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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

‘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?

Highlights from Our Belize Birding Tour

Every winter, Naturalist Journeys heads to Belize for a number of fun-filled trips. Here are highlights from a 2016 Belize birding tour.

Belize Birding Tour
Group at Pook’s Hill Ruins, Naturalist Journeys Stock

The highlights detailed in this blog post were from a February 2016 Belize birding tour …  and this trip was extra special: Naturalist Journeys‘ owner Peg Abbott celebrated her 60th birthday on the trip; it was a bit of a reunion with long-time travel companions, which made for a whole lot of fun. You can read the full trip report here.

Without further ado, here are the highlights, day by day. Continue reading Highlights from Our Belize Birding Tour