Birds in the Air: Identifying Birds in Flight

Authored by Dr. Jeff Bennert

Few sights can compare with birds in flight. Whether you’re watching a pelican skim over still water or the synchronized movements of a murmuration of starlings, a birder reaps rich rewards. If you’re new to birdwatching, the hobby may bring you great satisfaction and a deeper understanding of the ornithological world. Over time, you’ll develop the ability to recognize common birds even as they soar through the air high above you. Many birders praise the activity of birdwatching for its simple purity: your only goal is to observe the birds around you. With practice, you’ll be able to glimpse rarer varieties, distinguish between birdcalls, and maybe even help in environmental causes that require bird population counts.

Birdwatching Basics

As with anything else, practice makes perfect in the birdwatching world. To begin recognizing birds from a distance, you’ll gradually have to learn to distinguish differences in their shape, coloring, calls and even flight patterns. To begin with, though, all the beginning birder needs are a few supplies and a few rules of thumbs. The most crucial thing you can do, as most birding enthusiasts learn quickly, is to stay quiet. The less noise or movement you make, the more likely you are to see shy and rare birds. Your timing is also important. The quiet purity of a forest just after sunrise or just before sunset is perfect for watching perching birds. They’ll be at their most active and there will be the minimal disturbance of other people. There are various steps you can take to keep yourself undetected. Wearing natural colors, such as muted greens or browns, will minimize your chances of being seen. Refraining from speaking or restricting any noises to whispers is another good rule of thumb. Don’t forget to turn off your cell phone! More than one enthusiastic birder has watched a beautiful specimen hover in the patch of air right overhead, only to be startled by the sound of a ringing phone.


Identifying Birds

Most devoted birders agree on two points: they would rather you call them “birders” than “birdwatchers,” and they aren’t just interested in looking at birds: watching birds is a way of learning about them. The main activity in birding is identifying the species of each bird that you see. When starting out, this may involve a lot of referring to a reliable reference book. Another good learning strategy is to accompany a seasoned birder on your first few trips. It may not be possible to converse much (at least not above a whisper). However, you can watch as your mentor birder records the particular species that the two of you spot. Plus, many national or state parks and wildlife refuges provide helpful guides to the bird species that you are most likely to see in that particular place. By narrowing down the possibilities from thousands of species to just a few dozen, you can more quickly identify that particular bird singing above your head. To learn to identify bird species more rapidly, you may try focusing on a particular aspect of identification. For example, you might begin by getting to know the birds that frequent a very particular habitat. As an alternative, you might focus on one method of identification, such as recognizing birds by their calls.


Birding Places

While there are numerous excellent resources for learning to identify birds, often the most valuable reference materials are location-specific. You can find prime birding spots around the world, from faraway holiday destinations to your own neighborhood. Wherever you decide to start your new hobby, take a look at any materials provided by local parks, conservation organizations or even tourism bureaus. These guides can offer specific information about bird migration patterns, ideal places to go birding and which species you can expect to find. Plus, local birding organizations can help you to connect with other nearby enthusiasts, often the best source of expert tidbits to help you on your way.