What's That Bird? (Part II)
by Mike Lushington
In last week's installment of this miniseries, I introduced two basic ideas for beginning birders to consider. One of them was to obtain a good, reliable Bird Guide and use it on a regular basis to become familiar with the common birds of the area. Most of us really cannot describe, with any accuracy, what a bird like a robin really looks like, once you get beyond the obvious. Most of the time that doesn't matter, but if you are suddenly called upon to distinguish between an immature robin and a possible Fieldfare or Redwing ( occasional visitors from Europe) the subtle distinctions make all the difference between a good call and one that is simply dismissed. Knowing those basic marks means that you will be better able to identify a bird that looks a lot like a familiar bird, but is somehow different.
Take the time to watch these familiar birds as well. Gradually you will begin subtle differences in behavior and in ways of moving. Yes, all birds that we have around here fly. but they do fly in different ways. one of the surest ways to distinguish between a crow and a raven in the air, for example, is to be familiar with their different flight techniques. Robins fly in a direct line most of the time, while woodpeckers look like they are riding a roller coaster. Merlins also fly in a direct, very fast, line, while the very-close look-alike Sharp-shinned hawks dart here and there, and often dive directly into a clump of bushes after their prey. Song sparrows dip their rather long tails quite noticeably just before they drop into cover - and they are the only sparrows that do that. Small birds perching in flocks high in the trees and suddenly darting out and dashing around before settling back into the trees are almost certainly waxwings chasing insects - I then leave it to you to distinguish between the two species of waxwing - Cedar or Bohemian, especially in late fall or early spring when either species is possible (I have seen both within the past few days).
And on it goes. As you watch birds regularly, you begin to understand where you are more likely to see them, and how they act in different circumstances. Having a good working idea of how they look, where they are situated normally, and how they go about their business are all helps in identification, especially when something turns out to be a real puzzle. I remember a bright early spring day years ago. I was down at Eel River Bar, over by where the dam used to be. As I looked around, I spotted a rather large bird (about crow-sized) sitting on top of a gigantic pile of snow out in the middle of the little picnic area. For the life of me I couldn't figure what it was, even with my binoculars. (For some reason that escapes me now, I didn't have my scope with me - or wasn't using it.) Finally, just as I made up my mind that I was going to have to get closer, it flew. Immediately, and against all common sense (to me at any rate) I realized that it was a Pileated woodpecker - the combination of size - the striking black-and - white pattern of its wings as it flew, and the deeply undulating flight as it crossed the road into the cedar swamp nearby all identified this bird that was obviously doing something that was puzzling to me, even though I am certain that it had its own good reasons for sitting on a pile of snow in the middle of a field. seemingly just admiring the scenery.