Oh, how I envy novice birders. They have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new birds to discover. Their future is full of “oh wow” moments, as when a Baltimore oriole or scarlet tanager is seen for the first time. There are so many new birds waiting to be identified, and all of them close to home.
Alas, I have exhausted that inexhaustible supply. I am so familiar with our Maine birds that I often don’t even bother to look when I hear a good one. For me, finding new birds means expending frequent flyer miles. I used up a bunch this month, leaping at the chance to join a Maine Audubon tour of Costa Rica.
For 10 glorious days, I got to feel like a novice again. There were multitudes of birds I’d never seen before, or even imagined. Costa Rica is smaller than Maine, yet it has more birds than all of North America put together. Maine has one hummingbird species. Costa Rica has 50. During much of the tour, I was totally clueless. It felt great.
The experience of cluelessness tested the identification advice I’ve given you over the years. I spent much of the tour trying to figure out what I was doing right and analyzing what I was doing dead wrong. As it turns out, the skills necessary to identify a bird at your feeder are not much different than those needed in a Central American jungle, except for the need to avoid deadly snakes.
A common mistake for inexperienced birders is too much reliance on the field guide. Books show color and field marks well, but a picture doesn’t convey the more important information. Probably the most useful characteristic for bird identification is size. Size matters. Female American goldfinches and evening grosbeaks look similar, but the grosbeak is twice the size. In Maine, there is just one tree creeper species, the brown creeper. In Costa Rica, there are 16, plus several similar species. Inevitably, the size difference is the first thing to notice.
Dividing birds into families is a quick identification shortcut. Perhaps you can’t yet tell the difference between a warbler and a vireo, but you can certainly tell a sparrow from a duck. Successful identification usually comes from whittling down all of the possibilities in the book until there is just one left. That process is made easier by another maxim: you are what you eat.
Seed-eaters have heavy bills, suitable for cracking hard shells. Insect-eaters have longer, thinner bills, suitable for snatching bugs. Raptors have hooked bills, suitable for tearing flesh. And so on. In Maine, sorting out the families isn’t all that hard, because we have a limited supply of food items: seeds, bugs, land-based and aquatic prey, a few other things. In the tropics, where fruit grows year round and everything blossoms, the banquet table has a lot more on it.
There are some really weird birds that specialize. How else can you explain a toucan? That long schnoz is perfect for chowing down on bananas and reaching into deep cavities for prey. In the tropics, there is a whole subset of birds that follow army ants, preying on whatever the ants flush. So here is another maxim: you are what you do.
The behavior of birds is a big clue. For instance, warblers and flycatchers in Maine both eat insects. But warblers tend to stay among the boughs, gleaning insects from leaves and branches. Flycatchers tend to perch in the open, flying out to snatch insects from the air. Swallows also snatch bugs in the air, but they typically forage during sustained flight. All eat insects, but each behaves differently. That leads to a fourth maxim: location matters.
Some birds feed in the treetops. Some forage mid-level in the canopy. Some search for food on the ground. In the tangled, vine-covered jungles, such clues are indispensable. It’s that way in Maine’s dense forests, too.
Size, shape, behavior, location: these are all identification clues that you’ll notice long before you review the colors and field marks presented in a book. They might be less important while gazing out the window at a feeder, but they are essential once you step beyond the backyard.
I’d be happy to explain all of this in person. Friday night, Feb. 14 at 7 p.m., join me at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden for a Costa Rica travelogue. I’ll show you adventure, scenery, and lots of bizarre birds, most of which I misidentified.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.