It has been about 5 years since I started bird watching, well “officially” anyways. Growing up outside of Rexburg, Idaho I remember having a bird feeder out our kitchen window. I don’t remember many of the birds that came to the feeder, but I remember that I enjoyed watching them.
What really got me into bird watching as I do now was an experience I had in Yellowstone National Park. I was looking through my binoculars to see what birds were on Black-tail Ponds. I saw a duck that I did not recognize, and immediately it caught my attention. It had long pointed tail, a light brown head, and its white neck curved around its predominately gray and black body. Usually I would snap a photo and continue looking. Only problem was my camera was in to be repaired. So instead, un-knowingly I did what any birder does, I started at the beginning. I first wrote and drew my overall impression of the bird, or size and shape. It was a duck, pointed tail, about the size of a Mallard. Next I added more details or things that were distinct to this bird, such as color pattern and field marks. Brown head, white neck that curves around the gray of the body. With that description anyone familiar with a Northern Pintail could identify it. In my case I looked in a field guide to identify it myself. The rest of that summer I was chasing birds trying to get a good enough look at them to identify what they were.
Size and Shape
Try ignoring the color of this American Avocet that is shown above. How would you describe the size and shape of this bird? Could you compare parts of the bird to its self? If you are familiar with the birds next to it could you compare it to them? I would say this bird has a long beak that curves up at the end. The beak is probably three times the length of the head. It has long legs, maybe the length of its body, and it is about three times the size of the Phalaropes that it is by.
Everyone knows this bird, right? It’s a hummingbird, lets ignore the colors associated with this bird again. If this bird whizzed by, or you saw it’s silhouette you would probably know what bird it was. This is true for many birds although you may not know the exact species you could narrow it down to hummingbird, woodpecker, duck, or one of many bird families.
Color Pattern and Field Marks
Lets start looking at color, lets start by giving a color overview to the portion of this bird we can see. Lets say the top of the birds head is red, around the eyes, cheek, and neck is striped white and black, and the birds back it black. That was pretty simple.
Beyond the bright ruby crown on this Ruby-crowned kinglet their are some subtle field marks important to identifying this bird. First look at the birds eye, notice the white ring? Many birds will have identifying marks around their eyes. This one has an eyeing others might have what looks like spectacles. If you focus your attention to this birds wings you will see a wing bar, this is another great indicator to species look to see how many and how big the wing bars are. One other area you may look to is the birds head, this one has an obvious crown, look for other details as well. If you refer back to the Pileated Woodpecker above you will notice the bars on its face, noticing where and what color these bars are on its face will help you identify this and many other species of birds.
This is a very simple overview to help a bird watcher start at the beginning. Go out and put a bird feeder up in your yard, I would bet within 3 days you will have a bird visiting it. When that bird comes in try these steps that I have listed and see if you can identify it.
When I first started, I found people that enjoyed birding and relied on them as mentors. I also used a field guide and the internet as a resource for identifying birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a great website that will expand on what I have said here – http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=1200