The ABS Facebook group is welcoming many people new to birdwatching; it is wonderful to see all the questions on identification coming in. On the one hand the identification of birds and their behaviour is richly rewarding, on the other hand, beginning this process can be daunting. Looking at the beautiful clear photographs and reading the accompanying descriptions on Facebook is easy, but as we step outside and are confronted with a small brown bird in a distant bush or a larger dark silhouette in the sky, reality kicks in. Where do we start and how on earth do the experienced birdwatchers identify the mystery bird?
Of course experience counts for everything, but for those starting out; I have put together the following list of tips and hints to get you started.
1. Buy a good bird identification guide. A quick look online will reveal a long list of titles and for those of us who live in Spain there are several books dedicated to our region. Whilst it might be tempting to go for these or a book that’s entitled a ‘beginners guide’, there is really only one choice and that is: The Collins Bird Guide by Killian Mullarney. This is by far the best bird identification guide to the birds of Europe. By all means buy a more regional guide as well if you wish, but start with this one. When you’ve bought it get to know the layout, so you can more quickly go to the right section before the bird disappears.
2. Get a good pair of binoculars. If you’re serious about becoming more familiar with birds then this is another essential item. One can of course enjoy birds without them, but beyond your immediate surrounds your options will be severely limited. Another quick online search will reveal a bewildering array of brands and magnifications.
As for the brand, well that will depend upon your budget, but I recommend that you don’t just buy any old cheap pair. However you don’t immediately need to gravitate towards the Leica, Swarovski and Zeiss that many of the more experienced birdwatchers will be sporting, there are many excellent makes around at a fraction of the cost.
I had to change binoculars last year; my old Bausch and Lomb 10×42 Elites finally gave up the ghost after serving me well for so many years. As I began to research their replacements I discovered several brands of optics that were new to me and after many hours of browsing mid to high end options, I settled on a mid-range pair made by Vortex. It is these mid-range options that I would point you towards. I found that the differences in quality between a pair that costs €500 were relatively minor compared to those that cost €2000 and upwards. As well as Vortex, have a look at the Nikon Monarch series, Viking Optical and Opticron, as they all come highly recommended and are excellent first time optics. Alternatively ask a question on the ABS Facebook page and I guarantee you’ll be inundated by responses.
Magnification and light gathering are the other aspects to decide on. You’ll notice as you research, that binoculars always have two numbers, say 7×50. The first number is the magnification and the second number is the diameter of the large front lens (object glass). It’s important to say at the outset that bigger isn’t always better, a 15x magnification may sound tempting, but you’ll need very bright light and arms like a bodybuilder to be able to use them. As a rule of thumb if you divide the second number by the first number you will get what’s called the ‘exit pupil diameter’ and this number should be at least 5. Any magnification between 7-10 is suitable and an object glass between 32-50 will provide enough light. Every combination of these has their own adherents. If you want to do more sea or raptor watching then go for 10×40 as you get more magnification, for woodlands then 8×40 maybe better as you get more light.
There is the option of a adding a telescope, but unless you feel it’s essential, I wouldn’t bother at the beginning. If you go out as part of an organised group, other birders will let you see distant birds through their telescopes.
3. Learn the topography of the birds. At the beginning of all good bird guides you will see a labeled diagram of a bird. These annotations will show you where the main identification features of the bird are located. It really will help you get to know birds in the field if you can become systematic in your identification. Experienced bird watchers will often refer to these in their notes. I would also recommend that you take a notebook and pencil with you and you can quickly sketch or jot down any distinctive features. You’ll be amazed how even ten minutes away from the bird transforms your memory. It also follows that it’s a good idea to take your Collins bird guide with you to consult when you come across something new. Though if you can, take the field notes first then go to the guide.
4. Get to know your garden birds and the common species close to you. You can practice the above with say the house sparrows that are with us every day, or the goldfinches, starlings and other familiar species. Where are the lores on these birds, can you find the coverts, the primaries, etc. Make notes as you go along and sketch the birds. The more you become familiar with the common, the better able you will be to notice when something is not common. In this respect it won’t harm you or the birds if you put out bird feeders and provide water, as this will encourage them to come closer.
Close to where you live, try to find your ‘home patch,’ a piece of land that contains good numbers of a variety of birds, a place that is close enough to visit frequently. See how it changes with the seasons and how the species change too. Having a home patch is a great way to increase your knowledge of birds.
5. Start to become familiar with the behaviour of the birds. Which species spend time on the ground, which in the trees? How do they fly? Are they seen in groups or singly? Looking at what they do is part of learning what they are as you begin to become familiar with the feeling of a bird, its shape, behaviour, what habitat its in, time of year, size, etc, in this way you start to develop your bird sense.
6. When you visit a new location, do some research first. Many species of birds have a fairly narrow habitat range and these habitats have different species associated with them. For example open steppe will have a very different assemblage to say a rocky mountain. Have a look at what you might reasonably expect to see before you travel, online can be a good resource, though the best is to ask other birders and to read their notes. John Cantelo (an ABS icon) has produced a brilliant and detailed guide to the birds of the Cadiz area (contact him directly) and there are several books on the subject too; Garcia and Patterson being perhaps the best and most up to date.
7. Which leads to my next point – join a bird club or federation. Of course for us, there is none better than the Andalucía Bird Society, if you are not already a member then I strongly invite you to join us. Not only will you gain access to a wealth of experience, but you will also become part of a highly supportive and friendly community and not only that, but your money goes to help support a variety of bird conservation projects. The ABS organizes field meetings throughout the year and these are an ideal opportunity to learn from experienced bird watchers as well as having a great day out and seeing new species.
8. Don’t forget to listen. It may seem even more daunting than visual identification, but sometimes voice is the best or the only way to identify a bird. There are some species like the nightingale, the quail, cettis warbler and the familiar cuckoo that we almost always hear and not see. Again it helps if you start to learn the songs and the calls of the common species around you, those you can actually see singing. Whilst bird guides have a section on song, it does take a lot of experience to use their descriptions. Better nowadays is to go online and listen to bird song on either british-birdsongs or xeno-canto. This is something you can do from the comfort of your couch.
9. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to be wrong. The ABS website and Facebook page have many people who are happy to help you with identification, just ask. The same will apply at field meetings. There is no birdwatcher here who hasn’t made mistakes, it’s part of learning.
It might be easy to become disheartened when an experienced observer easily identifies a small brown blob in a bush, but don’t worry – they once stood where you are, looking to the experienced hands next to them for help.
10. Never disturb the birds you are watching, particularly during the breeding season. A good birdwatcher is not necessarily one who knows all the birds, rather they are a person who loves and respects birds. If you think you might be getting too close you almost certainly are too close. Keep your distance and be patient, wait for the birds to come to you. At certain times of the year, for example on migration or during a cold wet winter spell, the bird’s energy reserves are critically low. Repeated disturbance, even for a short while, can mean death for the bird in question. During the breeding season be very aware that Spain has large populations of ground nesting birds, so do stay on the tracks and observe all local byelaws. Similarly keep away from nests and don’t be tempted to take a photograph, not only might your actions cause the adults to desert the nest, but you are also alerting predators as to its presence. Many birdwatching locations have hides, try to find the nearest ones to you. These are the best places to see the birds close up and to find other bird watchers to ask your questions of.
Most of all though, enjoy the world of birds. It’s not a race to be the best or to find the rarest. Rather it is a lifetime of discovery, an opportunity to engage in a healthy and rewarding hobby and to see some of the most beautiful animals on our small planet and the marvelous places in which they live.
Article: Neil A Hill (Rewilding Bushcraft) – ABS Member
Note: The views expressed in articles are those of the authors, and are not necessarily those of the Society.