The Geometry of Birding

Learn all about the geometry of birding from Naturalist Journeys‘ owner and lead guide, Peg Abbott.

Geometry of Birding
Lesser & Greater Yellowlegs by Hugh Simmons Photography

The malaise we all feel trying to get through this pandemic reminds me a bit of jet-lag, that sort of fog that takes over when your energies are low and your internal clock is off. Therefore, it’s at times like these that I like numbers, being a person of many WORDS, work with numbers soothes me. After a few long plane rides back from Africa and Australia, I came up with what I call, the “Geometry of Birding”. 

I was never very good with math, but always good with spatial relations. In high school when they tested us for careers, they tagged me as interior design. Hah! A little gender biased I think. However, today I use those spatial skills on beaks, wings, tails, and relative bird proportions. 

Size is one of the most unreliable references to use for identification, of all the field marks, as it is so dependent on distance and relationship to other objects. We’ve all had that raptor on a pole turn into a robin, and vice-versa. But relative size is a good one. 

I often use geometry often in two ways. 

Long-billed Dowitchers by Terry Peterson

RELATIVE SIZE

Relative Size  is good for birds in flocks, or birds that aggregate in the same feeding area. Probably best described with shorebirds, the technique is to pick out a species you know well, and use it as the measure for all others. Trying to figure out that Greater or Lesser Yellowlegs? If a Killdeer is near, voila. Lesser Yellowlegs (10.5”) Greater (14″), Killdeer (10.5″). Using relative size in concert with a check of other field characteristics gives you confidence you made the right call. And finds you some sleepers! Ever see a dowitcher that seemed really small?  While this measure does not sort Short-billed from Long-billed, only a half inch apart at 11” and 11.5”, that Stilt Sandpiper (8.5”) making the same feeding motion may be parked nearby! Now if there was a Sanderling nearby, a common companion, at 8” there is your match!  

Sanderling by Greg Smith

So now the fun begins. If you like Excel, make a chart with bird names and the height measurement (right under the name in most field guides), then sort by size and you have your chart. You can also do this by hand, making columns of 5” species, 6” species, 7” species, all the way up to the giants such as that 23” Long-billed Curlew. And you can take it across groups of birds. Perhaps a Common Raven (24”) landed on the mudflat nearby where you wondered if you had a Long-billed Curlew (23”) or Whimbrel (17.5). Bingo—no limit to sorting birds by size. Most handy is to start with those you commonly see at home. Have a big trip planned with a lot of new species? Have fun with the math and grouping them by size; it will REALLY pay off in the field. 

Long-billed Curlew by Steve Wolfe

RELATIVE PROPORTION

Relative Proportion is a learned skill but one that is incredibly useful. We have master bird banders to thank for showing us the utility of comparing body parts and bringing that to field guides. Many know for flycatchers to look at the wing length to tail—at rest where do those wings hit the tail? Some also use primary projection, comparing different parts of the wing to each other. If this sounds way out of reach, start simple. I focus in on the beak right off when I see a bird. The shape and the length and proportion. The simplest question is: If you imagined placing the beak over the head, would it cover half, ¾, or full, perhaps even extend beyond it?

Geometry of Birding
Hairy Woodpecker by Peg Abbott, Downy Woodpecker by Bob Hill

Look up Hairy vs Downy Woodpecker and you will understand the concept. This works well for some of the cryptic warblers, too, and their vireo look-alikes. Compare a Chipping with a Rufous-crowned Sparrow. The, from beaks I often use tails, especially in sparrows. Imagine putting that tail over the birds back. A Song Sparrow is a pretty good fit, whereas Savannah makes it only midway. 

Rufous-crowned Sparrow by Steve Wolfe, Chipping Sparrow by Sandy Sorkin

With just your field guide and your imagination, you can sleuth out many species if seen alone, by using its own body parts compared in relative proportion. Check out Bird Topography online as various sites, including Birdforum.net

Just a few tips on the geometry of birding! 

Get in touch!

travel@naturalistjourneys.com | www.naturalistjourneys.com | 866-900-1146

Bucket List Birding in Papua New Guinea

Naturalist Journeys returns to PNG this July for a Papua New Guinea birding tour, and we couldn’t be more excited! Take a look at some of our favorite Birds-of-Paradise that are a must see on this trip.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Kawari Lodge, courtesy of the lodge

Of the 43 known species of Bird-of-Paradise, a whopping 38 of those can be found in Papua New Guinea; brought to light most recently through the Bird-of-Paradise project by Cornell University.

This 14-Day/13-Night Papua New Guinea birding tour with guide Ben Blewitt is set to be a truly exceptional experience, full of once-in-a-lifetime birding opportunities.

Find out which Birds-of-Paradise we are most excited on our Papua New Guinea birding tour below.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Blue Bird-of-Paradise courtesy of Shutterstock

Blue Bird-of-Paradise
The Blue Bird-of-Paradise is one of the largest bird-of-paradise species, boasting striking blue wings. During courtship, the male hangs from a branch upside down, and spreads his plume displaying its beautiful violet blue color.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Lawes’s Parotia courtesy of Shutterstock

Lawes’s Parotia
Male Lawes’s Parotia woo females by spreading their feathers like a tutu, and the shimmering spot on their breast reflects sunlight for a beautiful display. Just look at those antenna-like feathers!

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Lesser Bird-of-Paradise courtesy of Shutterstock

Lesser Bird-of-Paradise
Not to be confused with the Greater Bird-of-Paradise, the Lesser Bird-of-Paradise is a vocal beauty with plumes to match!

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Magnificent Riflebird courtesy of Shutterstock

Magnificent Riflebird
The Magnificent Riflebird has a distinct call that sounds very much like the wolf whistle used by humans. A large bird, with large vocals and an impressive arched-wing display.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Reggiana Bird-of-Paradise courtesy of Shutterstock

Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise
Big, bright, and beautiful! The male attempts to outperform other males when attracting females. As a result it will perform a peculiar dance, in which it raises its wings and shakes its head to gather enough attention to impress.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise courtesy of Shutterstock

Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise
It takes 7 years for a male Twelve-wired Bird-of-Paradise to develop its full plumage—totally worth it. The twelve wires are used in courtship displays, brushing them in a female’s face!

Bonus Birds!

Two bird species that are certainly a favorite on the Papua New Guinea birding tour.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Northern Cassowary courtesy of Shutterstock

Northern Cassowary
With its distinct Casque on the top of the head, the Northern Cassowary is a large, flightless bird, that can reach ground speeds of nearly 30 miles per hour.

Papua New Guinea Birding Tour
Palm Cockatoo courtesy of Shutterstock

Palm Cockatoo
The drumming bird! Male Palm Cockatoos break off sticks from branches and perform a drumming motion to impress females. After drumming, it will strip down the tool into small pieces for the nest.


Naturalist Journeys‘ guide Ben Blewitt is leading our return tour to Papua New Guinea this July. Find all the details for our Papua New Guinea: Bucket List Birding tour, June 29 – July 12, 2020 here. Priced at $9350 per person, based on double occupancy.

REGISTER FOR THIS TRIP

Read the full itinerary here.

5 reasons to join our Texas Hill Country Birding tour

Texas Hill Country
Golden-cheeked Warbler by Tom Dove

The endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler is a must-see on this Texas Hill Country Birding tour.

Naturalist Journeys is pleased to return to the beloved Texas Hill Country again this spring, with senior guide Pat Lueders. This Texas Hill Country birding tour really does have it all. Here are our top 5 reasons to join us.

1. Endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler

The Golden-cheeked Warbler is the only species of bird that nests only in the state of Texas—amazing, right? On our 2019 Texas Hill Country birding trip, the group had several successful encounters with the Golden-cheeked Warbler.

2. Mexican Free-tailed Bat

Texas Hill Country
Mexican Free-tailed Bats by Pat Lueders

At the Frio Bat Cave, witness anywhere between 1-10 million Mexican Free-tailed Bats soar into the sky at sunset! An incredible site, this is the second largest bat population open to the public in the world.

3. Black-capped Vireo

Texas Hill Country
Black-capped Vireo by Tom Dove

The Black-capped Vireo is a vulnerable bird species and has an estimated population of only 20,000. The group that went on our Texas Hill Country birding trip last year got fantastic looks, right on the grounds at Neal’s lodge.

4. Stunning Butterflies

Texas Hill Country
Pipevine Swallowtail by Terry Peterson
Texas Hill Country
Gulf Fritillary by Terry Peterson
Texas Hill Country
Giant Swallowtail by Terry Peterson

When visiting the Lost Maples Nature Area on our Texas Hill Country birding tour, the kaleidoscope of butterflies that can be seen is magical—over 140 species have been spotted here. From previous Texas Hill Country birding trips, Nysa Roadside-Skipper, Red Admiral, Gulf Fritillary, and Pipevine, Spicebush, and Giant Swallowtail have flourished in numbers.

5. Green Kingfisher hotspot

Texas Hill Country
Green Kingfisher by Tom Dove

This small kingfisher, with a disproportionately long bill, can be spotted on this Texas Hill Country birding tour and Texas is one of the only hotspots it can be seen in the US.

Bonus: Stay at Neal’s Lodge­–Unpack and Relax

Neal’s Lodge, located in Concan, Texas, is our comfortable accommodation for the week. Neal’s grounds host birds from the Eastern and Western U.S., as well as the Lower Rio Grande Valley. This area has been a bucket list destination for naturalists for decades!

Special Offer!

If you opt to pair this Texas Hill Country tour with our Texas Big Bend tour, we’ll reimburse your connecting flight up to $100.

Naturalist Journeys’ guide Pat Lueders leads our Texas Hill Country birding trip again this year. Find all the details for our Texas Hill Country trip, April 17 – 22, 2020 here. Priced at $2090 per person, based on double occupancy.
Read the full itinerary here.

REGISTER FOR THIS TRIP

23 Species of Warblers on our Texas Migration Tour

In April of 2019, Naturalist Journeys returned to the south Texas coast for a fun week during spring migration. On this Texas migration tour, our group of 10, plus guides Bob Behrstock and Robert Gallardo tallied an impressive 23 species of warblers! What fun. 

Texas Migration Tour
Birding Jones Forest, Naturalist Journeys Stock

You can join us this April for another Texas migration tour, this year with guide James P. Smith. 

Take a look at the 23 Warbler species seen on our 2019 Texas Migration tour.

Texas Migration Tour
American Redstart by Dan Pancamo

American Redstart  This darling little bird is always a fan favorite on our Texas migration trip. Busy, busy we look for the male’s bursts of orange as it flits from branch to branch.

Texas Migration Tour
Bay-breasted Warbler by Tom Dove

Bay-breasted Warbler 
A rich brown and cream in the spring, don’t let the Bay-breasted fool you outside of breeding season … it changes drastically to green and white.

Texas Migration Tour
Black-and-white Warbler by Doug Greenberg

Black-and-white Warbler
Dramatic and bright, the beautiful Black-and-white Warbler lives up to its name. This is one of the first migrants to arrive back in the US. 

Texas Migration Tour
Blue-throated Blue Warbler by Tom Dove

Black-throated Blue Warbler 
Rare to see in Texas, it was a treat for our group last year to see this black-masked warbler.

Texas Migration Tour
Black-throated Green Warbler by Ruth Guillemette

Black-throated Green Warbler  
A bold black throat, this showy warbler, though not very green, is known for its ceaseless buzzy song. We listen for this beauty on our Texas migration trip.

Texas Migration Tour
Blackburnian Warbler by Tom Dove

Blackburnian Warbler
Oh-so bright and beautiful, you won’t forget your first sighting of a Blackburnian Warbler on our Texas migration trip.

Texas Migration Tour
Cerulean Warbler by Tom Dove

Cerulean Warbler 
Aptly named, the Cerulean is another treetop denizen, flashing its sky blue head. The Cerulean flies from the Andes to get to its US nesting territory.

Texas Migration Tour
Chestnut-sided Warbler by Doug Pratt

Chestnut-sided Warbler 
This jaunty little warbler looks quite handsome with its golden cap, black mask, and chestnut sides.

Texas Migration Tour
Common Yellowthroat by Peg Abbott

Common Yellowthroat 
So, so bold and beautiful, the Common Yellowthroat’s markings are always a favorite. That black racoon mask is just so vivid.

Texas Migration Tour
Golden-winged Warbler by Tom Dove

Golden-winged Warbler 
Another black masked beauty, this mostly grey warbler’s sunny yellow shoulders and cap make it stand out. 

Texas Migration Tour
Hooded Warbler, Naturalist Journeys Stock

Hooded Warbler 
We’re suckers for the Hooded Warbler. It’s bright yellow body is offset by greenish-gray tinged wings. And the black hood … swoon! Watch for flicks of white tail feathers in the understory.

Texas Migration Tour
Kentucky Warbler by Andrew Weitzel

Kentucky Warbler 
Another bright and sunny warbler, its yellow belly and throat can’t be missed. The Kentucky Warbler is loud and much easier to hear than see.

Texas Migration Tour
Magnolia Warbler by Doug Greenberg

Magnolia Warbler 
One of our favorites, by name and by markings, the drama of gray, black, yellow, and white make the Magnolia a stunner. Watch for them feeding at the very ends of branches.

Texas Migration Tour
Northern Parula by Carlos Sanchez

Northern Parula 
Almost a seal-blue on top with a burnt orange necklace, the Northern Parula’s breeding range interestingly skips a large swatch of the upper Midwest before starting back up again in Canada.

Texas Migration Tour
Northern Waterthrush by Andrew Weitzel

Northern Waterthrush 
Big and not brightly patterned, it’s the Northern Waterthrush’s song that’s so attractive. Look for them at water’s edge as they hunt insects and sometimes even salamanders. Not your typical warbler!

Texas Migration Tour
Ovenbird by Fyn Kynd

Ovenbird 
Also not a bright warbler, the Ovenbird does have a boldly striped chest and belly. Why “Ovenbird”? Their name comes from the covered nest the female builds.

Texas Migration Tour
Pine Warbler by Bob Hill

Pine Warbler 
Almost never seen in any tree but a pine (what else), the Pine Warbler makes us work as it works the tops of the trees.

Texas Migration Tour
Prairie Warbler by Carlos Sanchez

Prairie Warbler 
A chestnut-colored triangular patch at the nape of the neck and streaky belly help with ID. Fun Fact: The female Prairie Warbler eats her eggshells after they hatch. Crunch.

Texas Migration Tour
Prothonotary Warbler by Ruth Guillemette

Prothonotary Warbler 
Everybody loves a Prothonotary Warbler. Their full yellow head and gray back end are a giveaway, and they are a flash of bright as they work the understory.

Texas Migration Tour
Swainson’s Warbler by Andrew Cannizzaro

Swainson’s Warbler 
This one boasts quite the belly! Brown and basic, it’s range doesn’t reach usually reach past the Mason-Dixon line. 

Texas Migration Tour
Tennessee Warbler by Brian Plunkett

Tennessee Warbler 
The Tennessee is a small warbler and is happiest breeding in the boreal forests of Canada. Their favorite food? Spruce budworm.

Texas Migration Tour
Yellow Warbler by Doug Greenberg

Yellow Warbler 
Brilliantly bright yellow with gentle vertical stripes, the Yellow Warbler can be seen throughout the United States and up into Canada and Alaska during breeding season.

Texas Migration Tour
Yellow-throated Warbler by Carlos Sanchez

Yellow-throated Warbler 
Lucky for birders the Yellow-throated’s throat is bright! They like to hang out at the top of the canopy, so we look for flits of yellow on this Texas migration trip.

We’ve described each species’ male in breeding plumage.

Naturalist Journeys’ guide James P. Smith leads our Texas migration trip to the Big Thicket and High Island this year. Find all the details for our Texas Coast & Big Thicket trip, April 23 – May 1, 2020 here. Priced at $2390 per person, based on double occupancy.

REGISTER FOR THIS TRIP

Read the full itinerary here.

Explore the Sky Islands on our winter Southeast Arizona Birding Tour

Look no further than the breathtaking mountains on this Southeast Arizona birding tour for a New Year getaway—so good we have two trips in January with popular guide, Bob Meinke.

A January Southeast Arizona birding tour is a fascinating experience. Enjoy warmer weather (fingers crossed!) and the fascinating birds and wildlife of the Arizona Sky Islands.

Highlights from our Southeast Arizona Birding Tour

We enjoy plenty of opportunities to marvel at many wintering species of warblers, raptors, and sparrows, as well as tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes that call Southeast Arizona home for the winter. See Vesper, Grasshopper, and Baird’s Sparrows, as well as Horned Lark, and possibly Longspurs as they enjoy these productive wintering grounds. Raptors are also a highlight in the Sulphur Springs Valley.

There are an abundance of trails for exploring paired with gazing views of the sky islands in the sea of desert. Popular hotspots like Ramsey and Miller Canyons, Ash Canyon, and the San Pedro River are on the agenda for those keen. Choose to do as much or as little as you like—simple!

5 of Our Favorite Birds on this Southeast Arizona Birding Tour

Montezuma Quail

  • The Montezuma Quail is super interesting in its behavior! It will wait till the very last minute when it feels threatened, and bursts into flight if danger comes too close for comfort! It can leap around 2 meters straight up, even with clipped wings!

Vermilion FlycatcherSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • A unique flycatcher in the sense that it spends most of the time (around 90%) perching conspicuously, making moves mostly to catch its prey! A must-see bird in the Southwest area of the United States!

Broad-billed HummingbirdSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • The  Broad-billed Hummingbird cannot walk or hop just like other hummingbirds, but can definitely dance! It shows a courtship display by hovering in repeated arcs, roughly 12 inches above the female!

Olive WarblerSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • The Olive Warbler loves open pine forests and the mountains – perfect for this tour! Male Olive Warblers take around 2 years to establish the orange hood of an adult!

Painted RedstartSoutheast Arizona Birding Tour

  • An interesting tactic that the Redstart uses to gather its meal – flashing its white wing patches and outer tail feathers as an element of surprise!

Read more about Arizona’s signature birds on a past blog post.

Southeast Arizona Birding Tour Bonus Bird: Sandhill Crane

The Sandhill Cranes that winter here number in the tens of thousands. We watch them as they feed in ponds and fields during the day.  We make special time to see them fly into roost for the night—a real spectacle! 

Hotel Highlight

Our tour is based out of the lovely Casa de San Pedro, our favorite, most comfy place to stay for a Southeast Arizona birding tour. Grab yourself a slice (or 2!) of the famous homemade pie.

Ready to Join Our Southeast Arizona birding tour?

Naturalist Journeys’ 2020 Southeast Arizona birding tours run January 4 – 10 and January 11 – 17. The guide for both tours is Bob Meinke. Prices start from $2590; airport is Tucson International (TUS). Email us today at travel@naturalistjourneys.com to reserve your space on one of these Southeast Arizona birding tours.

Photo Credits:

Sandhill Cranes, Hugh Simmons (HUSI); Montezuma Quail, Mary Mcsparen (MAMC); Vermilion Flycatcher, Woody Wheeler (WOWE); Broad-billed Hummingbird, HUSI; Olive Warbler, Peg Abbott (PEAB); Painted Redstart, HUSI.

‘River of Raptors’ makes Veracruz raptor migration tour unmissable!

Naturalist Journeys is heading to Veracruz, Mexico this fall for a raptor migration tour: a bamboozling bird count!

By Dave Mehlman,

I was recently at a meeting and heard my good friend and colleague, Dr. Ernesto Ruelas, recount the history behind the establishment of the Veracruz River of Raptors hawk migration project many years ago. Ernesto, now on the faculty of the Universidad Veracruzana in Xalapa, Mexico, first became interested in the hawk migration there many years ago when he was a young boy, and he became inspired by the sheer number of migrating birds. His talk got me very excited about our upcoming raptor migration tour to Veracruz from September 25 to October 5, 2019—you will not want to miss it!

Raptor Migration Tour
Birders in action at the Dr. Mario A. Ramos Migratory Bird Observatory in Chichicaxtle, in 2016.

The talk also reminded me to look up the data on the fall 2018 hawk count in Veracruz, and as usual, the numbers were outstanding! A total of 2,122,814 raptors were counted in the town of Cardel, and 2,270,056 in the nearby town of Chichicaxtle! Even though I’ve been there before, it’s still hard to imagine that many hawks passing through a single site – the perfect destination for our raptor migration tour.

Raptor Migration Tour
Here’s what the “River of Raptors” looks like from below—a mixed group of vultures and buteos from October last year.

As has generally been the case, the most popular species in 2018 were Turkey Vulture (1,081,774 in Cardel), Broad-winged Hawk (844,258 in Chichi), Swainson’s Hawk (321,064 in Chichi), and Mississippi Kite (131,813 in Chichi). However, a total of 16 other raptor species were counted during last year’s fall season, illustrating the diversity. Plus, certain species that were not known to be very migratory have regularly been recorded there, such as Hook-billed Kite (101 in Chichi).

Raptor Migration Tour
An intriguing neotropical raptor during the fall 2016 migration.

The thing is, there’s so much more to this trip than migrating raptors! Pelicans, storks, flycatchers, subtropical and tropical birds, archaeology, museums, good food—this trip has it all!

Raptor Migration Tour
Group of folks birding AND learning in 2017, about pre-European civilizations along the coast of Mexico.

 

To book our September/October Veracruz Raptor Migration Tour, please contact Naturalist Journeys at travel@naturalistjourneys.com

Why a Southern Belize Nature Tour?

Naturalist Journeys’ upcoming Southern Belize: Pristine & Wild tour is a gem! Our group enjoys birding with top Belize birding guide Estevan (Steve) Choco in 2019. Here’s why you should sign on to this exciting Southern Belize nature tour.

By Bob Meinke, Guide with Naturalist Journeys


Southern Belize Nature Tour
Mountain Pine Ridge Habitat by Kelly Amsberry | Old Growth Tropical Forest by Bob Meinke

Intact Ecosystems & Sought-After Species

Belize retains the highest percentageof its original old growth tropical forest of any Central American country, much of it in southern districts. Exploring on this Southern Belize nature tour is an impressive experince, but it’s not all about birds: Charismatic land mammals such as Black Howler Monkey, Geoffroy’s Spider Monkey, Tayra, Kinkajou, and Baird’s Tapir are not unexpected during treks here along wooded trails. (We even crossed paths with a Jaguar on a recent trip.) But did you know that Belize also has extensive Honduran Pine forests at the cooler, higher elevations, with a completely different set of species? We explore both ecosystems during this intriguing trip. Continue reading Why a Southern Belize Nature Tour?

8 Reasons to Take a Guyana Nature Tour

Find out why YOU should take a Guyana Nature Tour with Naturalist Journeys. One of our favorite trips, Guyana is a country that is off the radar for many travelers, but oh so rich in biodiversity.

Discover “South America’s hidden gem.”

Continue reading 8 Reasons to Take a Guyana Nature Tour

Finding Iconic Alaskan Mammals

We asked guide Greg Smith about his photos of iconic Alaskan mammals, how he finds them, and how they fit into the stunning Denali landscape. Here are his responses.

Alaskan Mammals
Grizzly Bear by Greg Smith

Naturalist Journeys’ guide, Greg Smith, is not only a fantastic guide, but also an incredible photographer; we are lucky to have him on our team. 

Continue reading Finding Iconic Alaskan Mammals

Birding Belize … Why We Love It!

At Naturalist Journeys we are thrilled to offer a grand array of Neotropical birding tours. Our expert guides vie for the chance to lead groups in Belize. For many reasons, we love birding Belize! Find out ….

Deciding where to bird in the Neotropics, which includes both Central and South America, can seem like a daunting task, and rightfully so. There are many lodges to choose from, and each country has its own draw. We suggest a stair-step approach in which you gain skills and knowledge with each visit, making the most of your time and budget.

Birding Belize
Violaceous Trogon by Peg Abbott

Continue reading Birding Belize … Why We Love It!