You’re never too old to learn about birds — and humility.
I just completed an online course from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, entitled “Be A Better Birder: Warbler Identification.” The Lab offers an extensive catalog of skill improvement webinars at Academy.AllAboutBirds.org. Some focus on birding basics. Others are appropriate for more experienced birders. There’s even a separate page of free learning games for kids.
I chose warblers as my first course, because I was curious to see if there was anything in the lesson I didn’t already know. Arrogant attitude, I realize. I opened the lesson and promptly misidentified the first bird I saw. If you repeat this to anyone, I’ll deny it.
I must say, it was the most comprehensive and complete review of warbler identification I’ve ever seen. That makes sense. In the past, our only learning tools were guidebooks and audio tapes, possibly augmented by bird walks with local experts. Most birders have never taken a single ornithology course. I was a government major, and learned nothing useful.
There are 51 warbler species breeding in the United States, if you count the yellow-breasted chat. The chat is no longer classified as a warbler, but it used to be, so Cornell threw it into this course. I’ve seen all but seven of the 51 warblers. Most of the seven breed in the southwest. Road trip anyone?
The course starts with the most basic identification question: what’s a warbler? Vireos, wrens, gnatcatchers and kinglets all resemble warblers, and it takes some effort to sort them out. Then, to identify the warblers, you need to know something about body parts and field marks.
One subtlety about Cornell’s presentation is particularly commendable. The curriculum uses common language as well as scientific terms in describing bird parts. For instance, the stripe above a bird’s eye is technically called a “supercilium,” but “eyebrow” also works, and the instructor uses both.
I sometimes give talks on identifying birds by sight and sound. My presentations share one key strategy with Cornell: we both rely on “divide and conquer.” One of the fastest ways to figure out what a bird is, is to figure out what it isn’t.
Birds throw off a whole bunch of identification clues. Color and markings are the primary hints, but habitat, behavior and range are also valuable. The course teaches how to use all these clues to divide birds into smaller and smaller piles, until there’s only one possibility left.
But wait. Male and female warblers of the same species often look different. Spring and fall warblers of different species can look the same. In Maine, confusing fall warblers in migration are a real pain in the derriere. Blackpolls and bay-breasted warblers are almost identical. You’ll learn that blackpolls have yellow feet. Bay-breasted warblers don’t.
One problem with guidebooks is that they typically present the bird in a perfect pose. In real life, the little twerps rarely sit quietly. They’re flitting around, obscured by leaves, overhead, with only their bellies on display.
The course takes great pains to present birds at all angles, then offers quizzes to hone your new skills. The quizzes are awesome. From them, I learned that I can not be trusted to tell apart northern and Louisiana waterthrushes. Epic fail.
This may be weird, but I did one thing most people probably wouldn’t do. I took the quizzes as fast as I could, treating them like flash cards. Nothing trains the eye to look for field marks better than being forced to do it in a split second.
The course is just as thorough in identifying bird songs, which come with their own set of quizzes. Because the instruction is so comprehensive, the curriculum takes hours to complete. It likely took me less time, because as a warbler expert, I can make a ton of embarrassing mistakes quicker than the average birder.
Altogether, there are 23 courses online. You can start at your own level, and go at your own pace. I think I’ll try the Sparrow Identification course next, or maybe Hawk Identification. I know my weaknesses.
Incidentally, the courses are on sale through the end of the year. Better, they can be given to others as a gift certificate. During the holidays, what do you get the birder who has everything? More of everything? Personally, I’ve got too much stuff already. These academy offerings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology might make the perfect gift, and you don’t even have to leave the couch to shop.