Being a Better Beginner, Part 2: What are you looking at?

Once you have gotten out of the yard and started finding birds, the next step in being a better beginner is knowing what you are looking at.
Snowy Egret

My dad loves telling me about the cranes and storks he sees on the lake by his house. (Snowy Egret, South Carolina, 2006)

Since you have a field guide now, you should have a good place to start. Let me emphasize that again:
1.) Use your field guide. Googling seems to be the way to go for many new birders, and an sometimes an image search can be helpful… but only if you already have an idea of what can be expected in your area. I remember Googling “finch with brown head” the first time I ever saw a Brown-Headed Cowbird, but the answer would have been much more forthcoming if I had a decent field guide at the time. Taking the Google (or Lycos or NetCrawler or whatever) approach does have many pitfalls. It seems that every year someone reports a Blue Finch in Indiana because Googling that search term will give you results with a bird that looks more or less like an Indigo Bunting if it’s your first time seeing an Indigo Bunting
2.) Since you have now spent quality time browsing your field guide, you should know the common names for many species. A quick way to lose credibility, other than stating that you saw a rare Australian bird in South Bend, is to call a bird by an outdated or colloquial vernacular. This represents the other end of the spectrum from using exclusively banding codes, or even worse, being the guy who shows off by only using Latin names. But they aren’t redbirds and yellowfinches, either. Likewise, know the difference between cranes, storks, and herons.
This is not a buzzard.

This is not a buzzard. (Turkey Vulture, Columbus, 2006)

3.) Know the difference between common dopplegangers, and which one is more expected. So you can tell an Indigo Bunting from a Blue Finch. But what about a House Finch vs. a Purple Finch? Even if both birds are likely to be found where you are, know that, in the Midwest at least, a flock of 100 House Finches is likely to contain 0 Purple Finches most of the time.  Carolina vs. Black-Capped Chickadees also tend to present this problem, especially Black-Cappeds, which seem to very regularly get reported in the southern reaches of the state where they should not be found at all.
Carolina Chickadee

Know which one of these you should expect to see in your neighborhood. (Appropriately enough, South Carolina, 2007)

4.) With all of that said, sometimes you can’t identify a bird. Once you get the most common species mastered, it will be frustrating if you cannot identify the distant sandpiper or the warbler way up in a tree. This will actually happen a lot, but don’t get discouraged! It is way better to just say “I don’t know” than try to make up an ID that you can’t substantiate. Even if you don’t report your sightings, who wants a bunch of asterisks on their life list? Stringers, that’s who.
5.) When you do see a rare bird, be ready to provide information about it. I suppose this is only if you want to share your sighting, but I find that’s one of the more enjoyable aspects of birding. When people start to question you (you are a beginner, after all), don’t take it personally. Just know that probability is working against you, especially if what you see is a vagrant and not just locally uncommon. But if you swear that it actually was a Chihuahuan Raven and not an American Crow, prepare to defend your thesis.
6.) Repetition is key. I used to think that it was impossible to tell the difference between Swainson’s, Gray-Cheeked, and Hermit Thrushes. But the more I saw, the easier it got. Being in the field will give you the best identification skills, as long as you supplement your experience with correct information (ie: not Google images).
It is easy for beginners to get discouraged, and I often did and still do. Don’t let your own skills hold you back; improve them. Likewise, don’t be intimidated from the knowledge of others; learn from them, unless they are being a jerk. But if you are forthcoming with your own shortcomings and really interested in getting better, the community is usually pretty receptive.
In summary… why are all of my old photos so much better than the ones I take now? It will take someone else writing a different couple of posts to figure that one out.

Being a Better Beginner, Part 1: Finding Birds

I decided to write this series of posts based on recent observations of several new beginning birders appearing in the online circles that I frequent (this is a good thing!). I know that there is plenty of material out there about how to be a better birder, but I feel like I can offer a unique perspective as someone who is definitely not an expert but has at least some knowledge of the hobby (yes, it’s a hobby), got into birds at an older age than many, and can remember my frustrations and pitfalls of newbiehood. So I offer my advice on being a better beginner, knowing that I myself am still a beginner in many ways.

To begin, I offer you my origin story:
My obsession started out with a tiny point-and-shoot camera that my uncle sent to me for my 20th birthday. Wanting to make good use of it, I set out onto the campus of Ohio State in Columbus, looking for things to take pictures of. A Northern Cardinal (still just “cardinal” to me then) landed in a tree near me, and I fired away! Awesome! Then I saw an American Goldfinch (just “goldfinch”) and nearly flipped out. TWO colorful birds? Wow, that was pretty amazing! I immediately decided to take as many pictures of as many cool animals as I could. Anything was fair game, but I realized there were many more birds than I even knew about. As my list grew to 10 then 20 then 30 species of birds, I realized that it was game on. I would find ALL of the birds and take their pictures. I got a field guide, started adding exotic birds like House Finch and Song Sparrow to my life list, and never looked back.

There are certainly many levels of birderhood, and there are many who are content just to see what is at their feeders. This is how I got hooked, as campus was my “yard” back then. It was all I needed at first, because literally every bird was a new bird that had to be identified. But as many feeder watchers surely know, new birds will begin to taper off after a while. That is fine for some people, but for those like me who have to see more, it was frustrating when I hit a wall after getting all the common birds. My field guide said there were tons of ducks and warblers (oh man, how excited I was to learn there were birds called “warblers” and that there were 40ish species!) and I wanted to know why I wasn’t seeing them. The first step in seeing more birds is to find birds, so I offer this advice.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal – Columbus, 2005. If you want to see more than these guys, take heart!

1. If you aren’t using a field guide, get one. They are the best way to know what is out there and what you are missing. Most will recommend the Sibley Guide, and it is great, but I started with Peterson, and I even see value in getting one of the smaller, less-scientific regional guides if all you want to know is what is out there. Know of course that these smaller guides will only take you so far, and you will need to upgrade to a beefier model once you get your wits about you.

2. Research and begin to understand the timing of birds. This was probably my biggest obstacle as a newbie. Peterson says that ducks and warblers can both be found in the spring in the Midwest, but you must know that “spring” means totally different things to different birds. If you go out in May looking for Common Goldeneyes and Buffleheads, you will be disappointed. Likewise if you are searching for Magnolia Warblers and Scarlet Tanagers in March. This frustrated me to no end. The best resource for timing that I can recommend is the eBird bar charts, which will tell you how often birds are seen in an area every week of the year: http://ebird.org/ebird/GuideMe?cmd=changeLocation

3. Get out of your yard! It’s amazing how many times I visited the same couple of small ponds around campus, frustrated that all I could ever find were Mallards, Canada Geese, and that one lucky time a Blue-Winged Teal. When I finally made the decision one day to drive out to a local reservoir, I was astounded to find Pied-Billed Grebes and a Common Loon easily within my grasp. It was at this point that birding became intentional for me, and not just a hobby I enjoyed while in my every day routine. You must move around to find birds, even if the places around you seem like they should have the birds you’re looking for. Subtle differences in habitat are key to attracting some species over others. Two ponds might appear very similar, but the depth of the water and the invisible food in it will create big differences in the waterfowl that you see.

Common Loon - Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

Common Loon – Columbus, 2006. If you want to see a bird like this rather than a bunch of Canada Geese, go somewhere new.

4. Be patient. If you go looking for something and it isn’t immediately visible, don’t give up. It took me a long time to learn this. Even 15 minutes can change a lot, and something even better than what you expected may appear without warning.

5. Be persistent. Go out weekly at least. Only when you are in the field will you begin to accumulate knowledge about where certain birds will show up, and repeated exposure to a species will help you know what you’re looking at faster and faster. It will also make it easier for you to know right away if something is out of place.

6. Finally, be persistent again. Don’t be jealous or get discouraged from the other birds you see people posting on Facebook; if two hours in your local park didn’t net you anything good, know that it takes time and effort and traveling to eventually stumble across a great bird on your own. But giving up quickly will never get you anything.

In closing, find birds! The next part is identifying them.

Patience Paying Off

Blah blah blah the weather, blah snow, blah blah cold, blah blah blah. You’ve heard it before.

Today, however, it approached 60 degrees and I got my bird on! I had the single most productive day of the year so far (even including January 1st) by dusting off my bike, cruising the river greenways around Fort Wayne, and looking for waterfowl. In my hiking boots, windbreaker, safety helmet, and gleaming white complexion on top of Jaime’s off-road bike, a friendly gentleman called out to me “That is straight gangsta!” as I rode past. He must have known I was heading to the water treatment plant to look at ducks. Because the birding was straight gangsta.

Be Alert

Be Alert

My path took me downtown, where I picked up the first motorless bird of the day: Rock Pigeon. New list. Count it!

Canvasback

Canvasback

When I got to the terminal pond next to the very swollen river, I immediately saw a new county bird in American Black Duck. Then the massive flock of Canada Geese close to shore got spooked by something (me) and flew off, leaving only coots and a large white-backed duck from whence they launched. Canvasback! This is actually a life bird for me, and I was stoked to see it. I wondered if going motorless would net me any life birds, and it looks like the answer is yes.

Snow Goose

Snow Goose

My next fist pump (okay, so it was a double fist pump) came for Snow Goose. I was originally disappointed that one of those funky domesticated barnyard geese had snuck in with the other good ones, but as the bird swam closer I realized what it actually was. Snow Goose is not a life bird for me, but it is so far easily the best bird of the year. They are not numerous in Indiana away from the southwestern part of the state (where Goose Pond Fish & Wildlife Area is), and I had only seen a few of them before and never gotten a photograph. Solid.

In all, my bicycle voyage netted me 14 new birds for the motorless list, including 3 county and 1 life bird. But the birds weren’t done. Once I got home, Jaime, Walter and I were preparing to go for a walk when a small hawk came swooping in over our heads and disappeared into the trees in our back yard. Its squeaky dog toy vocalizations told me right away that this was the Sharp-Shinned Hawk I tried to imagine last week. Good for a new tick on the motorless and also the yard list. Then, once we got back and I was hanging blinds in the to-be new baby’s bedroom, I heard the unmistakable trilling of Sandhill Cranes. I ran outside just in time to see one huge wave flying over the house.

The moral of the story is that patience pays off. I have felt like a hermit for the last several months, but one good outing today gave me more than I was hoping for. After becoming somewhat pessimistic about my prospects to see 100 birds without a car this year, I am suddenly right back in it.

Spring-ish!

It’s spring around the blogosphere, and you can tell because all of the Midwestern birders are leaping up in the air, clicking their heels, and whooping for joy at the prospect of the first neotropic migrants of the year: Eastern Phoebe, Hermit Thrush, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, and many other great birds, none of which I have actually seen yet this year.

MODO!

MODO!

The motorless list was MODOless for far longer than it should have been. And do you know what? I was pretty dang excited to finally see one this past weekend. Excited enough that I am even going to post this hideously composed photo. New year list challenges make even humdrum birds cathartic. Also snagged on the list was Carolina Chickadee, of which no photo was obtained.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

With MODO ticked, I again set my sights on wrens. I didn’t find the sought-after Winter one, but one of their Carolinian brothers was out in full display, no doubt staking his territory for the coming mating season. As promising a sign of spring as any.

Scaupwreck

Scaupwreck

The still frozen St. Mary’s river yielded some waterfowl too, but not in the way that I hoped. This shipwrecked scaup (I think) showed no obvious cause of mortality, and it was not there the previous day.

Brown Creeper Yoga

Brown Creeper Yoga

Undeterred by the circle of life on display in front of it, this Brown Creeper showed no hesitation in showcasing some of its yoga moves. I feel like I have posted this bird a lot recently, but that may be because they are near the top of the chart when it comes to being apathetic or just downright oblivious in front of humans. This bird was no more than five feet away from me at my closest approach, and showed no signs of trepidation as I watched it from point blank range. I probably could have petted it if I wanted to.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

The last bird of the outing was this svelte hawk. As I trudged along the river, I was pretty surprised when this bird flew up from below me down the embankment and perched at eye level. My gut reaction was Sharp-Shinned, but the uneven tail feathers and overall body proportions (and corrections on the Indiana Birding – No Rules! Facebook page) told me otherwise.

Thank you all for bearing with this blog during these slow winter months. Our snow is very much melting now, and I am hoping for some more diverse fare as the weeks go by. And my Mayday weekend trip to the famous migrant mecca of Magee Marsh and Maumee Bay State Park in northwest Ohio is all planned out. I am excited to camp among woodcocks and whip-poor-wills and tick some serious warbler action as a last big birding hurrah before baby #2 gets here in July!

Unusual Suspects

I have hit Foster Park hard and often in the first two months of this year, trying in vain to bulk up my motorless list. But after the usual suspects were had early, the birding has been slow, if not relaxing. I am still missing Mourning Dove for the year. Seriously. Mourning Dove.

Yesterday, on the last day of February, I took advantage of some sunshine to check out Foster again, hoping to tick sapsuckers, kinglets, and maybe a Winter Wren (and Mourning Dove).

White-Breasted Nuthatch

White-Breasted Nuthatch

I was desperate to actually put together a blog post with photos in it, so as I walked the river bank, I started taking pictures of everything that moved, which was not much. Nothing against White-Breasted Nuthatch, but I can see you anywhere.

Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

I was getting desperate to make something out of my trip. So squirrels were fair game, too. Maybe I could do one of those interesting “Here are some mammals I saw while birding” posts, but I would need to do better than Fox Squirrel to muster that.

River Ice

River Ice

Falling deeper into despair, I resorted to taking pictures of the cool ice formations on the river.

Maybe...

Maybe…

Next, my mind tried very hard to make this stub of branch into a waxwing.

Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye

Then suddenly, something black and white splashed down into the river next to me. Common Goldeneye! Good! My patience paid off, as this was certainly an unexpected duck to find. Open water must have been hard to come by for this diver, because he was cruising around in a tiny open patch of shallow and frozen river. I also realized that this is actually a county bird for me; score!

Usual Suspects

Usual Suspects

Common Goldeneye turned out to be especially good, because this photo summarizes the rest of the waterfowl present.

Looking Up

Looking Up

As I continued, I began to look up both literally and figuratively, because a jogger flushed a large raptor ahead of me on the trail, and it landed almost directly above me.

Closer...

Closer…

See it? No? Let me zoom in some more…

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Barred Owl was an exceptional way to end the day. I hear them all the time behind my house, but I am a seen-only kind of guy when it comes to listing. I figured I would get one eventually on the motorless list, but I did not expect to see one in full sunlight and manage a clear photograph to boot.

Now if only I could get so lucky with Mourning Dove…

Lifers in the Fast Lane. And Other Strange Places.

In the last few weeks, I have been birding many times and seen many a good bird, but I didn’t have anything blog worthy until just yesterday. A work trip put me in South Bend for the day, and on the drive home a large, dark raptor flew low over the road right in front of my car. It showed clear white crescents under the wing and a white tail band, which mean only one thing: Golden Eagle! This is a life bird for me, and an uncommon winter visitor to the Great Corn Desert. It was also a bird of my 2014 strategic year.

I didn’t get a photo, since I was driving and my two colleagues wouldn’t have been thrilled had I slammed on the breaks in the middle of the highway and proceeded to iPhone the bird in the -25 degree wind chill. But despite the lack of pretty picture, I felt inspired to write today because of what this bird got me thinking about: the myriad esoteric lists that I keep in my head, and the weirdest or most random lifering I have had. Golden Eagle is the most recent and definitely the best life bird I have had while driving at 60+ miles per hour. But the 60MPH+ lifer list also contains birds such as American Kestrel, Wild Turkey, and Ring-Necked Pheasant, with numerous others on the list in general without the asterisk for seeing them for the first time at high speeds.

Other random and esoteric lists that I keep in my head include:

Birds Seen Sitting on the Bar Where I am Drinking List:
-Mourning Dove
-Mallard
-Cedar Waxwing

Birds Whose Remains I Have Seen After They Were Eaten By a Peregrine Falcon List:
-European Starling
-Rock Pigeon
-Northern Flicker
-Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker
-Blue Jay

Real Birds I Have Seen In My Dreams List (This is an interesting list, because for most people birds in dreams are metaphors, but for me they are literal representations of things I pine for. I could get into a whole other blog post about the psychology here, but not today):
-Snowy Owl (attacking me)
-Harris’s Sparrow (landing on my head)
-Purple and Cassin’s Finches (at my feeder simultaneously)

Made-Up Birds I Have Seen In My Dreams List:
-Completely orange Northern Cardinal with black wing bars

And I also need to mention the category of strangest circumstances in which I have seen a life bird. Golden Eagle and others while driving at speed aren’t too out there. But I do have:
-Ovenbird (seen for the first time in a mist net during my ecology class field lab during my senior year of college, followed by the second time on the sidewalk (alive) in the middle of downtown Indianapolis after hitting a window, and finally countable for the third time in a normal habitat)
-Great Black-Backed Gull (with its head buried in a bag of Fritos)
-Sandhill Crane (seen for the first, second, and third time all while traveling for various job interviews)

And finally, I leave a special place for Carolina Wren, a bird which I observed for the first time when I was about three years old while lying in bed where I first lived in North Carolina. I have an incredibly vivid memory of being so excited that the bird was saying “Superman! Superman! Superman!” and I just couldn’t believe it. It wasn’t until about 20 years later that I actually identified the bird, but I count it as my first ever lifer.

Birds with Friends

Jaime and I have a perpetual game of Words with Friends going, so I was very happy when she told me that the Word of the Day was “junco!” Look!

Junco

Junco

Wait… What? Let’s count how many errors there are in this feature.

1. Juncos aren’t finches. They are sparrows

2. There is no such bird as the Reed Sparrow, and Juncos would never be found in reeds. I realize this is an error by 18th century Spaniards, but still, ding.

3. In the example sentence, White-Throated Sparrows and Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers are called out specifically and correctly, so how hard would it be to also realize that Northern Junco is not a species?

In summary: Among bird identification apps, Words with Friends is the worst!