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Improving Your Bird Identification

Being able to identify the bird you’re looking at is probably the most core aspect of birding, it is also one that doesn’t come without effort. Like with most things in life, what you put in is what you get out and if you continue trying to learn, you’re going to improve. If you become too content in your skills, you’ll soon find that what you thought you knew was only a fraction of the truth. Personally, I am by no means an expert birder and I find myself still constantly struggling with the identification of various species, though waders I struggle with in particular. Which leads me to the first point…

Know Your Weaknesses

We all have strengths and weaknesses, it’s no different with birding. Us birders may not like to play favourites, but we generally have one group of birds that interest us more than others. For some it may be waders, others it may be sea birds. For me, I fell in love with raptors, which then lead me to focus on them more than other groups of birds. The fact that raptors are quite common in the areas I frequent, I began feeling a lot more confident in my identification of them. On the opposite side of the spectrum, waders are a group of birds I rarely encounter living in Somerset West. And my lack of experience in seeing them lead to a lack of skill in differentiating them. If you feel there is a group of birds you struggle with more than others, spend some time focusing on them. Give yourself challenges, head over to one of the identification help groups on Facebook and find people posting pictures of birds in that group and then try and identify them (to yourself). Above all else though, when it’s possible, try and do more birding in areas that will expose you to those species first hand.

Let Yourself Struggle

A common mistake people make in their first couple years of birding, is giving up too easy while trying to identify a bird and instead quickly shoving it on social media for an identification. This was a mistake I made personally, but thankfully had people forcing me to spend more time on the bird myself. It can sometimes be a little infuriating, I realize — but there is a great sense of satisfaction in overcoming your frustration and solving the ID yourself. Sometimes it takes a few minutes, sometimes a few hours, it could take days before you finally get your ID. But the time you spend struggling, is time you spend focusing on visuals of the bird, which again will increase your knowledge of it. And believe me, when you struggle with a bird ID, once you get it you’ve got it in your head for life.

Expect The Expected

We all want to find something rare and special, but the fact of the matter is we’re mostly going to be seeing what is to be expected. Always work on the assumption that what you’re looking at is the bird you’d usually find in that area. Instead of looking what is unlikely to be encountered and trying to find similarities between your bird and the rarity, looking at the bird you’ve seen and find reasons as to why it isn’t that. If you can’t find any reasons — then moving onto more exotic options becomes more reliable. That isn’t to say of course, that you shouldn’t ever expect the unexpected. Rare sightings can happen anywhere at any time, but first have a basis for it before you run off to the nearest forum to proclaim your rare find.

Use Diagnostics

You’ll find that a lot of birds have a simple diagnostic feature that you can use to help you immediately separate it from other potential birds. Perhaps the shape of a tail or wing, or a mark of plumage on the bird. These diagnostic features should be learned to help you easily and quickly identify birds in the field. For example, Yellow-Billed Kites can be picked out of the sky easily, even as tiny silhouettes, based off of the unique tail shape. The same way you can pick up on a Honey Buzzard from just the beak of the bird. Many birds have these distinguishing features that can allow you to rule out other options.

Take a Photograph

If you can afford a pair of R30 000 bins, you can surely afford a camera capable of taking record shots to go along with it. I found that birding with a camera allowed me to learn so much more than I would have without it. Like it or not, the reality is that before cameras became common place in the birding world, people were ticking off species that they simply didn’t see. Sure, they may have been convinced that they did — but I have no doubt that many of these records were incorrect. It is often simply too difficult to get accurate identification on birds in the field in every occasion, and a lot of people seem far more likely to tick an uncertainty than to let a bird slip through their fingers. Having a photograph of the bird has proved by far the most instrumental aspect of me becoming more familiar with bird identifications. One doesn’t have to rely on the mind, which is filled with such inherent nonsense as confirmation biases and all the other crap that gets in the way of reality.

I find that being able to look at a photo I have taken and then compare it with the guide books, with the images on Google and then if needed request for other advice — has made my birding life a whole lot easier, and also a whole lot more accurate.

Get In The Field

This should probably be #1. There is nothing more important than getting out there and seeing the bird yourself. You can stare at birds for hours, but seeing the bird for yourself, picking up on the jizz of the bird along with the ways it moves can help you infinitely more than the words in the world’s most valued field guild. The process of identifying the bird you have seen is by far the most effective way of learning that I have encountered.

Learn The Calls

Probably the hardest part of birding for me, learning the calls. Visuals stick in my mind easily but as soon as it comes to calls, it’s in one ear and out the other. This is awful, since birds are most often heard before they are seen and especially in forest birding, you are reliant on picking up on those calls first. There are a lot of useful applications out there to help you learn your bird calls, my favourite is a free application called Bird Sounds which makes use of Xeno Canto’s database of calls. I’d highly recommend picking it up if you use an Android smartphone.

Develop a Work Flow

This may sound a bit unnecessary, but getting into a habit of a particular workflow ensures that you are following the same steps for learning each time you go through the identification process. For me, the process is simple. In the field, I attempt to identify the bird by sight/photo alone. I then check my guide books to see if I am correct (if any uncertainty exists). If I am still not sure after looking through my guides, I go through the process of running through Google images, searching the potential species I think it could be. By this stage, I have mostly found my answer. But if I am still not sure, I send it through to a more skilled birder or post it on Facebook for other peoples opinions. If you’re lucky, those assisting in the identification will provide you with reasons as to why it is the bird that they say.

Use The Internet

Don’t be afraid to use technology to learn. There are a wealth of articles online, many of which could help you in your identification problem. If you’re struggling to ID two similar species, odds are someone has already written a piece on how to tell them apart and what you should look for. Also don’t be shy to request help from groups, and to ask those who identify the bird what they used to get to that conclusion. I’ve seen many people using social media as a quick fix, to get the answer and then pay it no more thought. Instead, try trace back why you were unable to pick up on the features the other person pointed out.

Have Patience

Finally, have patience. Don’t expect to become fluent with bird identification overnight. It is an ongoing process that never stops. However, it will only go as far as your devotion goes. If you feel fulfilled at being able to identify the birds at your feeder, that is fine. But if you’re looking to become proficient in bird identification of all sorts, you’ll attempt to immerse yourself in knowledge. Listening to those with more knowledge than you will ensure you keep building on what you know, and set you up for a successful future in birding.

As I mentioned in the beginning, I am still a rather novice birder myself in my opinion. However, the amount of knowledge that I’ve gained over the past 6 years of birding has been massive. It is a journey that never ends. I look back at some of my files I named two years ago and I laugh to think that I had missed out on such obvious features at that point. So long as you remain passionate about birding, and continue to want to learn, you’ll find that in 10 years time you’ll sit back and see what you’ve learned in that time frame.

If I missed anything, or if you use another method to help in your identification, please let me know below.

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Bryn De Kocks

Bryn is a passionate and opinionated antinatalist and naturalist with a love for nature, the ocean, photography, severe weather and music. He spends most of his time looking for new birds within the Western Cape, taking landscape photographs or behind his computer being a nerd.

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