Learning to Identify Birds

By , June 21, 2013 9:01 pm
Northern Harrier 6/11/13

Northern Harrier 6/11/13

I’ve been birding since 1989. I am surprised now that I didn’t start earlier but I didn’t. I owned a copy of Peterson’s Field Guide for a number of years, but I didn’t actively go out looking for birds, I identified birds that came my way when I was hiking or canoeing. Looking back I can say that I didn’t know much for the first few years. The one thing I learned is that the only way to really identify a bird is to watch a lot of birds. Field guides are good but until you see a bird in the field you don’t really know it. Some birds may be almost unmistakable. I cannot imagine anyone misidentifying a Northern Cardinal or an adult Bald Eagle, but field guides only go so far, they cannot show how a bird moves. In the past few years since I have mostly worked at home, I have been able to spend a lot more time birding. Species that were hard to identify have become a lot easier one you see them a few hundred times. Downy vs Hairy Woodpecker, not an issue once you’ve seen them every day.. Empidonax Flycatchers another story.

Just a few days ago my wife and I saw a mature male Northern Harrier. When I was in NJ I saw a lot of them, but almost all of them were immature or female. Here in MN we have been seeing the male more frequently. Very different in color but the movement is the same. So, when we saw it we didn’t take more than a second to ID it. In the field you cannot mistake a Harrier for a Red-tailed Hawk or a Bald Eagle. I posted a photo of it above. Unfortunately the photo is static. It doesn’t give a feeling of how the bird looks when flying.

The advantage of doing a lot of birding is the ability to spot the odd birds when they show up. My wife and I take bird drives a few times a week. We live in rural MN, and only last year we started to realize that some of our best birding opportunities were within a few feet of our home (yes, the good witch Glinda was right, there is no place like home). We have seen some fantastic birds. A few weeks ago we saw an unfamiliar bird, my first reaction was that it might be a Mockingbird (possible in MN but not likely up here). It was the Western Kingbird. Not a rare species but neither of us had ever seen them before.

Western Kingbird 6/10/13

Western Kingbird 6/10/13

We were seeing bunches of different Flycatchers and for a few days the Olive-sided seemed to be everywhere. It is gone now (they have a very easy song to identify so I know they aren’t nesting here). Here is a photo taken 2 weeks ago.

Olive-sided Flycatcher 6/7/13

Olive-sided Flycatcher 6/7/13

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