For the Birds: Beginner to expert, do what suits you

Photo by Chris Bosak A blackpoll warbler eats berries in New England, November 2021.

Birdwatching can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it. I’ve said it before, but that is one of the things I like most about the hobby.

If you are content being able to identify a handful of birds, then that’s fine as long as you enjoy it. If you can’t sleep unless you know the species, age and sex of every bird you see, then that’s fine as well.

Most of us, including myself, fall somewhere in the middle. The middle, of course, is a pretty vast area. Knowing a robin, blue jay, cardinal and a few other species is in one area of the middle. Knowing your sparrows, shorebirds, gulls and ducks falls in another area of the middle.

Warblers are a good indicator of where you fall on the spectrum. Can you identify a handful of male warblers in the spring? Or, can you identify male, female and immature warblers in the spring and fall? Warblers are tricky that way. Similar to my overall knowledge of birds, my warbler skills fall somewhere in the middle.

I know most of the spring warblers, male and female, by sight and sound. By no means have I mastered them, but I do pretty well in the spring. The fall is another story. Obviously, I can identify the warblers that look the same, or very similar, in the fall as they do in the spring. I’ve never struggled to identify a male or female common yellowthroat in the fall. However, many warblers in the fall look nothing like their flashy spring selves. Plus, throw in the first-year birds and it adds greatly to the confusion.

I encountered this challenge a few weeks ago when I saw a small bird eating berries in a bush. I knew it was a warbler, but I didn’t know what kind. It didn’t look like any of the photos you see in a field guide.

I flipped through a few of my field guides and came up with some ideas but nothing that satisfied my inclination to get the right identification. So I did what I always do when I encounter such a challenge. I turned to my friends who are better birders than I am.

In this case, I asked Frank. I have been doing the Christmas Bird Count with Frank for about 20 years so I knew he wouldn’t mind a quick warbler question.

I sent him a photo of the bird. It is always helpful to have a photo. Whether the photo is good or bad, it is good to have. It won’t always positively identify the bird, but it often does. A photo is far better than a lengthy description of what the bird looks like.

In this case, the photo was pretty good, and Frank was able to identify it as a female or immature blackpoll warbler. The faint and splotchy yellow on the bird’s breast and belly, as well as the markings on the face and head, were the telltale descriptors.

To me, it is satisfying to be able to identify the birds you see, particularly if it takes a little research to do so. But I am never shy about asking for help. I would rather ask for help than live with the frustration and uncertainty of not knowing what I just saw.

Besides, I have no delusions of grandeur about my birding skills. Yes, my skills are good, I have lots of experience in the field, and I have a great enthusiasm for the hobby, but I am far from an expert. I am not going to be identifying any first-year Thayer’s X herring gulls any time soon. For the most part, I have found that birders are more than happy to help out another birdwatcher, whether it is identifying a bird or assisting in finding a bird.

Over the years, I have received many messages asking me to identify a bird. Usually I can tell right away what the bird is and reply immediately. Other times, however, the birds are tricky, and I turn to my more knowledgeable birding friends for help. I am always happy to receive and respond to such messages. If you are looking at something and you’re not sure what it is, feel free to snap a picture, regardless of quality, and send it along. I am happy to help and enjoy the challenge.

Happy birding everyone. As winter approaches, be ready for some different birds to show up. Will this be a good year for siskins, redpolls or grosbeaks? We will have to wait and see. Remember, if something shows up at your feeder, or if you see something in the field that stumps you and you’re dying to know what it is, reach out to someone who can help with the ID. If you’re content just enjoying the view, that’s fine too.

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