Bird Watching 101
Have you always wondered how experienced birders can confidently identify birds with just a glimpse? This information from the Cornell University Lab or Ornithology will help you learn the identification skills you need by describing the characteristics birders pay particular attention to in the field.
You can recognize many birds simply by noting their shapes, even if seen only in silhouette. Other useful characteristics are a bird's posture, size (easiest to judge if you use familiar birds as a size reference), flight pattern and/or head-on flight profile, and the kind of habitat in which the bird was seen.
Start by learning to identify general groups of birds — warblers, flycatchers, hawks, owls, wrens — whose members all share certain similarities. As your observation skills improve, familiarize yourself with the field marks — colored or patterned areas on the bird's body, head, and wings — that help distinguish species.
Birds in the same general group often have the same body shape and proportions, although they may vary in size. Silhouette alone gives many clues to a bird's identity, allowing birders to assign a bird to the correct group or even the exact species.
Posture clues can help place a bird in its correct group. Watch an American robin, a common member of the thrush family, strut across a yard. Notice how it takes several steps, then adopts an alert, upright stance with its breast held forward. Other thrushes have similar postures, as do larks and shorebirds.
Once you have assigned a bird to its correct group, size can be a clue to its actual species. Be aware, though, that size can be difficult to determine in the field, especially under poor lighting conditions or at a distance. Size comparisons are most useful when the unknown bird is seen side-by-side with a familiar species. In the absence of that, you can use the sizes of well-known birds, such as the house sparrow, American robin and American crow, as references when trying to identify an unfamiliar bird.
Most birds fly in a straight line, flapping in a constant rhythm, but certain bird groups have characteristic flight patterns that can help identify them. Birds of prey may be identified by the characteristic way they hold their wings when viewed flying toward you.
In general, each species of bird occurs only within certain types of habitat. And each plant community — whether abandoned field, mixed deciduous/coniferous forest, desert or freshwater marsh, for instance — contains its own predictable assortment of birds. Learn which birds to expect in each habitat. You may be able to identify an unfamiliar bird by eliminating from consideration species that usually live in other habitats. (Be aware, though, that during spring and fall migration birds often settle down when they get tired and hungry, regardless of habitat.)
Here are some birding hotspots and the species most likely to be seen there.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico
Bosque del Apache is Spanish for "woods of the Apache," and is rooted in the time when the Spanish observed Apaches routinely camped in the riverside forest. Since then the name has come to mean one of the most spectacular national wildlife refuges in North America. Here, tens of thousands of birds — including sandhill cranes, Arctic geese and many kinds of ducks — gather each autumn and stay through the winter. Feeding snow geese erupt in explosions of wings when frightened by a stalking coyote, and at dusk, flight after flight of geese and cranes return to roost in the marshes. In the summer Bosque del Apache lives its quiet, green life as an oasis in the arid lands that surround it.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge lies along 9 miles of the Rio Grande in the desert of south-central New Mexico. Low dikes built since the refuge was established in the late 1930s have created extensive water impoundments, ideal winter habitat for ducks, geese, sandhill cranes and wading birds. Several accessible viewing platforms are available along the tour route.
The riparian habitat of the Rio Grande and the adjoining arid uplands provide a wide variety of bird life. Cultivated fields furnish additional food for wintering waterfowl, pheasant and other wildlife.
Neotropical migrant landbirds are those species that nest in the United States or Canada, and spend the winter primarily south of our border in Mexico, Central or South America, or in the Caribbean. Many of them, including conspicuous or colorful hawks, hummingbirds, warblers and tanagers, and less colorful but no less important flycatchers, thrushes, and vireos, are experiencing population declines due to widespread loss of habitats important for their survival. Preservation of many different habitats for nesting, wintering, and migratory stopover sites is becoming vital for the survival of many of these birds.
The Bosque del Apache NWR birdlist contains 377 species, which have been observed on the refuge since 1940.
This is the 19th year that the City of Socorro, New Mexico and the Bosque del Apache NWR have celebrated the return of the cranes with The Festival of the Cranes. There are four major components to the festival: tours, lectures, exhibits and the Refuge.
Tours are offered to introduce visitors to areas and topics not commonly available during the year. Birders will be out from dawn to dusk on and off of the Bosque. There is even a birding tour on Elephant Butte Lake. The management of local national wildlife refuges will conduct groups and explain in detail the operation of each refuge. During the Historic Socorro Open House, photo galleries and historic buildings will be open for your inspection. New Mexico Tech and the scientific community will also have displays and tours (read the descriptions carefully — not all tours are for birding).
Lectures are offered for a variety of wildlife-related subjects. Most lectures are given at the Macey Center in Socorro. Some lectures are workshops in photography, bird identification and wildlife painting. Workshops are conducted in the field or special facilities.
On Saturday and most of Sunday the main Promenade at the refuge will be filled with exhibits and demonstrations. This is where you will see animals up close, very close. Animal-rescue groups will display mammals and birds along the perimeter of the Promenade. If you ever wanted a full head photo of a flammulated owl, this may be your only opportunity.
In the Visitor Center and the art and exhibitors tents, you will find educational activities as well as items for sale.
We are here to celebrate the return of the cranes, so don't miss them. The Fly-Out in the morning and the Fly-In in the evening are memorable events. You are free to experience this on your own or you may join one of the tours listed in the brochure.
For more information: Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, (505) 835-1828, www.fws.gov
Great Salt Lake Birding Trail, Utah
Northern Utah is a diverse area providing habitats for more than 200 bird species. Birding is good all year long, as different species are observed during the spring and fall migrations compared to the nesting season or the wintering season. For the most part the area is arid. As a result, birds and people tend to congregate around water. Water comes in many forms, including the clear, cold water of the high mountain streams, the relatively warm water of the many man-made reservoirs, the brackish water of marshes and the salt water of the Great Salt Lake. The shoreline (riparian) vegetation is often the richest in bird diversity.
Northern Utah covers habitats from the approximately 4,200-foot elevation of the Great Salt Lake to the alpine area of Naomi Peak at 9,980 feet and Mount Nebo at 11,877 feet in elevation. In northern Utah you can traverse habitats such as tundra, alpine lakes, lush mountain meadows, beautiful spruce-fir forests, aspen groves, colorful hillsides covered with wildflowers, brushlands of gambel oak and bigtooth maple, extensive pinion-juniper woodlands, fast-flowing mountain streams, manmade reservoirs, rich riparian areas, arid rocky ridges, sagebrush rangelands, cottonwood gallery forests, saltbrush flats, freshwater marshlands, and barren salt flats before reaching the uniquely diverse and vast salt water of the Great Salt Lake itself.
Antelope Island is one of the best area hotspots for rarities, including three species of scoter, long-tailed duck, harlequin duck, ruddy turnstone, Hudsonian godwit, Sabine's gull, mew gull, curlew sandpiper, red phalarope and snow bunting. Late fall and early winter are best for causeway birding as hundreds of thousands of eared grebes and Wilson's phalaropes use the Great Salt Lake as a staging area, along with numerous other species feeding on the abundant brine flies and brine shrimp (the lake has no fish). Many species also make a short spring migration stopover. The Great Salt Lake is designated a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve.
Many habitats exist on Antelope Island, including an oasis of trees at the Fielding Garr Ranch that is especially good for passerines during spring and fall migration. On the Island, look for northern mockingbird, ash-throated flycatcher, indigo bunting and more. In addition to the large chukar population, other summer residents include burrowing owl, great horned owl, horned lark, lark sparrow, say's phoebe, loggerhead shrike and sage thrasher.
Many visitors enjoy viewing the bison, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and coyotes. Allow time to see the visitor's center for information and the opportunity to purchase items. Also visit Buffalo Point where bison burgers (although it will be called a buffalo burger) are available. There is usually a ranger at the Fielding Garr Ranch to answer questions about the history of Antelope Island.
For more information: Wasatch Audubon Society, (801) 621-7595, www.wasatchaudubon.org
Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, Minnesota
The western side of the Lake Country Scenic Byway, near Detroit Lakes, is on this premier 200-mile trail that begins at the Canadian border and offers more than 43 sites to view birds. The trail is comprised of a unique collection of birding habitats including pine forests, deciduous woodlands, native tall grass prairies, aspen parkland, sand dunes, bogs, marshes, lakes and rivers. Approximately 275 species of birds can be found along the Pine-To-Prairie Birding Trail. The Pine-To-Prairie Trail includes the following prime birding areas:
Hamden Slough National Wildlife Refuge: Habitat includes large and small wetlands, grasslands and wooded shelter belts. The trails overlooking wetlands offer an abundance of birding and wildlife opportunities. Birds to see include: green-winged teal, canvasback, redhead, common goldeneye, ruddy duck, snowy owl (winter), sedge and marsh wrens, grassland sparrows, bobolink and yellow-headed blackbird. Best time to visit: April-November.
Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge: The 43,000-acre refuge provides a natural habitat for more than 200 species of birds at this location alone. Wildlife habitat features conifer and deciduous woodlands, lakes, bogs, marshes and prairies. Among the birds to see are the common loon, trumpeter swan, wood duck, bald eagle, red shouldered and broad-winged hawks, peregrine falcon, ruffed grouse, American woodcock, sedge and marsh wrens. View 25 species of warbler in mid-May. The refuge hosts the Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds in May. Best time to visit: April-June, August-October.
District/Prairie-Marsh Trail & Boardwalk: The habitat range features cattail marsh, wetland, prairie and woodlots. Birds to see are the trumpeter swan, northern harrier, common nighthawk, woodpeckers, flycatchers, sedge wren, eastern bluebird, prairie sparrow, rose-breasted grosbeak, Baltimore oriole and finches. Best time to visit: April-June, August-October.
Dunton Locks County Park: Wildlife habitat features lakes, marshes and woodlands. Offers outstanding opportunities to view great blue herons up close in their natural environment. See the common loon, red-necked grebe, waterfowl, woodpeckers, vireos, warblers and finches. Nearby is a great blue heron rookery. Best time to visit: May-October.
Area Birding Events: March: Return of the great blue heron; April: Bald eagles and great blue herons lay eggs; May: Pine-To-Prairie Birding Trail Count, bald eagles and great blue herons lay eggs, loons return to nesting territories, Annual Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds with guided field trips, workshops, speakers and a trade show; June: Loon chicks hatch; December: Audubon Bird Count, Itasca State Park.
For more information: Minnesota’s Pine to Prairie Birding Trail, www.mnbirdtrail.com
Nebraska Birding Trails, Nebraska
Ask almost any American birder to associate Nebraska with a single bird species, and the likely response will be "cranes!" It is true that Nebraska’s Platte Valley annually hosts the largest concentration of sandhill cranes occurring anywhere in the world, a half-million or so, and is the most often used stopover point for whooping cranes between their wintering and breeding grounds. Furthermore, Nebraska’s vast interior Sandhills region, the size of several New England states combined, hosts many increasingly rare grassland birds. Its northwestern Pine Ridge country is a Rocky Mountain ecosystem in miniature, with golden eagles, prairie falcons and many western forest birds. The Niobrara and Platte Valleys are the best documented meeting places and hybrid zones of eastern and western North American birds and the Missouri Valley forests ring each spring and summer with the voices of such eastern birds as scarlet tanagers, whip-poor-wills and chuck-will-widows.
For more information: Nebraska Birding Trails Project, (402) 467-3609, www.nebraskabirdingtrails.com
Lake Champlain Birding Trail, New York-Vermont
This trail is a highway-based trail approximately 300 miles long, which unifies and connects 88 birding sites along the Lake Champlain shoreline and uplands in Vermont and New York into a cohesive unit.
A high-quality full-color map and guide identifies birding sites throughout the Lake Champlain Basin and provides information about the sites and tips for better birding. Uniform way-finding signs are installed to identify each site as part of the birding trail. Interpretive signs will also be placed at sites to help reveal to visitors various natural and cultural history themes and messages. Other enhancements being constructed at some sites include boardwalks, viewing blinds and platforms.
Many different bird species can be found throughout the Champlain Valley. During spring and fall migrations look for migrating waterfowl such as common goldeneye, ring-necked duck, common and hooded mergansers, snow and Canada geese and northern pintail. Some birds that summer in the far north call the Champlain Valley their winter home. Look for Bohemian waxwings, snow buntings, common redpolls, snowy owls and rough-legged hawks.
For more information: Lake Champlain Birding Trail, (802) 747-7900, www.lakechamplainbirding.org
Mississippi Coastal Birding Trail, Mississippi
Mississippi's first official birding trail covers the state's six southernmost counties, and stretches from the border of Louisiana to the border of Alabama. This part of Mississippi is an interface zone where the land meets the Gulf of Mexico. It's a happy marriage of rich habitats and includes the wild and free flowing Pascagoula River and the prairie marshes of the Pearl River and the Gulf Islands National Seashore. More than 387 species have been recorded, including the Mississippi sandhill crane, least tern, and swallow-tailed kite. Look for: the prothonotary warbler.
For more information: Audubon Mississippi, (601) 661-6189,