My Process of Identifying A Bird

In recent posts, I have talked a lot about looking at distinctions between different birds, or interesting characteristics exhibited across species. However, there is a key question here that needs to be answered before we get there – how does one go about identifying birds? 

Seeing birds while birding is almost never as straightforward as seeing them in images or books – factors like distance, movement and lighting all make identification much harder – but I find that by preparing myself with the right information and techniques, the identification process becomes much easier!

Let’s look at examples of some experiences I have had, while birding in the field. We will look through my thought process between sighting, preparation and identification.

Seeing The Bird

I talked a bit about how identifying birds can be hard because of how fleeting their appearances sometimes are. But before we even get to identification – even spotting the bird in the first place can be very difficult! It’s perfectly normal to ignore the Common Raven flying above your head when you’re crossing the street. But even when I’m actively birding, I find that unless I am really in the birdwatching mindset, I often miss birds around me.

Great Blue Heron (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

So what is that mindset? Well, take a look at this image for just a second. What do you see? I, for example, can see mountains, dry grass, dead shrubs and the sky in the background.

Take a second look, though. Is there something among those shrubs? Yes! In fact, that’s a Great Blue Heron, one of the most recognizable birds in the United States. Here’s a closer look (a different image, but the same bird):

Great Blue Heron (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

But how do you make sure you are properly seeing the birds around you? My advice would be to take a longer look than normal. By this, I mean you shouldn’t be scanning the surroundings briefly. Of course, this can sometimes work – if there’s a Turkey Vulture circling directly above you, a cursory look should do it. But if you want to spot every bird around you, even distant characters like the Heron, you have to be willing to put in those few extra seconds.

Turkey Vulture (Sunol, CA) – September 2020

Don’t overthink it, though! Unless you are in an area where you know a bird is staying, or will visit, it isn’t that practical to stay there for hours on end. For example, if you are just hiking for fun, there is no guarantee that a Golden Eagle will show up in front of you. So be willing to look around the same place for a few minutes, but if you don’t see anything, be willing to keep going!

Actually Identifying The Bird

Now you’ve got an idea of how to make sure you can see birds. But that’s not much help on its own, is it? Being able to say “oh look, a bird!” isn’t going to get you that many points unless you’re at an optometrist checkup.

In some cases, we get lucky. With the Great Blue Heron, for example, it took a little more effort to find it, but once we saw it, we knew immediately what it was. It’s just so distinctive – the blue color, the size, the long neck, the skinny legs – the list goes on. With the Turkey Vulture, it was close to us, so we could see it immediately. And it has that distinctive Red Head and the black-grey wings – two very distinctive features.

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

But what about a bird like this one? It’s not too far away, and it’s fluttering in the air. The human eye is drawn to motion, so we can immediately see it. But what now? It is dull grey and brown, with some markings on the wings. How can we identify it?

This is probably one of the hardest parts of birding – and the part that takes place before you pick up your binoculars and get into your hiking boots. You have to familiarize yourself with the birds you’re going to be looking for. And really, each birder has their own technique for this.

I personally like to be as clear as I can about a bird’s appearance before I am actively birding. As most birders do, I like to look at as many photos of birds as I can – this can be online, from books, or from my own photos. From this, I build a visual profile of the bird in my mind – its main colors, its size, features like wing shape, where I can commonly find it, and a few key distinguishing qualities. I try to create as general an image of this bird as I can – that way, I can identify it from multiple angles and distances, and I don’t become restricted to only certain perspectives.

So back to the bird at hand! If I’m looking through a field guide, old photos, or the internet to prepare before a bird hike, I might see an image like this:

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

This bird has some distinctive markings! A long, forked tail, a reddish breast, a slight crest, songbird size. With the background knowledge I have, I can assume that this bird belongs in the flycatcher family – I get this from the songbird size and the forked tail. I also happen to be a bit lucky with the fact that there aren’t too many flycatchers on the West Coast – most of them being Phoebes, a part of the Tyrant Flycatcher family. And my Field Guide can affirm to me that this bird is a Say’s Phoebe

But how does this help? Well, I’ve now got a nice imprint of the Say’s Phoebe in my mind – a list of distinctive characteristics, a set of prominent colors – brown, black, grey and rufous – a size, a habitat, and a name. Now I’m back in front of the small songbird fluttering around. Let’s try to take a closer look:

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

At this point, I’m still a bit lost. I know it’s a songbird, given the size. And I can rule out birds like the Chestnut-Backed Chickadee (wrong body shape and coloring), Bewick’s Wren (wrong habitat) or Northern Cardinal (Wrong coloring, shape, range and habitat). But trial and error isn’t really going to help, given the sheer number of birds I’d have to iterate through in my mind. So the best tactic here, I’d say, is to try and get a better angle. If the bird is stationary, try to move around it! In this case, just wait for it to change its fluttering position.

Say’s Phoebe (Vargas, CA) – October 2020

Now, this is something I can work with! I can see some features – the slight crest, a shape on the tail and the slight fork inside it, and the rufous breast. My mind is now going back to the bird profiles I built up in my mind, trying to find a match for these features. Forked tail, rufous breast, California, mountains? This must be a Say’s Phoebe!

Do you see what we did there? By building up those ranked profiles of birds, we can use those in the field, coupled with our visual skills, to make these quick identifications!

Identification Tool – FindYourBird

Here’s a tool I’ve built that could help you develop your own identification skills! FindYourBird is targeted at amateurs primarily around the Bay Area, and its identification feature requires that you enter information you spot – size, color, location, and so on. By telling the site what you noticed in the bird, you tell yourself the same thing. And soon, you’ll find that you have built multiple new bird profiles in your mind!

Read a bit more about it under the FindYourBird section, or access it directly over here.

I hope that this helps you! Trust me, once you are in the field birding, nothing beats the thrill of being able to see a speck in the distance and shout out “Look! A White-Tailed Kite!” Hopefully you can make some use out of FindYourBird as well. All the best for your birding adventures, and I’ll see you in the next post!

Published by kabirsamsi

High School Senior in Fremont, CA. I enjoy music, programming and ornithology. My other hobbies include biking and watching soccer and cricket. Check out my birding blog, KBirdVentures! (link below) to see my photos and read up on different news in the avian world.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: