• Terry

Sharpening Birding Skills

These are my notes for Sharpening Your Birding Skills presented at Beaver Island Birding Trail's "Warblers on the Water" event May 25, 2019

Sharpening Your Birding Skills

If you enjoy your birding, then you are a good birder.

To which I’d add the caveat: IF your birding is done ethically. The American Birding Association has published a Code of Ethics if you’re interested in investigating it. Essentially, it asks birders to respect the birds, the law, and each other.

But, this talk is directed to those that want to sharpen their skills at birding. So, let’s take a look at a few birding skills that can enhance your experience with some sharpening.

I own books with entire chapters dedicated to each of these points…heck, I own books completely dedicated to each point. But, here is a snapshot of 6 ways to sharpen up.


Bird behavior is a complex thing. Some are gregarious while others are solitary. Some have flitting flight, and some are fast and direct. Sparrows are often low to the ground and red-eyed vireos are at home in the forest canopy. Eastern Phoebes constantly bob their tails. Becoming familiar with the behavior of common birds leads to identification by impression or GISS (general impression, shape, and size)

Get out Birding!

The more time you spend in the field really looking at birds, even common ones, the better you’ll get at quickly identifying them. A good way to do this is to spend time birding with others, especially others that have been birding longer than you. Events like Warblers on the Water are excellent opportunities to learn from experienced birders.

Birding by Ear.

Learn as many common bird songs and calls as you can. Many birds sing in very diagnostic patterns that can make finding a bird much easier. It helps if you know what it is you’re looking for!

There are many study programs to learn bird vocalizations.

CDs like the Peterson Guides Birding by Ear series groups similar songs and highlights the differences. I study bird vocalizations while I’m driving…alone. Bird song CDs are also great at home when you can’t get out birding!

The Warbler Guide by Scott Whittle and Tom Stephenson Highlights sonograms rather than mnemonics.

In my opinion, the surest way to learn bird song is to hear it in the field and then find the bird making the call. Hunting for the culprit will cement it in your memory. Andrea’s first “hunt the song” bird was an Indigo Bunting that was nice enough to sing long enough for her to track it down. She never mistakes that call now.

Backyard Birding.

I know people that I’ve birded with that will poo-poo this topic, but there is a lot to be learned about common bird behavior and vocalizations by watching a bird feeder or water feature. This is a convenient way to get started with birding by impression and by ear. Yard birds provide glimpses into bird social behavior and allows one to see variation within species. Goldfinches are not all the same! Providing bird feeders, fresh water, nesting habitat, and cover can result in terrific diversity and seasonal visitors.

Study your field guide.

A quick way to get frustrated in the field is to be constantly reading and looking through your field guide. Study it at home. Get good at your local common birds and learn what its similar species are. Good field guides will emphasize field marks to key in on. When you are afield, make careful observations of shape and color patterns.

When I travel, I spend time with my field guide learning what new species I can expect and which will be familiar.

Get Connected

There are several excellent ways to connect with other birders! Join a FaceBook birding group to enjoy some beautiful photography and develop your identification skills. There are groups dedicated to county birders, state birders, regional birders and international groups. Many locations have a local Audubon or birding club nearby. A terrific way to connect and lend aide to research and conservation efforts is through eBird. Connecting with people that share your interest is fun and educational.


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I’ve noticed that every particular profession or interest carries along its own language. Being a educator, I can speak teacher jargon pretty fluently. Being married to an educator, Andrea does a pr