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way to lose credibility, other than stating that you saw a rare Australian bird in South Bend, is to call a bird by an outdated or colloquial vernacular.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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Birding Flashback: Dallas, TX 2007

Right after I graduated from Ohio State (actually, one week before I graduated), I started working for a company called American Woodmark that is based in Virginia. Their rookie training program had me jumping around all over most of the Southeast, with a stay in Dallas in August of 2007. I quickly found the city’s best hot spot for birds and spent a few afternoons there. Looking back, I wonder how much better the birding would have been with nicer weather (we had two straight weeks of 95+ degree heat with humidity, immediately followed by Hurricane Erin). But nonetheless, I had many lifers at White Rock Lake on the east side of downtown. Observe:

Great-Tailed Grackle

Great-Tailed Grackle

Upon disembarking from my flight and stepping foot on Texan soil outside of DFW, I saw several of these birds, went “Whoa!” and immediately dug my camera out of my suitcase to take pictures right there in the airport parking lot. I had never seen them before, so naturally I was excited. I probably could have waited a little while to paparazzi them, though, because it turns out that in Texas, Great-Tailed Grackles are about as common as Pigeons. Oh well.

Western Kingbird

Western Kingbird

Another lifer for me was the Western Kingbird that I saw once I got to White Rock Lake. This gentleman remains the only individual of the species I have ever seen.

Monk Parakeet

Monk Parakeet

As I made my way to the northern side of the lake, I heard the biggest racket created by hundreds and hundreds of these Monk Parakeets. After going back to the hotel to look up this bird (obviously not in my field guide), I was able to identify them and also learn that the population in Dallas goes beyond escaped and feral pets. The colony is well-established, with most of the birds likely being born in the wild. They have also become a nuisance animal, building huge stick nests on utility poles that occasionally catch on fire.

American Coot

American Coot

The common American Coot presented a good photo opportunity.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret

As did the much less common (for a northerner) Snowy Egret. I am, however, at a loss as to what species of turtle that is.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

The lake also harbored one of the densest swallow populations I have ever seen.

Purple Martin

Purple Martin

So I tried to get artistic with my photography. I still wish I had tried to get an actual photo of the Purple Martins.