5 Steps to Birdwatching Expertise

Every truly dedicated birdwatcher wants to perfect the art of bird identification. He wants to be able to look out the window and say with complete confidence, “Yes, that’s a female Prothonotary Warbler. Rare in these parts.”

So how do you master your craft?

Take heart! There’s no magic formula or special talent needed to get to know the birds:

  1. Watch birds. Become intimately familiar with your local birds. Get to know their habits, their songs, and their appearance. When a rare species or migrating visitor passes your way, it will stand out to you. Something about it will strike you as different, providing you with the key to identification. You will probably even be able to roughly classify it as a finch, a warbler, a sparrow, etc.
  2. Study the field guide. Get a good field guide—not a pocket guide, but a complete identification aid (we recommend the time-honored Peterson field guides). Then sit down some rainy day and thumb through it from front to back and from back to front. Find out how the birds are grouped so that you will be able to look up any species quickly. Also spend a little time browsing the introductory material. These pages often contain useful information on the parts of a bird, comparing beaks, feet, and silhouettes of different bird types.
  3. Listen to bird calls. There are many sources of bird recordings. Cornell’s online bird guide offers you free access to a comprehensive and varied collection, but for convenience you may decide to spend money on an audio CD or a customized handheld birdsong player. Whatever you choose, spend a little bit of time enjoying it. Later, when you hear an unknown bird singing from a tree, you will remember if you have heard it before and can go back and check your birdsong library.
  4. Write it down. Keep a bird journal, and take it with you when you go birding. When you see a new bird, draw a quick sketch of it and note its distinguishing characteristics. Some detail you have observed may prove diagnostic when you compare your notes against the field guide later on. (Read more on this method here.)
  5. Research your challenge. Do you struggle with sparrows? Worry about warblers? Fume over finches? Spend some time studying the bird species you have the most trouble with. Start with your trusty field guide and your favorite online resources. Learn about the songs, habits, field marks, and pattern of occurrence of each of your trouble birds. Look for simple ways to remember crucial differences—even if your mnemonic is silly (the downy woodpecker is dinky, but the hairy woodpecker is huge). If you are really dedicated (or desperate), you might be able to find a book specializing in your problem birds.

Birdwatching expertise is not something that money can buy (although good binoculars help). It is a skill that must be studied and practiced.

Helpful Resource

Birds of Kansas

Birds of Kansas
Our own guide to Kansas birds, including field marks, occurrence, behavior, similar species, and other information you need to clinch an identification.