I’ve been hanging round a couple of bird ID forums recently, and it’s got me thinking about tips I’d give new birders who are struggling to get to grips with bird ID. This isn’t to say I’m anything of an expert – I still make some hilarious mistakes, as does everyone. And some of the tips below are stuff I aspire to, rather than always 100% practice, but here are some pointers for those starting out. Hopefully someone out there will find it useful…
(Pics Chiffchaff and Willow Warbler… but which one’s which?!)
1. Buy a book
Many new birders start off by asking for ID help on Internet forums. This is fine to a degree, but it can lead to a habit of simply relying on other people IDing birds for you. It sounds obvious, but you need to get a bird guide for your own reference.
But which one? The best guide is undoubtedly the Collins Bird Guide, but this can be a daunting and confusing book for beginners due to the large range it covers (the whole of Europe, and parts of North Africa and the Middle East), and the sheer volume of species. While I would always recommend buying a copy, absolute beginners should consider making their first port of call a UK only guide, because you won’t be confused by rare vagrants or birds that simply do not occur here. A good one is the RSPB Handbook of British Birds, which not only has good identification advice, but useful information about habitat, breeding, range and ecology.
2. Get out there!
It’s always good to do your research, but there’s only so much book-learning you can do. Not only make a special effort to go birding, but always watch birds in your garden, your local park, on your way to work, in your lunch hour… birds are everywhere and try and put a name to every bird you see to build up your skills and confidence.
Watch the familiar birds you see and imprint them on your memory – how they move, how they behave, what they sound like. Then you’ll start to notice birds that are out of ordinary, even if you don’t know immediately what they are.
3. Learn the common stuff first.
Don’t try and learn everything in one go, as you won’t take it in. Try and work out the birds you’re likely to see, and focus on them when you’re starting out. Working out what you may see can be sometimes be quite tricky, though, so bear in mind the following couple of points…
4. Learn what’s local.
First of all learn what you’re likely to see in the UK, and then whittle it down to your local area or place you’re visiting. If you’re unsure what’s likely where you are, get hold of a local ornithological society’s annual report, which will give you a good idea of all the species that can be seen, their status, and even particular locations that are good for them. You may, for example, learn that Marsh Tits are very rare while Willow Tits are quite common, or Nightingales simply don’t exist in your area. It gives you a more nuanced picture and removes confusion species from the equation.
5. Learn about habitats.
Knowing habitats is also very important. Obviously birds fly, and many migrate, and they do turn up in usual or unexpected places. But generally birds are specific to certain habitats. A brown warbler in your suburban tree is pretty unlikely to be a Reed Warbler or a Grasshopper Warbler, and you can discount Wood Warbler from singing from a patch of bramble on a moorland edge. Once you get this sort of information down you can visit an unfamiliar site and realise it “looks good” for a certain species, and often get proved right.
6. Learn about movements.
Many birds migrate, which can remove confusion species at certain times of year. The “little brown job” checklist is vastly reduced in winter, for example, with Spotted Flycatcher, Nightingale, Reed Warbler, Willow Warbler, Tree Pipit and many others removed completely from the equation as they’re strict summer visitors! You can also learn finer details than that, knowing that you’re unlikely to see a Spotted Flycatcher before the very end of April or early May, although you may see a Willow Warbler by the end of March. Likewise some birds – such as Redwing, Fieldfare, Waxwing and Brambling – don’t occur (or only occur very rarely) during the summer.
7. Learn songs and calls.
I cannot stress how important this one is. There are some tricky visual IDs out there – Willow Warbler/Chiffchaff, Marsh Tit/Willow Tit and Meadow Pipit/Tree Pipit are among the most familiar. These pairs have very different songs and calls, however, and knowing these can make ID simple, even if you don’t see them!
Learning songs and calls isn’t always easy, and some people find it harder than others, but it’s essential for a full appreciation of birds. It will help you locate interesting species that are initially hidden from view, help you ID tricky species, and allow you to realise how abundant certain species are. Once you get your ear in, you’ll be shocked how many Willow Warblers, Wrens and Robins there are around!
As with all ID, it’s best to start learning the species you’re most likely to encounter. Also consider starting learning in late winter, when few species are singing, building up week by week as the spring arrives and new birds pipe up and others arrive from migration. There are plenty of CDs and websites available, including the excellent Xeno Canto site.
8. Get a camera
A camera can, of course, help you get an ID, either by closer examination with reference books later, or sharing it with friends or on online forums for their opinions. But be wary that this does not take over from the above points, and remember an unclear photo will not be identifiable for definite by anyone. You can also spend too much time trying to fiddle getting a record shot that you forget to actually look at the bird properly in the field, meaning you have a terrible photo and no clear memory of the bird’s salient features either.
Saying that, if you do see a rare bird, a photograph may be necessary to get the bird accepted as a record.
9. Always ask questions.
Always question what others tell you. For example if there’s someone holding court in a hide pointing out species to others, don’t presume they’re right! I remember being in a hide hearing a fella proudly and confidently showing everyone there a Peregrine sat on a fencepost – except it wasn’t… it was a handsome female Sparrowhawk. The Internet’s even worse, with many convincing sounding “experts” making claims with absolute certainty which are often not as correct as their confidence suggests…
Always think for yourself, and don’t be afraid to (politely) ask why a bird is what people say it is if you have doubts. You may learn something new, or it may be the other person who learns something!
10. Apply “Occam’s Razor”…
As many of the above points suggest, knowing what’s likely to be seen is the key to ID. There are almost 600 birds on the British list, but that doesn’t mean you have to consider them all as likely candidates.
Always start from the position that a bird is going to be the one of the most common possibilities, unless you have good reason to think otherwise. Always ask… why isn’t it the common option instead?
11. …but be prepared for the unexpected!
But saying that, and as I’ve already touched on, always bear in mind birds can be unpredictable beasts and can show up in odd places, at odd times, and do odd things. There’s nothing to stop you finding a rarity or an anomaly, at any level of birding, but knowing how to discount the common and likely stuff first is essential before you can convince yourself and others that you’ve seen something unusual.
12. Don’t be scared to make mistakes.
Don’t be scared to get it wrong, and be prepared to admit when you have. If you’re not sure, ask someone, as most of the time birders are happy to help. If people are sniffy or snobbish when you make a mistake, that’s more their problem than yours. Everyone has to learn the basics, and everyone IS still learning, even experts. Be wary of anyone who thinks they know it all, and feels the need to sneer at the abilities of others.
But saying that, don’t take it personally if people are skeptical about any finds you think you may have – sometimes the odds of an inexperienced birder getting an ID wrong is far more likely than a rarity turning up.
13. Always be prepared to let one go.
Sometimes you can’t be sure of an ID no matter how hard you try, and you have to be prepared to shrug your shoulders and let it go. Don’t get too hooked on listing in your early days, as you’ll find yourself too keen to hammer square pegs into round holes to get a “tick”, and don’t get too hung up on the “ones that got away”. We’ve all had them…