Birding Basics for Beginners

With the Great Backyard Bird Count just around the corner, Ronnie's Awesome List is thrilled to present a guest article by Jane Haley. Join Jane and her monthly nature programs and bird walks at the Point Bonita Lighthouse, Rodeo Lagoon in the Marin Headlands, or the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill. 

Birdwatching is a fun activity for all ages, and it doesn’t mean you have to identify the birds. I enjoy observing the day-to-day behaviors of common birds as they try to survive in nature. But, identifying the birds that you see is also satisfying and improves your observation skills. Here are some basic characteristics to get you started in identifying birds that you see. And remember - dont get discouraged if you cant identify a bird just enjoy what you see today and the more you go birdwatching, the better you will get at it.

1. Overall size, shape and color. Is it big like a hawk or small like a hummingbird? Does it remind you of a bird you know? Think of a common bird you know, such as a Scrub Jay or American Robin, and compare the size. Is it bigger or smaller; is it fatter or slimmer than the bird you know?

2. Field Marks. Field marks are physical characteristics that contribute to identifying the bird species. Note presence of wing bars, eye stripes, eye ring, bill & feet color, wing patterns, particularly on shorebirds.

3. Bill shape. Is it small and thin for catching gnats like a warbler or stout and short for cracking seeds like a sparrow or long and stout for catching fish like a tern or hook- tipped like a hawk? For many of birds you’ll see, the shape of the bill of is a good way to narrow down the possible species, and often the bill is a field mark you can see.

4. Wing shape. Are they short and rounded like a quail or long and pointed like a barn swallow? Gulls have broad, rounded wings while terns have long, pointed wings.

5. Tail shape. Is it notched like a cliff swallow or deeply forked like a barn swallow or rounded like a jay or pointed like a mourning dove?

What is that black bird overhead?

Look at the shape of the tail as it flies straight. The easiest way to distinguish the American Crow from the Common Raven is the shape of the tail when it’s flying.

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6. Behavior. How does it hold the tail up like a wren or down like a flycatcher? Does it snag insects from a perch like a flycatcher or scratch the ground for bugs like a towhee? Does it stalk fish in shallow water like a great blue heron or stir up the bottom like a snowy egret? Does it dive under water to feed like a cormorant or does it dabble with its tail up like a mallard?

My love of nature is a gift from my father who always encouraged my sister and me to be curious about the natural world around us.  We thrilled at the backyard birds and critters that visited our rural home in central Texas, and to this day, I can’t hear a Whip-poor Will without thinking fondly of my father.  (Nine o’clock on my birdcall clock is the Whip-poor Will.)  Later, in college, a friend gave my first “real” field guide to birds and took me on a bird banding expedition and I was hooked!  Seeing those birds up close was so exciting that I’ve never regretted the watch that was ruined by a dunking in the marsh mud.  Birds are so free to soar – I envy them every time I see them.

Websites for Bird Information

There are lots of website for information about birds and birdwatching. Here are few to explore.

Jane Haley is a retired biochemist who loves spending time outdoors seeing, listening, and learning what nature has to offer us.  She enjoys sharing her knowledge and experiences with others in the hope that they too will become enamored with the world around us. She has been a volunteer for the National Park Service since 1984, offering nature programs and bird walks.  You might find her as a docent at the Point Bonita Lighthouse, in the Marin Headlands monthly beginning birding programs at Rodeo Lagoon, or the Wildlife Education and Rehabilitation Center in Morgan Hill.