Written by Ben Coley
For many, the thought of identifying a bird can be a terrifying prospect. Let’s be honest, they have wings and can fly, generally prefer vegetated areas and have an annoying habit of disappearing just as you locate them in your binoculars! However, it is worth persevering!
For most of you reading this, it’s probably not much of a challenge to identify the common mammals found in your area, but one can go birding anywhere! With approximately 10,000 species worldwide and over 900 in Southern Africa alone, the prospect for increasing that life-list is something that might just end up keeping you entertained for a lifetime!
In order to set you on your way, here are a few tips to look out for the next time you train your eyes on a bird fluttering through the undergrowth:
A bird’s ‘General Impression of Shape and Size’ will be your starting point for identification. How big is the bird? Is it a small bird like a sparrow, a medium sized bird like a dove or a large bird like a raptor? You can think of the shape of the bird like a silhouette i.e. what does it look like? A woodpecker’s GISS looks completely different to that of a robin for example even though the two are quite similar in size.
The bill of a bird is a great place to start for an ID. There are many variations of bill shape and colour, and this will help you narrow down the list, as well as infer its diet. A sunbird has a decurved bill for reaching into the corolla of flowers, whilst flycatchers have a thin tweezer-like bill for gleaning insects from the vegetation. The colour of the upper and lower mandibles also sometimes differ. Woodland and mangrove kingfishers are very similar but the latter has an all red bill whilst the woodland is red above and black below.
The length and colour of birds’ legs are very diagnostic. Long, strong legs suggest a more terrestrial lifestyle, especially in the wading families. Common greenshanks and greater yellowlegs could easily be confused but (as the name suggests) the legs are completely different!
This is perhaps the most obvious – what colours and patterns do the bird’s plumage have? However, one must remember that males and females often differ (known as sexuadimorphism) and many birds only have their bright colours during breeding season and look rather nondescript during the winter. This is known as their ‘eclipse plumage’.
5. Habitat and distribution
Birds are masters of the ecological niche. The only way that so many species can coexist is if they do not out-compete one another. Therefore, bird species tend to favour different habitats. Birding in a forest habitat will turn up a variety of species that will not be found in open woodland, coastal areas or grassland. The same applies to their distribution range. All bird books should come with a map highlighting a particular bird’s range to double check that it occurs in your area before jumping to conclusions!
Many birds have specific habits that they exhibit. For example, the black heron uses its wings like a shroud to remove glare from the water whilst searching for food. The familiar chat has a tendency to flick its wings whilst perched. There are many other examples that are unique to species and families alike. Like the habitat preference, any specific habits will be listed in the species information in the bird book.
Birds are often seen but not heard but this is still evidence that they are there. To know the call is to know the language or dialect of the bird and is sometimes even more accurate than identifying by sight alone! Many birds have regional or genetic colour variations and an excess or lack of the pigment, melanin is also common. Knowledge of the call can also help to confirm the identify a bird if looking at some of the more confusing LBJs (little brown jobs) such as larks, pipits and warblers.
These key skills will help you to quickly narrow down the area of the bird book to look in and in no time you will be adding to your life-list! However, birding does take practice and more you do it, the faster you will be able to recognise species at a quick glance. It can indeed be frustrating at first, but as your skills improve, you will unlock a new world of discovery! When Bushwise students start the field guide course, they often feel overwhelmed wondering how on earth they will be able to remember 100 bird calls and be able to identify at least 200 birds, but with the tips above it is made so much more ‘do-able’ and they surprise themselves at the end of the course with their new found bird knowledge!
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