Sparrow.

But when we’re out in nature, often, SO often, something gets in the way. Something keeps us from seeing what we really want to see. So often, so VERY often, nature throws us curve balls.

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Here are just a few of those curve balls: distance, weather, poor light, movement, impediments, and contortions. How do we deal with them? Let me explain.

Let’s start with Distance. We see a distant white dot. It could be an egret. Or a Snow Goose. A gull? Or maybe a rarity here in Vermont, like a white morph Great Blue Heron or even an immature Little Blue Heron.

Or a white plastic shopping bag.

Then there’s Weather. We who love birding go birding a lot. We go birding on beautiful sunlit days when the sky is a pure blue and there’s almost no breeze and every single thing is crisp and clear, every color strong and true.

We also go birding when it’s overcast. When it’s misty. When it’s downright foggy. 

We go birding when storms are coming. When it’s raining, sleeting, snowing. When it’s so cold that we have trouble making our fingers work to focus our binoculars. We go birding when the wind is so fierce we can barely keep our scopes or binoculars trained on a barn, much less a little bird.

We bird when it’s so hot that heat shimmer blurs the edges and lines of everything we see. We even bird where wild fires burned just yesterday and when nearby fires are still filling the air with smoke and obscuring the landscape.

And that brings us to Poor Light. I think all of us have been frustrated by birds seen as silhouettes only — no colors, no wing bars, no tail bars, no eyebrows, nothing but black. I’ve been lucky enough to see and hear several Elegant Trogons on trips to southeastern Arizona. But trogons like forests, and forests are dark, so most of my views have been recognizable (and exciting) but not really great looks at these beautiful birds.

Bird identification can be tricky in bright light, too. Once I saw a large soaring raptor with a white head. It had a dark tail, and its wings were held in a slight V. It turned out to be a Turkey Vulture, its shiny featherless head showing white in the strong sunlight.

Now let’s consider Movement. Here’s a true fact about birds (at least most of them): They fly!

Birds don’t see a human coming, notice the binoculars, and muse, “It would be really kind if I just stayed right here and let that birder get a good long look.” No. They see us coming and they take off. 

In one of Pete Dunne’s wonderful talks, he imagined various features that we might see on our optics in the future. One such feature was a little button that, when pushed, would show what was on that branch five seconds earlier. I’m still waiting — eagerly!

Every so often, though, the fact that a bird flies tells us all we need to know. Willets might possibly be confused with some other shorebirds when they’re seen at a distance or in fading light — but the instant that a Willet spreads its wings, it can be nothing but a Willet.

Impediments: Another true fact about birds: A large percentage of them hang out where there is foliage. And branches. Lots of foliage and branches, perfectly designed for getting in our way.

I have a photo of my lifer Red-faced Warbler — sort of. Somewhere in the beautiful, dense tree is the warbler. I know it’s there! I was looking at it for a very exciting five minutes before finally raising my camera.

Leaves and branches not only hide birds. They sometimes become birds. I have seen an extraordinary number of foliage birds in my life. Once I was hiking with a group in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, much too far up a mountain to see a Great Egret, but I did. I excitedly called everyone’s attention to it. Everyone stopped hiking and turned and looked intently — at a birch branch, stuck in the mud beside a tiny pool.

Contortions: Nature has another curve ball to throw at birders: contorted birds.

While birding in southeastern Oregon, I was flummoxed by a fat, fluffy mass of feathers, like a giant’s feather duster. The duster was twirling and whirling, sending out a spray of water droplets. It was a Swainson’s Hawk, bathing in the mist from an agricultural irrigator. The hawk ducked its head into the mist, spread its wings, shook itself into a whirling ball — and then finally settled down to enjoy the glow from a good bath.

The dabbling behavior of puddle ducks is another common contortion. Their butts are often the first we see of them.

And there are other weird contortions. One summer day, I came upon 15 Barn Swallows lying on gravel, some on their sides, some almost on their backs. Had there been some horrible poisoning event? A plague? No. The birds were sunning, inviting the hot summer sun to bake their bellies. (Ornithologists believe that birds might take sunbaths to bake mites and other parasites, and/or they might like the feeling of sun on areas where they’ve just lost feathers due to molt.)

Snow scene
Birders don’t let snowstorms or other weather events stop them from going birding. Photo by kritskaya/Shutterstock

MORE CURVE BALLS

And there are still more curve balls to quick and easy identification.

For starters, there’s sexual dimorphism: In many species, males and females look different.

And many (most?) birds look different at different ages. Gulls are notorious for the many different plumages they show at different stages in their development from chicks to mature birds. And those confusing fall warblers can baffle even long-time birders.

Even woodpeckers change as they age. In juvenile Hairy and Downy males, the red patch is on the crown, directly above the eyes. In mature birds, it’s on the back of the head, above the nape.

And then there’s molt. Birds have to change their feathers from time to time. Feathers, once they’re fully developed, are “dead,” like our hair or our fingernails, so they can’t repair themselves when they get old or damaged. Northern Cardinals and Blue Jays go through one complete molt a year, in late summer. We sometimes see a bird that’s right in the middle of the process, with very few head or neck feathers or sometimes none at all.

And then nature throws in melanism (unusual amounts of dark pigmentation), leucism (unusual absence of dark), albinism (rare in the bird world), xanthochromism (when red birds are orange or yellow) and erythrism (when individual birds seem more red or rufous-colored than most others of their species).

And, to make it even more complicated, there are also individual, idiosyncratic differences. Adult male Red-winged Blackbirds are among the most easily recognized birds. We all know that they have that diagnostic epaulet, the shoulder patch of red, then yellow and often paler yellow. But I had a bird at my feeder one spring that had the epaulet plus an additional red mark closer to his head!

And then there are vagrants: birds that end up hundreds or even thousands of miles away from the normal migration route for their species or from where most members of their species go to breed.

And hybrids! Hybrids are a really nasty curve ball that nature throws us.

And, on top of all that, other things get in the way of birding.

Nature almost never just plops a bird in front of us, with nothing in the way, with limitless time to sit there and gaze, and with nothing else around to distract us.

There’s a lot of stuff in nature, and birders’ innate interest in nature means that we can lose our focus on birds and start looking at something else. Our eyes follow butterflies or dragonflies. Or we find ourselves bent over, staring down at a red-bellied snake, our binoculars momentarily forgotten.

Nature even throws in human peculiarities to distract us. On one memorable occasion, several of us were transfixed by the sight of a man wading far out into Lake Champlain, carrying a bright red stepladder. Birding stuttered to a halt. Binoculars were lowered. Brows were furrowed. Instead of commenting on the handsome Bald Eagle in a nearby tree, people were making guesses about what the man was doing: Was it some sort of performance art? Someone making a YouTube video?

We all watched as the man waded back to shore, leaving the ladder standing out in 5 feet of water. We all watched, open-mouthed, as the ladder slowly teetered, and tipped, and teetered again, and then toppled over and disappeared below the water.

Our birders’ ears, keenly attuned to the faint sounds of distant warblers, had no difficulty at all catching every one of a long and colorful stream of cuss words.

We couldn’t get back to birding until two of our party walked over to the irate gentleman and found out that he was preparing to build a duck-hunting blind, and, yes, he was going to have to go back out there and feel around under the water and find his blankety-blank ladder.

Northern Cardinal
Maintain a bird feeder and you’ll not only feed your feathered neighbors, like this female Northern Cardinal, but you’ll also learn the common birds of your area. Photo by Karl R. Martin/Shutterstock

SOLUTIONS

When nature throws curve balls, what can we birders do?

First, we’re less apt to be struck out by nature’s curve balls if we really know what common birds look like. One great way to learn the common birds is to have a backyard feeding station. Backyard feeders provide us with great opportunities to see birds up close, day after day, from different angles, in various weather conditions, at different times of day — to really study birds.

We can also learn bird behavior. Once during the Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas, I saw a small bird creeping up the fat trunk of a tree near a beaver pond. It was in deep shadow, but I was sure I could see some sort of pattern of dark and light on its back, so it wasn’t a Brown Creeper. Then the bird moved into the sun and revealed itself as a Black-and-white Warbler. I’d seen and quickly identified Black-and-white Warblers many times, and I’d seen them walking along branches and trunks, but for some reason I was hung up on field marks rather than behavior. I was still relying on a good view of its plumage for identification. Thinking of the bird’s characteristic behavior would have helped me know immediately what I was seeing, even without seeing the black-and-white field marks.

We can bird the habitat. To help your mind discard the improbable, know in advance what birds are likely to be where you’re birding. That way, if you catch just a glimpse of a smallish chicken-shaped bird with big feet, and you’re in a cattail marsh, you’ll be able to sort quickly through the usual suspects and come up with a possible Sora. Your brain won’t waste time considering prairie-chickens and Spruce Grouse and every other chicken-shaped bird.

And when we’re traveling, we can bird with locals. There’s a real thrill in birding alone in a far-away place, but it’s also rewarding and instructive to go out and about with local birders. They know the birds that are common in their area. They know the habitat. They know bird song and bird behavior so they can locate, identify, and share with you quickly. (To find a local birder for your next trip, visit www.birdingpal.org.)

We can bird with eyes and ears. This is a given. The more information we can gather, the better we know what’s around us in nature. There’s a huge range of abilities for hearing sounds in the first place and then recognizing them, but just about every birder will be a better birder the more he or she pays attention to songs and calls.

Another strategy is to bird with your camera. Some people don’t even carry binoculars when they’re out in the field. They photograph every single thing they see — every quick movement, every partially hidden bird, every distant speck. They don’t even worry about identification until they get home and sit down and study their pictures on a computer screen.

We can use strategies to help our memory, like sketching or taking notes or even talking to ourselves aloud when we’re birding, reciting every detail of what we’re looking at. Any of these methods helps us focus on details and then helps cement what we’ve seen in our minds. (If you’re energetically conversing with yourself aloud and someone looks at you askance, just say that you’ve got a tiny microphone under your collar. Many birders actually do carry little microphones and recorders.)

Black-and-white Warbler
In sunny situations, Black-and-white Warbler is easy to ID, but in shadows, its characteristic tree-creeping behavior should be a great clue to its identity. Photo by RRuntsch/Shutterstock

Sketching and notetaking make us slow down, and it’s amazing what we can see when we take it slow. The five-year Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas work changed my birding style. It was my job when I was birding one of my two atlas blocks to notice behavior that would document breeding, so I had to pay more attention to what birds were doing rather than just noting what species were in the area. Now I’m a real advocate of slow birding. When we slow down, birds and other animals come out and show us the activities of their daily lives. Slow birding is to much of our birding as slow food is to fast food: richer, more diverse, and more nourishing.

And here’s one more strategy – and this is my favorite:

GO BIRDING A LOT!!

You won’t always deal successfully with nature’s curve balls, but you’ll enjoy your time in the field so much that you won’t care!

 

This article was first published in the November/December 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Maeve Kim

Maeve Kim

Maeve Kim is a birder, teacher, musician, and writer. She leads bird walks for beginners and has taught birding classes for outdoors clubs and wildlife refuges. She is also the author of two novels: Ivy’s Optics and There’s Nothing 86 Tonight.

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