BIRDING ONLY STARTS WITH THE ID
For too many birders, birding begins and ends with identifying the bird. With the ID over, its on to the next new species. This leads to sloppy birding and develops bad birding habits. Beyond that, you end up not really knowing the bird at all. Here are some ways to become a better birder:
- LOOK CLOSELY: This includes studying even very common species. Do not just look for the field marks mentioned in your guide. Look at all the color variations, patternings, and jiz of the bird. Without looking at a book can you completely describe the head pattern of a male House Sparrow? The upperparts coloration of a Rock Dove? There is always some nuance or variation that can be learned by closely looking at any bird. I believe the biggest problem with birders is that they do not actually see the bird they are looking at, they are too interested in the next "tick". The Vermillion Flycatcher fiasco is an outstanding example of this.
- STUDY AND OBSERVE bird behavior. Watch how they feed, fly, nest-build, defend a territory, attract a mate, care for their young etc. Watch the intricacies of flock behavior. Just recently I watched a Mourning Dove bathe and saw behavior that I had never before witnessed. Carve out some time (even just fifteen minutes) during every trip to just study some bird or flock.
- READ more than just the articles on identification. Learn more about the history of bird distribution, ecology, evolution, forest fragmentation, ethological studies of bird etc. You do not have to only read scientific journals (like the Auk, or the Journal of Field Ornithology). For instance, the New York Times Tuesday "Science" section often has great articles on cutting edge aspects of ornithology. Read books that concern themselves with more than just where to go or identification. Great examples of books that fall into this category are: THE SONG OF THE DODO (David Quammen); THE BEAK OF THE FINCH (Jonathan Weiner); RAVENS IN WINTER (Bernd Heinrich); DEAN OF BIRDWATCHERS (William Davis); A SHADOW AND A SONG (Mark Walters).
- LEARN the ornithogeography of the state, i.e. the distribution and population of birds of Massachusetts. This is critical to being a good field observer. What species is most often seen where and when. What species are increasing and what species are declining and why. I consider this as basic birding knowledge as ID characteristics. This will help you know when youve seen a species that may need documentation. This knowledge comes over time, true, but referring to Peterson and Veit every once in a while helps. My copy is on my work desk.
- EXPLORE. Try to not always go to the typical places at the typical times. Birders often fall into a rut and flock to the same places. These sites are obviously tried and true locations, but why not explore? Pull out a road map or even better, a Geo Survey map and check out some Wildlife Management Area or some pond or lake. Some of the best birding discoveries are made by people who try new areas. (Delaney is a good example of that). You can even explore the hot spots at untraditional times. For instance, try Cape Ann in summer or Monomoy in November etc.
- KNOW plumage and aging terminology and use it. There is no easy way to do this except hard study and practice. If you ever have to do a write up, this becomes critical. Start with common species of gulls or shorebirds and start to identify them according to age and plumage.
- RECORD all your findings. Keep some kind of permanent record of even your most common sightings. Send in your records (all of them) to Bird Observer of Eastern Massachusetts or Western Bird News on a monthly basis.
- PARTICIPATE in a breeding bird census, migration monitoring or a Christmas Count on a regular basis. This is a fun way to use your birding skills to further ornithological knowledge. I encourage you to do your own yearly breeding bird surveys of your own favorite "patch". Please make sure to submit the data to the appropriate journals.
- SHARE all this newly acquired knowledge with others. We cant be everywhere and read everything, so an exchange of information helps us all become better birders. This includes, of course, sending those records in!
None of this means giving up your list or the endless search for a rarity. Just try to increase your efforts in the above mentioned areas and I guarantee you will be a better birder.