’Tis the season to talk about scary stuff. For some bird watchers, that includes North American sparrows, a group of mostly small, mostly brown, superficially similar songbirds. Especially for beginners, the differences between the species just seem too subtle, making identification a challenge.
Let’s set the record straight: Sparrows don’t need to be scary. Neither do gulls, warblers, ducks, shorebirds, or any other group of birds you find particularly unnerving.
We talked to a few birders of various skill levels to pick their brains about overcoming common bird identification challenges. Here’s what they had to say.
Dawn Hewitt, managing editor of Bird Watcher’s Digest, agrees that sparrows can be a bit intimidating. “Unless they’re out in the open, or the light is perfect, it can be challenging to see all the field marks I need to see to be comfortable with an ID.”
“As a beginner, warblers were the birds I found most confusing,” recalls Jim Hausman, an avid birder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “Their frantic foraging behavior and fall plumages bewildered me to no end.”
Tim Schreckengost of Phone Skope Birding says that it was shorebirds and gulls he found most intimidating when he first started bird watching. “I didn’t even look at them,” he says.
So what’s the best way to overcome something you’re afraid of? Practice, both at home and in the field.
“You need to have prolonged experience with the birds you want to know,” says Hausman. “Spend lots of time watching birds. It seems so simple but you have to immerse yourself in the experience of watching birds, especially the common ones, to pick up subtle behavioral and physical clues that allow you to confidently ID more difficult birds.”
Hewitt provides an example of how carefully studying familiar species could help with picking out and identifying less common birds: “I’m pretty sure I could ID an adult ring-billed gull even if it was in a flock of a dozen other gulls. But would I be able to pick out a younger ring-billed? I’m not so sure. If I could confidently identify ring-billed gull at all ages and plumages, then I could as confidently recognize gulls that aren’t ring-billeds.”
“Eventually you start to see those subtle differences,” notes Geoff Heeter, one of the founders of the New River Birding and Nature Festival in West Virginia. “This has helped me to become more comfortable and familiar with the markings and patterns of common birds, and that really helps when trying to pick out the different warblers at the top of an oak tree.”
At the same time, Heeter reminds fellow bird watchers not to lose sight of the reason behind our hobby, which is to have fun. “Sometimes I just look at the bird, enjoy the view, and don’t worry about what its name is.”
Birding with other, more experienced bird watchers is important, too. Hausman says that finding a birding mentor helped him tremendously. “Birding with someone who knows what you’re seeing and can articulate the nuances of bird ID will grow your skills fast,” he says.
Echoing Hausman’s comments, Schreckengost says that he tries to surround himself with birders that are better than him, so he feels like he’s “always learning something new.”
“Study field guides as much as you can, but when you do, focus only on one or two plates at a time,” advises Schreckengost. “The more you study the plates, the more familiar you will become with field marks. Pair that with time in the field and you’ll be an expert in no time.”
Schreckengost added that taking pictures in the field to study later at home has been a big help in reinforcing identification lessons. Wendy Clark, a birder based in Lakeside, Ohio, and sales director for Bird Watcher’s Digest, agrees. “When I see a bird I can’t identify, I try to photograph it, then come home and try to solve the riddle from the photos rather than get hung up on identifying the bird in the field,” she says.
The important thing in all of this is to remember that birders never stop learning.
“Professionals make mistakes,” says Hausman. “Beginners make more. Stay humble and accept the failure as a natural part of learning. Learn from your mistakes and grow to help others not make the same errors.”
With patience, practice, and a positive attitude, any bird watcher can push past the fear of scary bird identification, leading to more fun in the field. Good luck!
About the Author
Kyle Carlsen is the assistant editor of Bird Watcher's Digest. Find him on Twitter @kycarlsen.