Within this website, I have described the various aids which may help you to watch birds and enable you to become one of the ‘curious naturalists’. To pursue these aims you need to give the birds their correct names; only when you can do this can you talk about them with others and read up about them. Identification is not simple. There is no point in using incorrect names, and if you do, you will not fool anyone for very long. The discipline needed in order to identify correctly a bird teaches you to be observant, accurate in your descriptions and dispassionate and discriminating in your conclusions. Like many subjects you may wish to study there are few, if any, short cuts through the hard grind of memorizing colours, shapes, songs and field marks.
A birdwatching friend can help you through some initial stages by taking you to different habitats; he can open your eyes and teach you how to search for birds and indicate their field marks and other important attributes.
You will also be helped by joining one of the trips organized by your local bird club. In this way you can often visit a number of good birding places fairly cheaply and have the benefit of a multitude of eyes spotting the birds.
All your life you can continue to learn more about the finer points of identification. You will always be seeing birds in new places, hearing unusual call-notes or seeing them in quite extraordinary postures which may for a time, completely fool you. If you are lucky enough to travel to other parts of the world you may meet completely new families of birds and therefore have to learn to identify them from scratch.
When you start learning to identify birds it is best to use one of the field guides with a limited number of species. This reduces the chance of you confusing, say, a common garden bird with a rare visitor from abroad. Having obtained a guide, turn to the section which tells you how to use the book as first you must learn something of the topography of the bird’s feathers before you can properly understand the descriptions of the birds themselves or write your own field descriptions.
Many warblers, waders and other species have eye and supercilary stripes of various lengths, colours and thicknesses. It has been suggested that they help the bird to aim its beak at a particle of food. The edge of the black cap of many species may have the same effect. Another part of the bird to which particular attention should be paid are the wings and the coverts which are smallish feathers of different shapes and sizes lying over the bases of the primary and secondary flight feathers. You need to know them because they or their tips may be coloured differently from the remainder of the wing and thus produce the wing bars which can be prominent field marks.
Field marks are one of the major aids to identification and are any conspicuous features in a bird’s plumage or shape. They can be prominent patches of colour such as the red of a cock Bullfinch’s breast, its blue-black cap or its white rump. Other field marks may be the presence of wing bars, white outer tail-feathers or a forked tail or curved bill or indeed anything which is conspicuous. Some may be hidden when the bird is at rest. The Redwing’s red flanks can be seen only partially and the Grey Plover’s black patch on its axillaries cannot be seen until the bird actually lifts its wings and flies. Another point to watch for is that some colours are not what they seem: for instance, is the colour that you see on the Starling in sunlight the true colour of its feathers or is it due to iridescence? Iridescence is caused by the physical nature of the structure of the barbules which interferes with the normal refraction of light from the feather surface. Adult Starlings, Magpies, Lapwings, and the drakes of several species of wildfowl have this type of plumage. Also remember that the evening sun often casts a red tinge and you can, if you forget this, see some most extraordinary coloured birds. Describing colours is always rather difficult and I try to remember the colour makers’ names for artists’ colours which are fairly uniform.
A note on size is important in your field description. Field guides usually give the length in centimetres or inches at the beginning of every section. This is generally the measurement of a specimen placed flat on its back and taken from the tip of its beak to the end of its tail. As you do not usually see a bird in the field like this, it is better to try and compare the size with another species known to you. The size of flying birds is notoriously difficult to judge; a friend of mine used to illustrate this problem with a story that one day he and a friend were lying on a bank chatting and idly watching a Kestrel hovering on the other side of the bank. After a time the Kestrel changed the direction of its flight and turned out to be a Red Admiral butterfly which had been in difficulty flying up into the wind and it only became recognizable when it moved off in another direction.
Shape is a give-away feature in many species. Is, for instance, the body of the bird you have seen, tubby and upright like a Robin or slim and horizontal like a Wagtail? Is it long-legged? Does it have a long neck or a long tail ? As you become more experienced you will get to know many birds by their shape. You will obviously be able to tell that a certain bird is a duck but you will also be able to tell a Wigeon by its pronounced forehead or a Pintail by its long thin neck and needle-like tail. You will also be able to distinguish the Mallard by its cocked-up tail from the Pochard with its more rounded body and tail that lies almost on the water. Another way of learning bird shapes is to draw them. Drawing birds makes you concentrate on essential details and teaches you to look at them in a different and refreshing way.
Two other factors that need to be taken into account when identifying birds are geographical range and the habitat in which the bird has been found.
If you identify a species which is not normally present in the area in which you are birdwatching it would be wise to re-check your identification and make sure you have an adequate field description and then report your sighting to your county recorder.
A bird’s habitat is not really a diagnostic feature as, particularly on migration, birds can turn up in all sorts of places, but it can be an indication. For example, if you find a yellowish-bellied wagtail on a water meadow in south-east England it is more likely to be a Yellow Wagtail than a Grey Wagtail. In Wales you are more likely to see a Grey Wagtail along rocky streamsides. With large groups of birds such as ducks each species will differ in its choice of habitat. Amongst the ducks, for instance, some prefer saltwater such as the Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks whereas Pochards and Tufted Ducks prefer freshwater. Amongst the waders, Purple Sandpipers and Turnstones forage mostly on the seashore whereas a lot of waders may be just as much at home on a freshwater shoreline as in a saline habitat. So not only should you check the distribution maps but you should also look carefully at the description of the species’ normal habitat. Some birds are gradually changing their habitat in a rather subtle way. Up to a few years ago, you hardly ever found a Reed Bunting away from the vicinity of water but recently it seems to be spreading over to drier habitats that are more characteristic of the Yellowhammer.
The way a bird moves must be noted and, when considered with the shape, can be a diagnostic feature. Was it walking, one foot down after the other, comparatively slowly, or running with ‘twinkling’ feet? When searching for food, larger birds usually walk. Large waders like Oystercatchers, Curlews and godwits, as well as Ravens, Rooks, ducks and geese, all tend to walk. Plovers can run for short distances then they stop, look and listen. Smaller waders like the Sanderling ‘twinkle’ or run with ‘twinkling’ feet along the edge of the waves while Dunlins twist and turn digging busily and deeply into the wet sand or soft mud. On a lawn the Pied Wagtail may rush about after flying insects; in contrast, Chaffinches are sedate walkers. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes, like most of their family hop or run and hop – the Blackbird when displaying to an intruder and therefore somewhat excited, runs, adopting a rather special posture of the body known as the ‘rodent run’.
When you see a flock of small birds feeding amongst the branches, what is their method of locomotion? Do they sidle up the twigs like some of the warblers or hop from branch to branch or twig to twig like the tits? On tree trunks, two or three species may hunt together – how do they climb the tree? Do they circle gradually up the trunk or do they go straight up? Once they have got to the top of one tree how do they get to the bottom of another? The Treecreeper, for instance, rarely climbs down a tree: once it has climbed fairly high it will fly to the bottom of another tree and even to the bottom of the tree it has just climbed, while the Nuthatch can walk down.
Some birds fly in a very distinctive manner. Once you have learnt the regular and deep rounded wing beats of the Lapwing, flashing black and white, you will be able to identify it so long as you can see movement of the wings. The commonest feature to notice is whether the flight is level or undulating: finches, buntings and wagtails all have an undulating flight caused by the bird beating its wings for a second or two and then closing them. Each species has its own flight pattern depending upon the speed and number of wing beats. The Grey Heron flies swiftly and directly across the sky, and its slow wing beats deceive you as to its speed over the ground. Geese fly in lines or in V-shape formations, Woodpigeons in loose flocks, Buzzards soar and wheel, Kestrels hover, while Swallows and martins wheel, swirl and chatter over water-meadows and villages.
When you look at water birds, how do they swim ? Do they sit high in the water like Geese or low like Shags? How do they dive? Do they slip under the water or jacknife themselves out of the water to gain impetus?
Finally when talking about the different features by which you identify a bird you may hear people saying that it has the ‘jizz’ of some particular bird. There is nothing magic about the word which was first used, so far as I am aware, by T. A. Coward in the introduction to one of his very popular books on British birds. It is most often used when you can only see the bird imperfectly against the light or amongst vegetation. Your accumulated experience with birds takes into account what little you can see of its shape and in its method of moving, as well as its habitat and comes up with the impression that the bird is whatever you think it has the ‘jizz’ of.