My adventures in the woods, streams, rivers, fields, and lakes of Michigan

It does get easier

With several budding birders and bird photographers following my blog, I thought that it would be a good time to pass on a few tips on how to identify birds quickly, and maybe a few tips on photographing birds. That’s because on one of my recent trips to the Lake Michigan shoreline, I noticed that I was identifying ducks in poor light, and at longer distances, when two years ago, I had a difficult time telling a scaup from a grebe, which isn’t really a duck to begin with.

First of all, taking photos so that you have time to consult field guides to help you make the ID is a good idea, but it isn’t often that a male in full breeding plumage of any species will calmly swim past you in nearly optimal conditions so that you get a great shot.

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

You may ask yourself why I chose a northern shoveler, when by the size of their snout, they should be easy to ID. Well, yes and no, you can’t always see their bill for one thing.

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

And, they have about the same colors as male mallards do, but in different places.

Male mallard and northern shovelers

Male mallard and northern shovelers

Sometimes, the northern shovelers will even try to act like a mallard by being goofy.

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

But, they just aren’t as good at being goofy as mallards are.

Male northern shoveler

Male northern shoveler

So, if you go back to the photo of the mallard with the shovelers, you can see that both species are very close to being the same overall length, but that mallards are stockier, shovelers are long and lean, and therefore, appear to ride lower in the water than what mallards do. After you see them often enough, every species of duck presents a different profile when seen at a distance.

So, it isn’t only by color that one can go by, it is many things, size, shape, behavior, and I’ll try to touch on more as I go along here.

If you see a small duck, less than half the size of an adult mallard, it’s probably a ruddy duck, positively if it has its tail sticking straight up.

Ruddy ducks

Ruddy ducks

So, even if the light is poor, if you see this…

Ruddy ducks

Ruddy ducks

…you know that they’re ruddy ducks. You don’t need a great view of them, just their profile and a few hints of their colors are enough to make the ID.

The only duck close in size to a ruddy duck is a wood duck, and there’s no mistaking an adult male wood duck for any other species.

Male wood duck

Male wood duck

You could mistake a female wood duck for another species, but even that isn’t easy to do, they have such a unique look to them.

Female wood duck in flight

Female wood duck in flight

The most important tip I can give you is that you should take every opportunity that you can to see the same species over and over again, so that you have them memorized. Then, it’s easy to tell a blue-winged teal…

Male blue-winged teal in flight

Male blue-winged teal in flight

…from a green-winged teal…

Male green-winged teal in flight

Male green-winged teal in flight

…from a mallard.

Male mallard in flight

Male mallard in flight

And, you’ll know that when you spot a duck that doesn’t have quite the same shape as any of the ducks that you see regularly, that you should try to get a closer look, and see what if any color differences there are between the ducks that you’re familiar with, and those you’re not, such as part of its bill being bright yellow.

Black scoter

Black scoter

I could go on about ducks, as I can now tell a scaup…

Male lesser scaup

Male lesser scaup

…from a grebe…

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

Horned grebe

…but I’m going to move on to other birds that are far more difficult to ID than ducks are, shorebirds.

One of my first attempts to see, photograph, and identify shorebirds was at Isaacson’s Bay, near Alpena, in northern Michigan. I was walking along the mudflats, scanning way off in the distance expecting to be able to see the shorebirds running around from a distance, then get closer. I nearly stepped on what I thought was a killdeer, except that it didn’t look exactly like a killdeer…

Killdeer

Killdeer

…the bird I nearly stepped on had a colorful bill, and wasn’t as large as a killdeer, it was a semipalmated plover I learned later.

Semi-palmated plover

Semipalmated plover

The first tip I can offer is this, if the shorebird has a short, conical bill, it’s a plover or turnstone. If the bill is long and slender, then the bird is a sandpiper or other related species, such as dowitcher or godwit to name two others.

Again, photos can help, but photos can also be deceiving at times. One mistake that I made early on was trying to isolate one single bird as I have in the photos above. But, when it comes to identifying shorebirds, size is one of the keys. For example, here’s a dunlin and a semipalmated sandpiper (not semipalmated plover, two species that sound alike) together.

Dunlin and semipalmated sandpiper

Dunlin and semipalmated sandpiper

You can see that the dunlin is huge compared to the semipalmated sandpiper, but, there’s an even smaller species of sandpiper, the least sandpiper.

Least sandpiper

Least sandpiper

From my photos, the least sandpiper looks larger than the semipalmated, because I got closer to the least than I did the semipalmated. The semipalmated sandpiper has black legs, the least sandpiper has yellow legs, one of the ways that I can tell them apart.

If you see this…

Spotted sandpiper

Spotted sandpiper

Spotted sandpiper

Spotted sandpiper

…then, as the caption says, it’s a spotted sandpiper, one of the easiest to ID. Not only do its spots give it away, but if you see a shorebird bobbing its tail end up and down, it’s a spotted sandpiper

Now then, here’s a lesser yellowlegs, it’s easy to see how they got their name.

Lesser yellowlegs

Lesser yellowlegs

Here’s a bird that’s about the same size, and has yellowish legs, but it’s an upland sandpiper.

Upland sandpiper

Upland sandpiper

It’s easy to tell the difference between these two, by the color of their bills and their markings. Making it even easier is that the upland sandpiper prefers open fields whereas the lesser yellowlegs is almost always near water, so habitat is a huge clue. And, you need every clue that you can find when it comes to shorebirds.

When I blow this photo up on my computer, I can see that the bird’s legs and bill have a greenish tint, which you may not be able to see here. What you can see is that it looks like some one splattered white paint on the bird’s back, making it a solitary sandpiper.

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

Solitary sandpiper

That’s another tip that I use, there isn’t much difference in the markings of the shorebirds, so I use tricks to help me remember those small differences. I can remember splattered with white paint easier than I can remember “Back dark olive with scattered small white spots. Bold white eye ring. Tail distinctly barred. Rump and center tail feathers dark.” as their description on All About Birds reads. Coming up with your own ways to help you remember the markings of birds, rather than relying on descriptions will help you memorize birds as you add them to your life list.

I’ve been lucky, I’ve had several conversations with Brian Johnson, a professional ornithologist, Caleb Putnam, who is in charge of confirming the accuracy of submissions to eBirds, and several other excellent birders over the past two years. One topic comes up time and time again, that even the best field guides are just starting points to identifying birds. The people who write the field guides put a lot of work into them, but there’s no way that they can cover all the regional and seasonal variations in a bird’s plumage, nor account for individual variations.

If you have a bird feeder in your backyard, I’m sure that after a while, you begin to recognize individual birds when they all looked exactly alike to you when the birds first began coming to your feeder. For example, not all male northern cardinals look exactly the same when we see them often and at close range. Some are a deeper red than others, some are plump, some are skinny, and so it goes for all birds. When we start out birding, we think that they are all identical, but they are not, there are variations within all species of birds, and there’s no field guide in the world that can cover them all.

That point was made clear to me while watching Brian at the Muskegon Lake Nature Preserve. He was banding birds that day, and as he removed them from the nets used to capture them, he would explain some of the variations shown by the individual bird, literally in hand, as compared to the descriptions in most field guides. It was a very enlightening day to say the least!

I’m not saying that you can’t rely on field guides to be correct, but even the best descriptions, and even photos, are just starting points. You need to pay attention to where and when you saw the bird, any sounds that it may have made, and its behavior, as all are important clues to help identify which species it is.

Another difficulty in using field guides is that you may see a bird in a dense thicket, early in the morning, one poor light…

House wren

House wren

…or, you may see the front of the bird…

House wren

House wren

…when your field guide shows you photos of the species taken in great light taken from the rear of the bird…

House wren

House wren

…making it harder to compare the bird that you saw and/or photographed with what you see in the field guides.

House wren

House wren

Fortunately, wrens seldom keep their mouths shut for very long…

House wren singing

House wren singing

…and their songs are a positive way to ID them. Just make sure that the bird that you think you hear singing is the one actually singing, as these guys…

Grey catbird

Grey catbird

…along with brown thrashers and mockingbirds are very good mimics, and they can sing snippets of many other bird’s songs.

Although they aren’t known for mimicking other birds, one early morning I came across this robin singing softly, but not they typical robin song, it sounded like a catbird, singing parts of other bird’s songs.

American robin

American robin

The sounds the robin was making were just barely audible, but they were definitely bits of the songs of other birds.

If you watched the video of the dunlin in action in my last post, you’ll know that these shorebirds seldom hold still, getting sharp photos of them is often difficult. If they’re not running in search of food, then their heads are bobbing up and down, it’s often referred to as sewing machine movement, and if you watch the video again, you can see why.

Or, here’s a whole lot of them in action.

And, here’s a photo of a lot of dunlin in action.

A flock of dunlin in flight

A flock of dunlin in flight

I included those for a reason, how the birds behave is a clue to their identity. Dunlin are almost always seen in large flocks that stay together, even in flight. The solitary sandpipers got their name because they seldom are seen together in a flock as the dunlin are.

I know that I haven’t said anything that hasn’t been said before, that you need to go by size, shape, color, behavior, and where and when you see a bird to correctly identify it, but hopefully, seeing those things illustrated in photos, along with my personal experiences can help.

My way of remembering birds is photographing them. If you asked me to describe a red-eyed vireo…

Red eyed vireo

Red eyed vireo

Red eyed vireo

Red eyed vireo

…other than that they have red eyes, I’d be at a loss for words as to how to describe them. I remember birds by the photos that I take of them, rather than descriptions.

Larger birds are generally easier to photograph, you don’t have to get as close to them, and they tend to move slowly unless you spook them.

Great blue heron

Great blue heron

Small birds typically move quickly no matter what they’re doing when you see them. That makes it tough to get close and get a clear view of them.

Ruby crowned kinglet

Ruby crowned kinglet

Ruby crowned kinglet

Ruby crowned kinglet

Timing is critical to getting a good photo, you have to anticipate what the bird is going to do before it does what it’s going to do, and be ready when you get that split second chance for a photo, when dealing with small birds.

So, I see a bird that I want to photograph, and I’ll watch what it’s doing, which direction it is moving, and try to get ahead of it in a spot where I think that I have the best chance of seeing it in the clear, and with at least half-way good lighting. If you see a brown creeper, for example, they start at the base of a tree and work their way up, going around the tree as they work their way up. I’ll pick a spot on the tree where I think that the creeper will appear, have the camera focused on that spot, and wait…

Brown creeper

Brown creeper

…and hit the shutter release when the bird appears.

Well, this post is getting quite long already, and I’m really just getting started. So, I’ll sum this one up by saying that both identifying birds, and photographing them, does get easier over time.

That this is it for this one, thanks for stopping by!

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22 responses

  1. I liked this post a lot, Jerry. When reading your blog, I always think I’m getting a grasp on bird ice tificafion. But, that feeling quickly dissapates when I’m out on a walk, and see a duck. “Ooh, a mallard!” will probably always be my first thought. At least now I know the names of dozens of different species, so I could probably stun and amaze anyone with no bird knowledge at all with the depth of my own knowledge.

    But, seriously, a really helpful , thoughtful post. 🙂

    June 7, 2015 at 7:07 am

    • Thank you Judy! To tell you the truth, every duck I see is a mallard until I prove to myself otherwise, there’s so darned many of them, and they’re everywhere. 😉 But, I’m getting better at proving that not every duck is really a mallard. I’m glad that you found this post helpful.

      June 7, 2015 at 6:32 pm

  2. Jerry,
    What a wonderful post with great photos!.
    What keeps us coming back are those birds we just weren’t quite sure about and that feeling of never being completely sure about what we’re going to see next.
    Bob

    June 7, 2015 at 7:55 am

    • Thank you Bob! Funny thing about you saying that we never know what we’ll see next, I missed a yellow billed cuckoo and a least bittern in the past two days. I saw them, but no photos, I was too slow, we always remember the ones that got away.

      June 7, 2015 at 6:34 pm

  3. I learned early on that bird identification was made even more difficult for me due to color blindness, so the only ones I really know well are those you see every day like blue jays and mallards.
    That doesn’t mean I don’t still enjoy seeing and watching them and maybe this post will help me remember to watch their behavior as well so I don’t have to rely on color that much.
    Of course, that means I’ll have to take my eyes off the ground too, and there’s a lot going on down there!

    June 7, 2015 at 9:42 am

    • Thank you Allen! I can’t imagine trying to ID birds if I were colorblind, but I’ll bet that it could be done. But yes, you would have to take your eyes off from the ground, unless you made all the IDs from sound alone.:)

      June 7, 2015 at 6:39 pm

  4. I’ve also found it helps to have someone tag along who spots birds from a distance and is able to ID birds. 😉 I believe that’s the biggest challenge to shooting them. (At least for me.) Having said that, I appreciated the graphic lessons. Who knows, perhaps someday I’ll learn to do it on my own?

    June 7, 2015 at 11:03 am

    • Thank you Gunta! I guess that I’m in a bind, I’ve always been the one that spots wildlife before every one else, so I have to find them and shoot them.

      June 7, 2015 at 6:41 pm

  5. This was a delight to read, so informative with such good pictures. I wish I lived in your area and could see all these interesting birds.

    June 7, 2015 at 1:05 pm

    • Thank you Susan! You may enjoy a visit here, but I doubt if you’d want to live here full time, the winters are long, cold, grey, dreary, with snow almost every day.

      June 7, 2015 at 6:42 pm

  6. You are an example to us all with your thorough approach to doing things as well as they can possibly be done.

    June 7, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    • Thank you Tom! There’s a lot of times that I scold myself for slacking off as much as I do, however, I do try to do things as well as I can most of the time.

      June 7, 2015 at 6:45 pm

      • And succeed.

        June 8, 2015 at 6:03 pm

  7. Exceptional post,the pictures are stunning.Regards

    June 7, 2015 at 6:48 pm

    • Thank you very much!

      June 7, 2015 at 6:54 pm

  8. Fantastic post Jerry! I do find waders and shorebirds so difficult to identify. I always seem to notice and remember the wrong thing about them. I say – ‘long curved bill and yellow legs’ – only to find there are two or three birds like that and what I should have noticed was the spotty chest or the white neck feathers! I will have to get better at photographing them I think, or concentrate a little harder!

    June 7, 2015 at 7:10 pm

    • Thank you Clare! You’re right, usually what sticks in our minds about birds is of little help in identifying them. Photos help a great deal, that way you don’t have to try to make the ID while going through a filed guide, hoping that the bird doesn’t fly off before you can ID it.

      June 8, 2015 at 3:20 am

      • 😀

        June 9, 2015 at 6:15 pm

  9. This is a wonderful “how to” guide and would be great as an introduction to field guide books. Thank you! Even though I don’t have the same birds here the same principles apply. Behaviour can be a huge help – the way they move, their sounds, whether they are in a flock or solitary, what they are eating etc. After little success with small birds, I was very excited to finally get a shot of a small non-descript bird and identify it by myself correctly (I checked with an expert). I sometimes see golden whistler males on my walks. They are quite distinctive in shape and have bright yellow colouring. I took a picture of a bird that had no yellow and was rufous-coloured. Because I was familiar with the golden whistler behaviour and shape though, I looked that species up and found it was a juvenile. If I hadn’t been familiar with the adult male in the first place, I wouldn’t have thought to check that page. It wasn’t making the characteristic sound. So as you say, it’s important to get familiar with what is out there so you have more success with similar species and variations within a species.The experience helps!The buzz I got from this small success has motivated me not to give up on the small birds. Thank you for being kind and clever enough to share your birding experience with others, Jerry. 🙂

    June 7, 2015 at 7:59 pm

    • Thank you very much Jane! Both for the nice words about my post, and for adding your input, which is excellent. There is a thrill that comes when one correctly identifies a bird, of any size or color, and once you make the ID, it sticks in your mind forever.

      June 8, 2015 at 3:44 am

  10. Terrific post, Jerry, with so much good, useful and helpful information!! And I think the northern shoveler is quite good at being goofy! LOL That beak alone is so goofy! 😀

    June 8, 2015 at 11:41 am

    • Thank you Amy! I tried, as well as I know how. I’ve read the intros to several birding guides, and none were very good in my opinion. But wouldn’t you know, Cornell University has put together a series of very good videos that say what I was trying to say, but much better. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/page.aspx?pid=1270

      June 8, 2015 at 2:32 pm