Bird Identification for the Hyperactive American

Birds move too fast.

So do most of us.

Up until now, my naturalist streak has been limited to things that have roots. A flower stays put long enough to get a good, close look. A person can walk right up to it without scaring it away. (Well, it may be scared, but it can’t run.)

But birds require both stillness and swiftness. Unless the observer is motionless—not even walking slowly—her perspective will constantly change, eliminating a static background from which a moving creature might stand out. She who would notice birds must be still as a stone. But unless the observer is also quick at the draw, the bird will fly away before revealing its distinguishing marks. She who would know birds must be like a camera with a quick shutter.

I am neither still as a stone nor swift as a snapshot. Precisely the opposite: I move quickly and draw slowly. My typical birding excursion consists of me, wearing crinkly neon outerwear, stomping through the woods until I hear chirping. I fumble with my binoculars, look into the wrong end, cuss, cross my eyes until I remember the focus knob, and scan branches in nauseating circles until it’s obvious that the bird has long since flown. When I do catch a glimpse, I flip through the field guide, only to find six pages of birds that all look just like the one that used to be in that tree.

So, I suck. But I want to get better. Because learning the local creatures is a step toward being at home. In a nation of immigrants, bred to be conquerors on a rapidly changing planet, we’ve got to know our place: what is beneath our feet, who else is breathing the air, what’s growing where, what’s gone, what’s left over. Learning about our vast array of cohabitors acknowledges interdependence, and our proportional insignificance.

Also, on a wholly unphilosophical level: bird names are a riot. Bananaquit, bobolink, bufflehead—who named these things? Some carnival barker, proclaiming the attractions of the violaceous trogon, the olivaceous cormorant, the magnificent frigatebird? Some randy schoolkid, passing notes about bushtits, dickcissels and boobies? Some magician, incanting into being the long-billed dowitcher, the buff-collared nightjar, the flammulated owl?

Miraculously, I got a blurry photo of this violaceous trogon in Costa Rica.
Miraculously, I got a blurry photo of this violaceous trogon in Costa Rica.

But I want to know them better than an index of unforgettable names followed by unchecked boxes at the end of the field guide. How satisfying to match them to flying drops of indigo, curlique tophats, and outfits that simultaneously boast stripes, spots, chevrons and primary colors. (Surely drag queens and fashion designers have taken inspiration from the avian world.)

Will I succeed? Two things work in my favor. First is my theory that as I get older, especially if I lose some physical mobility along the way, I’ll compensate for what’s lost by reaping the harvest of stillness. This bounty shall include meditation, naps, total enlightenment… and unflappable (d’oh) bird identification skills. Second, I have a few pointers, gleaned through experience and advice. They’re nothing advanced, but they help me even now, pre-aged-paralytic nirvana:

1) Get a good bird book, like the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. If you stay in one part of the country, however, you might want a guide that focuses on a smaller region, so it’s lighter and easier to narrow down choices. And get some good binoculars. It’s rewarding to see a creature in detail, to feel close even when you are far away. Jot down where and when you see each bird, and a few characteristics, even if you don’t know what it is.

Demonstrating the correct use of binoculars.
Demonstrating the correct use of binoculars.

2) Practice sighting stuff that’s not moving much, if at all: a lazy squirrel, a fencepost. Look at the thing with your naked eye, and then, with an unbroken gaze, stick the binoculars in front of your face. Your aim should be right, and now it should just be a matter of focusing. You can move on to fluttering, swooping, and deviously hiding objects later.

3) Make friends with birdbrains. Some people willingly stand in frigid cold, sometimes also soaked and/or wiping falling snow off their lenses every twenty seconds, their eyes sparking with the predatory zeal of a hunter. After a day of stalking, they come home empty-handed, bedraggled, and happy. These are the people you want to hang out with (when the weather’s nice, anyway). They can familiarize you with some basic species. Once you know a few and can authoritatively say, “Hey, check out that cinnamon teal,” you’ll feel like less of a dope. These people can also tell you which end of a blurry shape is the beak end, and help you remember to take the lens caps off your binocs. But when you go with them, bring a book, in case you get bored before they do. (Hint: you will get bored before they do.)

Or you could just play with the cat.
Or you could just play with the cat.

And finally, 4) Let the birds come to you. Put a feeder or a caged lump of suet on a post in your backyard, or hang it from the eaves of your apartment. Then you can practice with house finches and robins and hummingbirds without even having to be fully clothed or fully awake. Great, right?

May the tyrant flycatcher, the noddy and the water pipit be yours for the sighting!

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