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SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — For the novice birder, a birding outing can quickly turn from experiencing birds in their natural habitats to keeping your nose down in the field guide. At Jennings Environmental Education Center, the Tweetspeak cluster teams of two learned new techniques to bird better. These tips will help a new birder quickly identify an unknown species without sacrificing their observation time. Hopefully you have a friend or two who are willing to bird with you!

1. Spend more time observing 

My partner Katie and I learned quickly how important it was to work together. By taking turns with your partner, you can focus on observing the birds and identify the characteristics out loud to your partner to write down in their field notebook. Then you can get a better look at the birds during your time before they fly away.

Decide on an amount of time for partner 1 to observe through their binoculars and list size and shape, plumage and color, behavior, and habitat. Partner 2 writes down that information and then goes to their field guide to identify the bird. After it is identified, both partners can take the time to observe the bird to learn more. The more you watch a specific species, the more you will understand how the bird acts and that will give you more knowledge to future birding experiences. The rangers and staff at Jennings emphasized the importance of watching the bird and noting characteristics before writing anything down.


2. Identify more easily

If you are birding alone and are unsure of a bird, going back and forth between the binoculars, field notebook, and field guide makes it easy to miss important characteristics of the bird, or just miss out on the experience. Katie and I helped each other at Jennings to identify birds.

For example, let’s say Katie says that the bird is “smaller than a Robin, with a black-gray crown, black eye, short beak, white belly, gray and white breast, and a dark wing. It is going after the seeds on the ground.” I, knowing that they are out birding in the winter in western Pennsylvania, can write it all down and identify the bird in my field guide as a Dark-eyed Junco. Then Katie doesn’t have to look away from the bird. 

One of the most important aspects learned at Jennings about identifying birds was watching specific behavior of a species. The behavior of a bird is one of the least looked at characteristics for a novice birder. It is easy to look at a bird and see the size, shape, and color quickly, but take the time to watch how the bird acts. By sitting inside and watching the feeders, behavior becomes much easier to witness because they were right in front of us.

For example, the Dark-eyed Junco typically hops around on the ground to collect seeds that have fallen. It is interesting compared to the other birds we witnessed like the Tufted Titmouse and Black-capped Chickadee that flew and landed on the feeder. Maybe they do this because of the lack of competition on the ground or the easy access. If you aren’t watching the juncos long enough, it would be difficult to tell that they forage on the ground rather than on the feeder. It emphasizes the necessity to spend long periods of time observing.

To learn the behavior of birds, it is absolutely necessary to take time to watch them. Notice their posture, how they walk, and how they fly. The education staff at Jennings made it clear that spending the time watching the bird is most important to learn about each species. Though it might be easy one day to identify a bird by its color, if it is a sunnier day where you can only see silhouettes, knowing a bird’s shape and behavior is more important.

3. Work together and combine knowledge

When Katie and I were birding at Jennings, we both saw a Hairy Woodpecker, but were unsure if it was a Hairy or a Downy since they look so similar from far away. Katie looked through her binoculars and noticed that it was definitely a woodpecker pecking at the suet on a feeder. She pointed me in that direction and asked if I could notice the beak size since she could not. I looked at the woodpecker and saw a longer beak relative to its head size. I knew it must have been a Hairy Woodpecker because of the long beak.

If Katie had been by herself, she would not have been able to identify the woodpecker. Either she would identify it incorrectly or would simply be unable to count it in her checklist for the day. According to Dr. Duerr, it is better to not identify a bird at all than to identify it incorrectly. If a bird is identified incorrectly, it can negatively affect research efforts of scientists using data from eBird. If someone were to say they saw a Purple Martin in Pennsylvania in December, a summer migrant for this area, a scientist might spend time investigating why their migration pattern had changed. If that was an incorrect identification, the scientist doing the research would either be wasting his time or providing inaccurate results. In the help section of eBird, they explain how reviewers check identifications to ensure the most accurate data from citizen scientists.


4. Have fun while birding!

Depending on weather conditions and how many birds are out, spending too much time outside without seeing anything can get boring. When you have someone with you to keep you on track, it is more fun. You can comment on the quirky behavior of a bird, or even other people you are birding with. Maybe there’s an expert doing something strange to attract more birds, or someone forgot to take the caps off their binoculars. With someone by your side to laugh with, it enhances the birding experience as a whole.


Produced by Anna Daniels and Katie Nicholson


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