One of the great joys of having your own wildlife garden lies in the number and variety of birds that will visit it over the years. While we all get pretty good at recognising the more common visitors on sight, there ’re few things more frustrating than not being able to identify something new and interesting that’s just landed on your bird table.
Of course, having a really good bird book helps – and ideally one with actual photographs and a good description – but for that interesting visitor glimpsed for only a fleeting moment, by the time you’ve found the right page, the chances are your bird will have, quite literally, flown!
There are ways to make identifying visiting birds much easier and having a camera on hand to get a good photo is obviously one, but that’s not always practical. However, if you can teach yourself to make the best observations possible – even if you have only a few seconds – working out what you’ve seen should become a lot simpler.
Size and Shape
The first thing to look for is size; often bird species can be so similar in colour and general appearance that the only real difference is size. It can be difficult to gauge size accurately – especially at a distance or in poor light – particularly when you first begin, but with practice it does become easier. The trick is to try to compare the unknown bird with one you do know well; if you can say, for instance, that it was bigger than a blackbird, or smaller than a crow, at least you’ve got somewhere to start when you do get around to looking it up in your book. Even if there are no other birds around at the time to make that kind of comparison, other features in the garden can also be a useful way to get an idea of scale.
Taking note of the overall shape of a bird will also be a major help in identifying it – and can often be almost all you’ve got to go on, if you only get to spot it at the far end of the garden, or silhouetted against the sky. Try to notice the relative proportions of the main parts of its body, paying particular attention to the head, beak, wings and tail; how a bird holds its wings in flight can also be useful to know.
Colours and Plumage
When seen clearly in good light, the colours and plumage of a bird can be the biggest help to identifying it correctly, but it’s a mistake to rely on these features exclusively. Unfortunately under various lighting conditions colours can look very different, you may not be able to see the very part of the bird that you need to make identification certain and you may not always have long to make your observation.
Never-the-less, wherever possible, try to look at any obvious details – the colour of the eye, the beak and legs, as well as the placement of any bands or stripes and the bird’s overall appearance – since sometimes this is the only practical way to tell two similar species apart. Many of the warblers, for instance, look almost indistinguishable from one another except for differing patterns of stripes on their heads or bodies.
Other Things to Note
Movement can also be a great clue; some birds fly or move about on the ground in a characteristic way. Starlings, for instance, walk upright, while blackbirds run with a bit of a stoop; Great Tits climb nimbly amongst the branches, but Chaffinches hop from twig to twig – so look out for these things.
Bird song too can be a very useful means of identification and it’s worth trying to learn some of them if you can; it’s not as difficult as you might think and a number of companies produce tapes or CDs so you can swot up in the comfort of your own living room!
One final useful tip is to invest in a small notebook that will fit easily into your pocket. The old Victorian naturalists were obsessed with making notes – and their approach has a lot to recommend it. While you’re actively looking at a bird, it may seem almost impossible to believe that you’ll forget anything about it, but by the time you get around to opening up your book and trying to find it, many of the details you thought you’d remember will have begun to fade. It’s well worth quickly writing your observations down while you can still see your quarry – however good your memory.
Bird watching is an enthralling hobby and for the wildlife gardener, it’s something that can be enjoyed all year round, without ever having to leave your own home since even the smallest of urban gardens can attract some surprising visitors. When that ‘special’ bird does arrive, you’re going to want to know what it is – so take a leaf out of Sherlock Holmes’ book and train yourself to notice what you see!