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way to lose credibility, other than stating that you saw a rare Australian bird in South Bend, is to call a bird by an outdated or colloquial vernacular.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.

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