“How’d you do that!?!”

It was not the first time I had heard this exclamation, and is not likely to be the last. In fact, I remember the feeling very well.

This time we were at Cape May Point’s Pavilion Circle, about to begin a CMBO bird and butterfly walk. Fellow CMBO Associate Naturalist Louise Zemaitis, whom I was assisting that day, was just arriving and our group was watching soaring raptors. A distant bird that suggested a cross between a Northern Harrier and a Red-tailed Hawk caught my eye. (A Swainson’s Hawk can look like a cross between these two species.) As this bird banked, it became clear it was a Red-tail. However, a few in our group were amazed it could be identified at all at this distance, hence the above comment.

My reply was “It’s not Magic.”

The raptors also included two hawks with short, broad wings and long tails; accipiters. Size was not a useful field mark as we could not tell whether the “larger” bird really was or just appeared  so because it was closer. However, the leading and trailing edges of the “larger” one’s wings were fairly straight, its head and neck extended beyond the leading edges of its wings, its chest was darker than its belly, and its tail was rounded with a prominent white terminal band: an immature Cooper’s Hawk. The smaller one had a squared, notched tail, the leading edges of its wings protruded at the wrists forming a concavity into which its head and neck fit so that only its beak extended beyond them, the trailing edges of its inner flight feathers bulged, and its body was uniformly dark: an immature Sharp-shinned Hawk.

Admittedly, accipiters can be difficult to identify, especially without a good look. But recognizing that the birds were accipiters (short, broad wings and long tails) and that it was late September in Cape May reduced the likely candidates to these two species. Knowing this was the first “trick” to identifying these birds; the second was knowing what to look for to separate these species. (A third factor is quality optics.)

I remember well the first time I saw someone identify a distant, poorly seen bird. It was the early morning of September 17, 1972; I was an inexperienced birder trying to learn on my own. (Not the recommended approach.) As the fog began to lift, a medium-sized bird became visible about 200 meters out at the edge of a pond. A more experienced birder identified this feathered smudge as a Green Heron. My reaction, which I had the good sense to keep to myself, was “Yeah, right!”

During the Spring of 1990, a new (non-birding) girlfriend of mine had similar reactions when we would drive by an American Kestrel on a wire or a soaring Turkey Vulture and I would identify them. Now, even when we can not identify a bird (and no one can identify all sightings), we at least understand the process: 1) reduce the number of candidate species, 2) know what to look for to separate candidate species, 3) get as good a look as possible, and 4) when possible, carefully listening to its vocalization(s).

For example, there are six species of Vireos that regularly occur in New Jersey, three have wing-bars and three do not. The first “trick” is to recognize the bird as a Vireo (i.e.: relatively large, slow moving, dull colored warbler-like birds with thick bills). Although it’s fairly easy to remember this description, it takes a lot of time and looking to make it meaningful. Once you are confident the bird is a Vireo, see if it has wing bars. This will reduce the number of candidate species from six to three. If the bird has wing-bars, it is a Blue-headed, White-eyed, or Yellow-throated Vireo; if not, it is a Red-eyed, Warbling, or Philadelphia Vireo. (Keep in mind, we are in New Jersey and the bird is not an accidental.)

If the bird has wing-bars and white “spectacles” (an eye ring plus a line between the bill and  eye), it is a Blue-headed Vireo; if it has yellow spectacles, it is a Yellow-throated or White-eyed Vireo. If it has a yellow-throat, it is a Yellow-throated Vireo; if it has a white throat, it is a White-eyed Vireo. (The eye color of White-eyed Vireos can be misleading as immatures have dark eyes.) If the bird lacks wing-bars, and has a well defined cap and line through the eye, it is a Red-eyed Vireo; if not, it is a Warbling or Philadelphia Vireo. If it has a yellow wash to the underside of the body, it is a Philadelphia Vireo; if not, it is a Warbling Vireo.

The problem is that until you have looked at many Vireos, these descriptions will not be meaningful; and looking at them without being sure of their identity will be frustrating.

How, then, do you learn to identify birds and still keep a modicum of sanity?

The answer is simple, although accomplishing it may seem otherwise: 1) spend time birding with experienced people, 2) do not try to learn too much all at once, and 3) work at it.

I became a somewhat serious birder without even realizing it. (My life list actually goes back almost two years before this occurred, but birding was more a curiosity than a hobby.) I was a ski photographer and was looking for something to do with my camera equipment outside the ski season. I had recently discovered  the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge outside Morristown, New Jersey, with its observation blind; and thought I’d try wildlife photography. Before long I became more interested in the birds than  photographing them. (Since then, I have switched back and forth between being more interested in birding and being more interested in photography. I am currently in the latter phase, and have been so for about a decade.) I bought a used field guide and a really poor pair of binoculars, and tried to identify what I was seeing. There were moments of satisfaction, such as identifying a White-breasted Nuthatch, but many more of frustration, such as the large sparrows that were often with Red-winged Blackbirds. (I eventually realized they were female Red-wings!) 

About a month and a half later, I stumbled upon a group of birders on a Montclair Bird Club field trip. As with most birders, they were a friendly, out-going group who welcomed me to join them.

What an experience!!! Here were people who could identify virtually every bird we encountered, even those we heard but could not see! They also held monthly meetings open to the public with bird-related programs, and had a couple field trips a month. I had no idea such organizations existed and, boy, did my birding improve. This is not to say that you should always bird with others. Quite the contrary; an important aspect of improving as a birder is to bird with experienced people some of the time and alone at other times so you can see what you do and do not know. There is a potential down side to birding with experienced birders, and that is trying to learn too much at once. Sometimes this is a result of over-exuberance, but it also can just happen. Remember the old saying about how to eat an elephant: do it one bite at a time!

On September 15, 1990, I took my new girlfriend to Higbee Beach to introduce her to Autumn at Cape May. A minor cold front had passed the night before, and there was a modest flight of fall warblers (i.e.: little brown jobs) bouncing through the vegetation. Not only was this her first experience with fall warblers, but she was still relatively inexperienced with binoculars. A group from The Summit Nature Club was present, including many very competent birders such as Tom Halliwell and Joe Burgiel. Before long, she was confronted with dozens of people calling out and identifying scores of nondescript birds constantly in motion.

This quickly resulted in a severe case of overwhelm which, fortunately, I recognized. We then moved to a quieter area of Higbee where we birded at a much more leisurely pace, ignoring the less cooperative, more hyper birds.

Remember, learning anything worthwhile takes time and effort, and we all learn things one item at a time. If you learn to identify one new species (or even one new plumage), you had a successful day. 

Mike Hannisian