I wish I knew then what I know now. It took me decades to learn some of the bird identification tricks and secrets that I now use routinely. Maybe I should have paid more attention in class — that is, if I had actually taken a class.
Learning to identify birds can be easy or hard, depending on what you make of it. I suspect that many people are convinced they will never master it, and give up without trying. There’s good reason for that. The birds don’t make it easy. They’re sneaky, and they gang up on you.
The Maine Bird Records Committee — yes, there is such a thing — lists 470 species that call Maine home. That’s a daunting number, but relax. You’re not going to see many of them. Neither will I.
Some are one-time occurrences — birds that got lost and popped in for a surprise visit, only to promptly vanish. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife documents 292 species that occur in Maine regularly. You’re not going to see all of those, either.
It may seem like there are too many birds to learn. In reality, it’s a small enough number that almost anybody can manage it. Birds will try to make it complicated by choosing an endless variety of habits and habitats, often while trying to avoid you.
Fight back. Make it easy. Simplify. Many of the birds you encounter are birds you will see over and over. Start by learning to identify species around your home.
Wait. You already have. You know a whole bunch of backyard birds, including chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, blue jays, woodpeckers, mourning doves and others that frequent feeders. You know many birds that don’t come to feeders, such as robins and loons. You know more birds than you give yourself credit for.
Other birds hanging around your yard are just waiting to be identified. Can you recognize a red-eyed vireo? They are so plentiful, every neighborhood has them. And they sing a lot. They don’t come to feeders, so they might be overlooked, but they are literally everywhere. When they arrive in mid-May, find one and make friends.
Warblers are intimidating. There are about two dozen species nesting in Maine. They’re often colorful but small, often singing but hidden, many times in yards but rarely at feeders. Relax. Only about six of them are likely to be around your house. The others are in specialized habitats elsewhere. Get to know your neighbors, and the rest will get easier.
As another adage goes: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” You don’t have to learn all the birds at once. Learn the easy ones around you, then work your way up.
Practice the challenging pairs. Downy and hairy woodpeckers are similar, but the latter is bigger and has a longer bill. Practice distinguishing them, and it’ll get easier.
Other challenging but common pairs include purple finch and house finch, American crow and common raven, white-breasted nuthatch and red-breasted nuthatch, mallard and American black duck, herring gull and ring-billed gull.
More challenging and less common pairs are blue-winged teal and green-winged teal, snowy egret and great egret, ruby-crowned kinglet and golden-crowned kinglet, sharp-shinned hawk and Cooper’s hawk.
Some pairs are close to impossible to separate, such as the alder flycatcher and willow flycatcher, American crow and fish crow, Nelson’s sparrow and saltmarsh sparrow. In fact, don’t even try! Forget I mentioned these. Start easy and work your way up. Take as many years as you need, but start this year.
Practice family groups, such as sparrows, swallows and thrushes. In each case, you’re not trying to figure out which of 292 species your mystery bird is. You’re figuring out which one of six — a tiny bite of the elephant.
Start now. Winter is a good time to learn, because most of our summer birds are still in the tropics. Find any winter bird you don’t know, and get to know it.
Don’t be afraid to get help. The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon is already planning its annual series of May bird walks. Other chapters are planning likewise. Experienced birders gladly assist the beginners on every walk.
I hope my column helps, too. The birds are spinning off constant clues to their identities, beyond just visual clues. It took me a lifetime to learn their secrets. But now that I know, I’m willing to share.