Is your first glimpse of this owl correct? Is it a Great
Horned or Long Eared? See answer at end of article.
It may sound like a simple notion but identifying birds
can be a complex vocation making it a worthy
endeavor to folks searching for a fascinating, highly
rewarding hobby. Advanced birders understand the
variation in appearance of birds caused by molt, sex,
geography, morphing, wear and fading. Migration and
breeding cycles present additional challenges.
Accomplished ornithologist David Sibley offers help in
his expert guides made available through the National
Audubon Society. There are 487 species of birds in
Colorado alone. They offer a lifetime treasure hunt.
1. Look at the Bird.
Stay with the bird as long as possible studying
everything about it. Avoid reaching for your field guide
at the first glimpse. Soak in such things as facial
markings, bill size, and what the bird does. Fumbling
through pages to early will waste a lot of cognitive
quality time while your subject might disappear and
not seen again the entire day.
2. Practice seeing details.
As you spend time observing, sort out details such as
the plumage pattern. Is it molting? Is it a juvenile? Is it
the breeding season? In each of these cases your
bird may have a completely different color scheme.
Studying and understanding how these patterns work
at close range will help tremendously when seeing
birds at greater distances. Some birds will require you
to acquire multiple field marks to narrow the field of
possible suspects. Eye rings, wing bars, hoods,
breast spots, streaks, no streaks, eye stripes, eye
brows, crowns, are just some of the attributes that
may give you success.
3. Recognize patterns and shapes
As you gain experience you will notice the behavioral
patterns of various species and learn they are quite
predictable case by case. Posture, Head bobs, tail
flitting, and even hovering combined with size and
shape can give away the identity of a bird otherwise
silhouetted, in poor light, or too far away to positively
4. Study habits.
Knowing and anticipating the behavior of a subject
bird will give you supporting evidence that your
identification is indeed correct. The rarer the bird the
more you will need to know this attribute. An active
bird is almost assuredly looking for food.
Understanding how a particular bird forages will help
nail down your choices. For example Brown Creepers
move up the trunk of a tree while Nut Hatches without
the benefit of a long tail move down the trunk while
searching for grub under bark.
5. Know the habitat.
Since almost all the bird's actions are directed in
finding food, knowing the habitat that supports its diet
will help clear the air in what you are looking for. On
top of Conifer Mountain at 10,000 feet above sea level
you are not sifting thru all 487 possible Colorado
species in Sibley's Field Guide while gazing at that
6. Meet other birders.
Perhaps your best source of information is other local
birders who have walked the walk & talked the talk.
Local chapters of the Audubon Society, bird clubs, or
of course us hear at The Front Range Birding.
Did you get our owl ID correct? It is a Long Eared owl
seen in the Rocky Mountain Arsenal during the 2004
Chrismas Bird Count. Join us this December for the
2008 count. Call FRBC for details. The CBC is a great
way to meet other birders and broaden your
knowledge of birds.