Every year from around January through the end of March, Anhinga Trail in Everglades National Park comes alive as water levels throughout the park drop and force birds to concentrate around more permanent water sources. Guide Carlos Sanchez takes us through this Florida spectacle.
Well known to tourists who visit the trail by the thousands every year to see their first wild alligators, the site is generally passed off by the serious birder as having little potential of seeing something truly special—just close views of herons, egrets, and ibis. I challenge that false notion and welcome those to visit Anhinga Trail in late winter and see one of the great wildlife spectacles of Florida.
A late winter dawn at Anhinga Trail is truly a feast for the
senses if one arrives under the cover of night and waits patiently for the sun
to rise. The air can either feel damp
and musky or cool and crisp, depending on the strength of cold fronts working
their way down the peninsula. Along the
trail, the barking duets of Barred Owl and whistled trills of Eastern
Screech-Owl slowly diminish and give way to the wailing rattles of Limpkin and
raspy notes of King Rail as sunrise draws closer. Suddenly, the entire trail
system comes alive as birds begin their day. Hundreds of both Glossy and White
Ibis commute overhead, along with Great and Snowy Egrets, Little Blue and
Tricolored Herons, and Black and Turkey Vultures. A flock of Red-winged
Blackbirds, over a thousand strong, fly overhead in several waves towards their
feeding grounds. Snail Kite may also be spotted leaving their roosts near this
trail during this time of year. While all these birds are commuting to their
feeding grounds, Black-crowned Night-Herons change shifts, barking out their
‘quoks’ as they head to their roosting areas.
On the ground, downy white Anhinga chicks beg for a meal of
fish from their parents only a few feet from the boardwalk, always nervous
Belted Kingfishers rattle and chase each other to establish who gets the best
fishing spots for the day, and gaudily colored Purple Gallinules furtively peck
at green tidbits in areas of thicker vegetation. If one listens carefully, one
can also hear the metallic chinks of wintering Northern Waterthrush and the
soft whinny of Sora.
Various smaller bird species which are not seen easily later
in the day also make an appearance at the break of dawn, and and as February
turns into March, their singing becomes more incessant and forms a significant
part in the wetland dawn chorus — White-eyed Vireo, Great Crested Flycatcher,
Carolina Wren, and Northern Cardinal.
By around 8 AM, I usually head back to my car not only because the bulk of the morning activity is over but also before the throngs of tourists take over, causing the birds to retreat further into the marsh. However, this brief burst of activity sets the tone for the rest of the birding day in the Everglades or southern Miami-Dade as how can one not be impressed by the sheer number and variety of wetland birds as a birder? The experience is also bittersweet, as I have often been told that Anhinga Trail used to be much better, that there used to be far more birds, and that such dawn spectacles are only a shadow of what they once were. Regardless, it is still freshwater wetland birding in Florida at its best.
Carlos Sanchez sits on the board of the Tropical Audubon Society, is a regular contributor to the birding blog 10,000 Birds, and leads local tours through his company, EcoAvian Tours. He has also been a resident guide at lodges in both Ecuador and Brazil.
Last month we asked you to share some of your most influential birding books—here are a few favorite books that got you hooked!
The Complete Birder, Jack Connor, 1988. This birding book transformed my birding from watching and matching to a field guide to the art of comparative study between species. It helped me pace myself for careful study of shorebirds and even gave me hope for gulls. A gem still relevant today.
Roger Tory Peterson’s Dozen Birding Hotspots, George Harrison, 1976. This publication came two years post high-school graduation for me and I was already birding from escapades in my first car, a Plymouth Duster my parents had passed on to me. I immediately pointed it to the first hotspot I explored, Cave Creek Canyon. I said right then, someday I am going to live here (I do now). I got to all of the hotspots and many more but it gave me my first map and sense of urgency to get out and see these premier places.
Birding on Borrowed Time. When Phoebe Snetsinger died, my local paper did a front page story about her. I discovered she lived only two blocks from me, so I read her biography, Birding on Borrowed Time, discovering there was a hobby of birding all over the world.
From William Leon Dawson’s account for Bufflehead in Birds of California: “We would cuddle him in our arms, and stroke his puffy cheeks and rainbow hue, or give a playful tweak to his saucy little nose. But he does not immediately reciprocate our desire to fondle him…”.
Golden Guide to the Birds of North America— Chandler S. Robbins, Herbert S. Zim, Bertel Brunn— 1966: This is the classic field guide that introduced many in the United States to the birds of North America, and I studied the copy at my elementary school endlessly. I was especially interested in artwork and sketching at the time, and I would often practice by copying individual birds from the book onto blank pieces of paper.
Parrots of the World— Joseph Michael Forshaw— 1977: This is a beautiful birding book full of information and scientific illustrations on every single known parrot species, my favorite group of birds. I eventually even got to go to Bowra Station in Queensland, Australia in 2009 to visit the very same place where Forshaw made a lot of his observations on parrots!
The Observer’s Book of Birds by S. Vere Benson (any Brits of a certain age reading this will know it). It was one in a series (with Birds Eggs, Butterflies, Trees, Fungi, Horses, Dogs, Postage Stamps, etc., etc.). An absolute little pocket-sized gem, with paintings of every bird in Britain and succinct texts. I devoured that book. I still have it.
My Year with the Woodpeckersby Heinz Sielmann. This birding book made a huge impression on me. It was first published in 1959 (before I was born!). It mainly tells the story of how Sielmann, a German zoologist and film-maker, filmed INSIDE the tree cavity nests of woodpeckers. I got the book after watching him interviewed on TV and seeing his black-and-white film of nesting woodpeckers on a BBC nature program. It was incredible stuff, he was the first to do it and, compared to today, with very basic equipment.
Birds of North Americafield guide (Golden Press). I was a biology major at Rutgers College (before it was a University) and in 1981 I enrolled in an Ornithology course taught by Dr. Charles Leck (who unbeknownst to me was also the State Ornithologist for New Jersey). The Golden field guide was one of the birding books we had to purchase and using this guide we had to learn 150 birds for the course including their orders, families, and Latin names. This book and Dr. Leck started me on my birding path and has led to all of the wonderful places I’ve been and many of friends I’ve met since that share my passion.
A Guide to Bird Finding in New Jerseyby William (Bill) J. Boyle, Jr. When I began birding after college this was the birding book I purchased to help me explore NJ in search of birds. It was my bible and my road map and I still use it today. The book lists all of the author’s best birding spots in NJ with maps, directions, and times of year certain species may be present. It is in this book I first read about the wonders of Cape May, a place I have visited many times since in the spring and fall. Trips to Cape May led me to NJ Audubon and the wonderful people at the Cape May Bird Observatory. I soon joined CMBO’s World Series of birding century run teams and learned from birders like Pat & clay Sutton and David Sibley (yes, that David Sibley) who worked at CMBO way back then. Years later I joined the NJ Audubon “Wandering Tattlers” team made up of board members and corporate sponsors (that’s how I punched my ticket) and our leader every year was none other than Bill Boyle. Bill and I still keep in touch, and his book really was a huge part of my discovering what an awesome state I live in for both people, nature, and birds.
Although I’ve essentially been a biologist since I was eight years old—probably from the day I returned to our family campsite with a 50-inch Bull Snake draped across my shoulders, scaring my poor mother witless—my appreciation for birding developed in fits and starts. Not surprisingly, my hotly anticipated career in herpetology never materialized, and I ultimately spent much of my youth in the Mojave Desert peering through a hand lens, honing what would eventually become a professional interest in plant taxonomy. But still not limiting myself to botany at that point, I wanted to know the names of everything I ran across, and not just the wildflowers. What lizard was that, and that dragonfly, and by the way, what were those pale little birds that blended in so well under the creosote bushes?
They were Horned Larks, I learned, though not from a book or a field guide, but a simple pamphlet handed out by the National Park Service at Lake Mead. But the seed was planted. Years went by, I was now teaching at Oregon State, and I continued to flirt with a passing interest in birding—a Pileated Woodpecker here, a Clark’s Nutcracker there. Fate had to intervene it seemed, and in 1994, as I was organizing a research trip to the Prudhoe Bay oilfields, I came across a publication byAlfred Bailey entitled Birds of Arctic Alaska (published 1948). How it ended up stacked near the floristic manuals and plant presses we were loading up for Prudhoe is a mystery, but there it was, so I tossed it in my rucksack.
Travel from Oregon to Deadhorse took a full day, and with time to kill I flipped open Bailey’s book, which detailed an expedition he took to the Arctic coast in the early 1920s. Just where I was going! And so many birds I’d never heard of! And I’d probably have time to look for them, since it was summer—when it never got dark! Why the book resonated with me so much I’ll never know, but I spent as much time on that trip birding as I did stooped over our tundra research plots. By the time we got back, my interest in birding was no longer passing.
The deal was sealed in 1998 when I first went to Africa. Again, botany took the lead, as we were primarily going to photograph the wide array of spectacular geopyhtes (i.e., bulb-bearing plants) that South Africa is famous for. But I didn’t leave without bringing along Birds of Southern Africaby Ian Sinclair, et al. And if I envisioned myself a serious birder before, my interest shifted to another level as we traveled through South Africa, Zambia, and Botswana.
Although an identification guide, and completely different than Bailey’s book, Birds of Southern Africa was (and still is) beautifully put together, and was the key to making the most of a very memorable trip. It was the first of many international birding books for me, and I still remember it as the one that got me hooked on ecotravel.
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez and This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Ehrlich. Both books are broad scope portraits of place, but also the minutia of daily life in these places. Both contain gorgeous writing and language, emotion, and much to think about. The Inuit have 23 words for Ice!
Like most of the guides, The Golden Guide by Zim, et al, was my first birding book and remains my favorite. Years ago National Geographic published a 2-volume Birds of North America – one volume with song and garden birds, and the other with raptors and shore/sea birds. Both volumes contained these little vinyl records with bird songs and calls that I listened to constantly to learn more about birds. I wish I still had them but they got lost somewhere in my many moves.
We asked and you responded! Here are some of our Naturalist Journeys client’s most influential birding books:
When I was in junior high in the early 1960s, I had to pick a project from our science textbook. I chose identifying all the birds on the school grounds. Our school ground was not very bird friendly, so I changed the area to our rural yard and fields. Thank goodness, our school library had a copy of Louisiana Birds by George H. Lowery, Jr.
There was no Internet, no public library, and no money to buy a bird guide. Lowery’s book started me on a lifelong journey of birding. I was delighted when the third edition was printed in 1974 so that I could own a copy of that wonderful book. I have a shelf of birding books, but I still pull out the Louisiana Birdsto read the historical account of one species or another.
Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds, Eastern version. I got my hands on my mom’s copy at a very early age (about two) — interpreting the silhouette page as a dot-to-dot puzzle! I took up birding seriously at age 10, and had this book pretty well memorized by adulthood. Too bad I can’t still do that now.
In my teenage years, I was introduced to the Western U.S. That first evening, camping in Rocky Mountain National Park, I couldn’t identify any of the amazing birds, and quickly realized I needed a different book. I still have the tattered Peterson Western guide that we bought the next morning.
Of course, our shelves now contain piles of books about birds from around the world. I hope we will be able to resume traveling, and birding, in new countries soon.
Roger Tory Peterson’sAField Guide to the Birds which has been my constant birding companion since I got hooked on birding in the mid-1970s. I’m also a book collector, so as exciting to me as spotting a great life bird is finding a great bird book: my ultimate find was a pristine 1934 first edition of Peterson’s guide, which I found on a 3/$1.00 table at a library sale twenty-five years ago.
A Pocket Guide to Birds by Allan Cruickshank. My mother’s best friend, and my surrogate mother, who introduced me to birding as an 8-year old, was Helen Cruickshank’s sister, and an ardent amateur naturalist herself. I vividly recall Allan’s escapades following birds to all sorts of unlikely heights, armed only with his giant box camera and an indomitable spirit. He autographed my 1954 copy (I was 10). I was, and am, hooked. The book, with Helen’s photographs, is probably now out of print, but it will always be current for me.
The Golden Guide to Birds of North America. When I taught second grade, I always did a unit on California backyard birds plus some other species everyone needs to recognize like the American Eagle. I bought many copies of the small children’s version of the Golden guide and used it to teach them how to use an index. I would hear years later that learning about birds and raising and tagging Monarch butterflies was what they remembered about elementary school.
A few weeks ago we asked our guides what their spark bird was … and what fun was to read their responses. We sent out a newsletter to our clients so they could read about our guides’ spark birds and asked clients to send us theirs. What a fun response! Take a read below to learn about our guides’ spark birds and the spark birds that got our clients hooked on birding.
OUR GUIDES’ SPARK BIRDS
INDIGO BUNTING “My spark bird was an Indigo Bunting. I was in high school, working two days a week on an internship at a local nature center my senior year. I was engrossed in spring wildflowers and in working on pressing the latest discoveries when my friend burst in and says, you MUST come out and see this! She pointed up and my bins connected with this turquoise gem, throwing his head up in song from the pitched roof of our historic schoolhouse. I was convinced and have been birding avidly ever since.” — Peg Abbott
GREEN WOODPECKER “The (Eurasian) Green Woodpecker was probably the first that got me really hooked. I was on a school trip, aged 9 I think, to the county of Cheshire in mid England (UK) to a big stately home. There were big gardens, parkland with deer, well-groomed lawns. You’ve see those places in TV shows where the lords and ladies sip tea! Anyway, during the lunch break I sneaked off with a pal of mine to try to get close to the deer, we ignored the ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign and crossed a lawn.
Suddenly a green-coloured bird shot up from the grass, making loud alarm calls as it bounded away before landed again on the grass not on the trees. I had never seen one before but I knew what it was: Green Woodpecker; I looked it up later at home and read that it is ‘often terrestrial and eats ants.’ Wow, a woodpecker that spends most of its time on the ground. I was hooked.” — Gerard Gorman
CEDAR WAXWING “A single Cedar Waxwing.
For a young boy, growing up in the magical woodlands of Maryland, it began with a single waxwing.
Exploring forest next to home, my older brother Rob gathered a wealth of information and experience for his Boy Scout “Bird Merit Badge.” I was always one barefooted step behind him. With his quick keen eyes, and accurate directions, he revealed wondrous beauty to me.
Fresh morning air, slight humidity, spring 1969. Above, a canopy of mixed deciduous hardwoods, below, a lush and diverse under story, found us immersed in what we delighted in the most. DISCOVERY!
Suddenly, there before us, calmly perched, a single Cedar Waxwing. Confiding, exquisitely plumaged, well-tailored, regal. Through my astonished eyes I felt nothing could have been more beautiful. Beholding this gift, dappled in soft sunlight, I stood motionless, gazing at a creature that would have an immense impact upon my life, forever. It was unfathomable to me that anything so exotic existed outside of a book, a zoo, or a jungle, but there it was, gazing back through black mascara bordered by fawn blush.
I made its acquaintance realizing its every subtlety. The appointment of color, the adornment of “wax” droplets on the tips of the wing feathers and an expressive crest crowning the bird, held my undivided attention. From that point on I only wanted to see more.
And so it has been, for my entire life.” — Keith Hansen
AMERICAN GOLDFINCH “My spark bird was a Goldfinch. I was out running and a flock of breeding plumage American Goldfinch flew across my path, landing in a small tree. I thought, as many non-birders do, we have canaries in our area? That’s when I started looking at birds differently.” — Pat Lueders
EASTERN PHOEBE “Which bird got me hooked on birding? So hard to say, since nature drew me in at a very young age. I quickly learned to identify most of the common backyard birds one would find in South Florida from Anhinga to White Ibis. I did not “rediscover” birding until right after college, after walking to a local park and seeing an Eastern Phoebe perched on a fence. The thrill of seeing something I had studied in a book beforehand, researching and learning about it, then seeing it in the flesh—well, I was hooked again!” — Carlos Sanchez
YELLOW-THROATED VIREO “I had been birding (far beyond my general enthusiasm for the whole of the natural history world…) for just over a year with Jim, who had recently moved to the Central Coast of California. Jim got me into looking at birds, the smaller birds, you know, the ones way up at the tops of the trees. And with all the vagrant traps on our patch of the coast, we were having a blast finding all sort of migrants that fall, including an exceptional nice mix of vagrants.
Jim had invited a number of friends from the Central Valley to join us on the coast and bird some of our favorite vagrant hotspots on 3 October, 1981, the peak of fall migration. So early that morning we met Keith Hansen, his brother Rob, Dawn, Gary and others and started north from Morro Bay. Most all of us were in our twenties, and the energy was palpable.
And it was that energy that made it one of the most memorable days of birding for me. Along with hordes of western migrants, we had a sublime group of eastern vagrants at every stop that morning. But the bird of the day that gave us all a lot of “Green Valley grins” was that Yellow-throated Vireo at Pico Creek, just glistening in the bright, early morning sun…” — Greg Smith
BLACK-CAPPED CHICKADEE “My spark bird, the bird that got me hooked on birding: Probably the Black-capped Chickadee. When I was a teenager my dad would take me hunting and I’d tag along, not so much for the hunting part but because I liked to be in the woods and spend time with my father. I remember one cold morning being in a tree stand waiting for a deer to walk by and being surrounded by silence and then …. chickadees. They were landing on branches all around me and even on the railing of the tree stand.
Since then I seem to have a magical connection with them. I’ve pished them in close many times, had them answer my chickadee call, and even had one land on my hand and try to pull a hair out of my knuckle. They are in New Jersey all winter and always bring a smile to my face when they land on my feeders.” — Rick Weiman
“Long ago, a Midwestern boy was assigned patrol duty at his elementary school. His crossing was the farthest one from the school in a peaceful area overhung by crabapple trees. One fall morning during a lull in crossing activity, he noticed birds moving through one of the Crabapple trees. Upon closer investigation, he saw a dozen gorgeous yellow and brown-cast birds with crested heads and brilliant red and yellow accents feeding on crabapples. The birds seemed tame.
Early the next morning, he rode his bike to his crossing and found several trees swarming with even more of these birds. He got to within ten feet of them as they feasted on crabapples. He stood transfixed for an hour.
After returning home, the boy searched through the family bird book and found the birds he had been seeing close up and by the dozen. They were Cedar Waxwing.
There was something intoxicating about all of this. Later in life, he discovered that because the birds were eating over-ripe crabapples, they were indeed intoxicated. This made them tame.
This boy has been watching and studying birds ever since. As you may have guessed by now, this boy was me.” — Woody Wheeler
OUR CLIENTS’ SPARK BIRDS
We’ve kept our clients’ spark bird stories anonymous for their privacy.
AMERICAN REDSTART “The spark bird for me was a disaster. I was in my pre-teens and living in Chicago in the old community of Pullman and had ridden my bike to what was known as the dump. It was actually an industrial land fill in the wetlands and prairie areas near Lake Calumet on Chicago’s far south side. While wandering about I spied a bird on the shore of a small pond. So I did what kids do, I threw stone at it. I hit it. And killed it. I was devastated and fascinated by the beautiful animal I had destroyed. It was either a Mourning Dove or Killdeer. I can’t recall. But I never threw another stone at another bird. My deed haunted me.
But then an epiphany occurred for me. A few years later while working on a landscaping project in a well-tended yard in a well-tended residential neighborhood the world of birds opened up for me in the flash of a Redstart darting amongst shrubbery right in front of my nose. WOW. What was that. Where can I find a book? Holy cow, I wanted more. I was hooked. But it sure was an odd situation being the only birder in a 1950s big city blue collar high school.”
NIGHT HERON “When I was in grad school at UNC, my boyfriend taught me about birding. I wasn’t hooked yet though. I couldn’t even tell you the first birds I observed. But then we took the long drive to the Everglades. At the first pond, there was an immature night heron. After identifying it on my own (with a field guide of course!), I was hooked. I mean, really … that red eye!”
RUBY-THROATED HUMMINGBIRD “I guide here in the DC area and my spark bird is the Ruby-throated Hummingbird. I was the gardener at our school and I wanted them to come over the roof of the school and into the courtyard. I planted Bee Balm in a large 4×4 bed, then set a feeder with fresh sugar water in a red-colored dish-like feeder. I kept it clean. They came early much to my joy and I got a video of the bird scaffolding from the Beech tree to the feeder. I set up a presentation in power point for the after-school kids and talked about how scientists found out how they fly.
We still don’t know how they hover. Physics students from UC Davis were having a break on the patio at the school when they saw some Hummingbirds and wanted to know the physics of their flight. They made an experiment and they filmed it. The middle schoolers were fascinated. They were happy to see that we had hummingbirds coming to the school. It was a treat. I will always be surprised by these tiny but mighty birds.”
PILEATED WOODPECKER “My ‘spark’ to birding (never heard that one before) was many years ago, as a young teenager, early 1970s, when an older family friend, in upstate New York … who knew Roger Tory Peterson (too bad I never met him!) took me out for birding in the summer, Catskills, wee hours … and my first Pileated Woodpecker, so spectacularly beautiful, that was it, I was hooked … birding ever since, in a fun way, even now easy to do in Virginia, without any crowds!”
BLUE-GRAY GNATCATCHER “I grew up with a father who was an avid amateur ornithologist so (by osmosis?) I was pretty familiar with common birds of Massachusetts and was accustomed to noticing birds even though I was hardly a birder. In my early 40s I was sitting on our deck in the mountains of North Carolina with my leg propped up as I recovered from minor surgery. I noticed a small active bird in the shrubbery in front of me.
With nothing better to do I went and got binoculars and eventually identified the bird as a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. I was quite surprised that I had never even heard of this bird, let alone seen one before. Right there in my yard was a bird that was new to me! That got me wondering what else might be around and things took off from that.”
BALTIMORE ORIOLE “My father was a birder. It didn’t catch on with me right away (I was really into snakes earlier). Then in the spring of 1953 a pair of Baltimore Orioles built a nest in the willow tree in our backyard. I had seen pictures of them but never expected to see them in person. After all, they were Baltimore Orioles, and we lived in Massachusetts. I was thrilled to have such colorful birds nesting in our backyard. From then on I started looking through field guides, and I was hooked!”
BALD EAGLE “When I was in college, I was home for Christmas break. I was invited by a family friend to attend the Christmas Bird Count in Butte County, California. I had never been particularly interested in birds but I thought, what the heck, I didn’t have anything better to do. I figured I would just go for half a day. However, I couldn’t believe how fun it was and loved the whole day.
A couple of days later, I got to go birdwatching again with the trip leader, Eleanor Pugh, who was a pretty renowned California birder. We went to the Oroville Forebay, and she spotted a raptor in a tree and set up her scope. She looked through it and said, ‘I’ll let you all look at the bird and see if you can figure it out.’ Lo and behold, it was a mature Bald Eagle. We all got a great look at it, and then it took off and flew right over our heads.
This was a transformational experience for me. Not only did I become a lifelong birder, but I suddenly knew I cared deeply about the environment. I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to do for a living, but I knew I wanted to make a difference. I became a land use planner and helped implement the Coastal Act in Sonoma County.”
RED-SHOULDERED HAWK “A Red-shouldered Hawk—seen on a vacation to Florida in 1993, in a state park in the center of the state. It was at face height, about 15 feet away, observing me and not afraid. So beautiful. I had no idea what it was. After the trip I asked a client of mine who birded with her husband, what it might have been. From her suggestions, the Red-shouldered Hawk was the right bird.
I told my husband, I really liked looking at birds, and I want to keep doing it. We found the Audubon Society online, and by good fortune, the San Fernando Valley chapter was very active with 10 field trips every month. We started coming on the field trips, standing next to someone with more experience, and in a few months we were totally into birding. My husband at first felt that it was going to be an activity for old ladies, but when he came to a field trip, he saw it was about 50% men, and they were typically competitive like men in most sports. BTW, we were both in our early 50s already.”
CEDAR WAXWING “So, what is it about Cedar Waxwings? Two guides said they were their spark bird, and I smiled when I read that, because they were my spark bird at a very young age. Whole flocks of them used to descend on the toyon bushes of our Southern California house. They were magnificent, albeit a little reckless if they ate berries that had fermented on the bushes!”
WOOD DUCK “My spark bird was a Wood Duck. I was running past a small pond in the Berkshire in Massachusetts when I noticed a family. That was it—I was off and traveling the world.”
SCARLET TANAGER “Seen from our boat on the dappled creek shore was a bird that caught my attention. It was a gorgeous deep red, with jet black wings. Searching my memory banks for its identification was no help so soon thereafter I bought a field guide. The first of many, many, many books and a now 30 year avocation feeding, watching, traveling, and learning about birds.”
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.