Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Felonious Jive's Introduction to Unlocking Birds

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I was not the Number 7 birder in the nation. Unlike The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive, I was not born with an unnatural ability to correctly identify and locate a huge variety of birds. I still remember what it was like to see a bird and not know what it was, although those memories are getting quite fuzzy now. But lets face it...the world needs more good birders (or perhaps more birders that are good?), so we at BB&B are going to endeavor to make you, the reader, a better birder.

As everyone knows, some birds are easier to tell apart than others. Jays are simple. Drake ducks are a cinch. Spring warblers are no problem, and neither are male hummingbirds. Owls? If you are lucky enough to see them, its usually no sweat to know what you are looking at. But many up-and-coming birders cower at other birds. Like the professional drinker who loves all booze except for that ONE kind of liquor (most people say its tequila), many developing birdwatchers can't bear the thought of dealing with a certain group of birds, be it gulls, sparrows, shorebirds, flycatchers, shearwaters....you get the picture. They are all so similar that budding birders often don't even know where to start. So we at BB&B are going to make it happen for you...for absolutely free! Sure you could (and should) buy Kenn Kaufman's advanced birding guides, but consider BB&B to be at your service.

Brewer's Sparrows are one of my favorite sparrows, although more for their amazing vocal abilities than their good looks. Some birders would be offended that I have good things to say about such a bird, since so many are incapable of even identifying one. Can we do something about that? YES WE CAN. Agua Caliente County Park, CA.

Before we delve into these specific bird groups, I'm going to ask The Great Ornithologist Felonious Jive to reiterate some crucial birding points to keep in mind. This is important, basic shit, that people forget over and over again, so it bears repeating. Apologies if anyone is offended, but my colleague is a crude man. Take it away Felonious...

#1) Use a good field guide. For Christ's sake don't depend on Google Images or some internet group to identify birds for you. I endorse Sibley and National Geographic Guides only. They're not perfect, but they do come close. Even better, get more than one guide.

#2) Use a field guide...correctly. Look at the range maps. Look at a bird's size. Read about its habits and habitat preferences. IT IS ALL INCREDIBLY HELPFUL. Sure it takes more effort than glancing at a pretty picture, but the payoff is that you might end up identifying birds correctly.

Look at Gray Flycatcher in any field guide and it will appear depressingly similar to other Empidonax flycatchers. But if you read about its habitat preferences and tail-bobbing obsession, you will learn about what makes this sage-baron unique. Photographed at Mono Lake, CA.

#3) Never assume you found a rare bird unless you know exactly what you are doing. Rare birds are to be treated like huge scientific discoveries...you should not be announcing them unless you are completely confident in your own abilities. Inexperienced and experienced birders alike are always turning common birds into rare birds, much to the chagrin of everyone. This is a terrible habit, kind of like picking scabs or popping zits...on strangers you don't even know. It's just a poor idea, plain and simple, doomed to failure. I fiend for rarities as much as the next birder but its important to be accurate.

#4) Go birding with people better than you. Listen to other birders. If you point out a Slaty-backed Gull to your local birding guru and he/she politely says it is a Western Gull, said guru is worth listening to and is likely correct. Of course, if your local guru impolitely says its a Western Gull, you are free to tell them to fuck off.

#5) Beware the internet...it is filled with lies. It can give you the answers you seek, but sometimes at great cost. Once you enter the world of cyber-birding, don't expect to get treated like a prince or princess. People in email groups, messageboards, forums and facebook groups are painfully anal and occasionally straight-up dickish, and its easy to take things out of context. This isn't because birders are bad people, its because the internet is a cruel place.

Black Turnstones love a good pile of rocks, although they will settle on sand if they have to. This one seems to be pretty enthusiastic about rope as well. Point Reyes, CA.

#6) Be aware of a bird's surroundings, not just how a bird looks. What habitat is it in? Pine trees or willows? Rocky shore or sand? How high was it foraging? Was it in freshwater or saltwater? Was this blackbird in a MacDonald's or Burger King lot? The more you notice, the easier a difficult identification can be rendered.

#7) Birding by camera makes sense at times, but I guarantee you you can see so much more without one. Keep in mind each and every birder who occupies the high realms of the Global Birder Ranking Scale learned to bird before the advent of the digital camera. We didn't identify birds by chimping, we did it by looking at them and listening to them. When you do use a photo to help identify birds, be very aware that poor lighting can transmogrify one bird into another.

This dude was desperately crashing through the underbrush, trying to catch a glimpse of a Common Cuckoo perched somewhere above him. Other birders watched his reckless actions in wonder from across the pond. This is exactly how you don't look for rare birds.

#8) Whether you are a photographer or not, don't do dumb shit like scare birds off, trample habitat, lurk next to active nests, use recordings excessively...its just bad news, and will earn you an interesting reputation very quickly. This kind of behavior will lead to both birds and birders avoiding you, which isn't very good for building your bird skills.

#9) Learn bird anatomy. Learn the terminology. Many bird field marks don't have anything to do with recognizable human body parts....lores, tertials, undertail coverts, scapulars, and supercilium are all words that make no sense to nonbirders, and can all be very important in bird identification. Get to know the lingo quickly and you will have a great head start, it will help you learn what to key in on when looking at a confusing bird.

If you knew what the "nail" on a scaup's bill was, we would have a much easier time communicating about what this bird could be. This slim-nailed Lesser Scaup was at Lake Merritt, Oakland, CA.

#10) There are some fucked up birders out there. Seagull Steve and I have been forced to say it time and time again, but birders are strange. If you haven't run into these people yet, it is either A) just a matter of time or B) because you are actually one of the bizarros, so everyone else seems pretty normal in comparison. The lesson here is to not let a negative exposure to a couple of poorly-socialized bird freaks dissuade you from an unabashed lust for birds.

Well, I guess that last one isn't related to bird ID, but Felonious is a bit of a loose cannon. That's all for now everyone...see you after Thanksgiving!


  1. You've done it again, sir! Great post. Laughed my ass off for "picking scabs and popping zits." Also, that dude is a mega douche. I'm glad you found a way to publicly deride him.

    1. Thanks Luke. Blogs are excellent platforms for public ridicule.

  2. Excellent post, Steve. I'm always looking for an excuse to tell someone to fuck off. That's kind of the gist of the post, right? Or does that put me in the #10 category?

    1. If we ever bird together, I'll make sure to rudely disagree with all of your identifications so you can have a good excuse.

  3. I say yum! I saw yum to all these photos!

  4. second 'saw/say' was a typo. Oh.

  5. Good stuff. I just got back from trampling some nice native shrubs in the yard where I found a Rustic Bunting eating berries. Seriously, I found a photo on the internet. I sent out an RBA on OBOL. People are calling it a robin but I know they're wrong and I'm right.

  6. I do hafta say that a "novice" birder here in my neck of the woods (Ohio) found a Western Bluebird. She knew it was, but was still scared to tell the Real Birders. Luckily, we have several Real Birders here who are not assholes, and she talked to one of them. Zillions of folks chased over here to see the little devil. (I'm not a chaser so this behavior amuses/annoys me, but it was fun to have folks realize our NOTW is freakin' awesome.)

    I did ask a Real Birder what we had at our feeders one time..... as it turns out, female Am. Goldfinches are not rare birds. Who knew.