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Nature in it's glory

Nature in it's glory

Sep 9, 2010

Bird watching: Senses and abilities

Bird watching is truly a joy and a great learning adventure for many people.  Therefore, depending on how much you treasure your sightings and experience, you require certain tools and equipment, when you head out on a birdwatching adventure.  In my case a camera is a must, whereas many birdwatchers are content with binoculars.  A camera not only records the experience for me but also helps me to identify any new species that I have sighted.  All birdwatchers have other tools at their disposal however that don't require special handling, carrying or wearing, which add greatly their adventure.   These of course are our natural senses and abilities.

Flash of movement

A flash of color amongst an abundance of green and sudden movements caught in the corner of the eye, are all helpful for spotting birds.  Sight is the most obvious sense which we need for birdwatching, but hearing is equally important.   It is helpful to listen for any birdsong or vocalizations that are both familiar and unfamiliar to you.  Not only will listening to a bird's song or voice help you identify a species, but it will give you a direction you can follow in order to see that particular bird.  My first opportunity to view a Cooper's hawk, for example, came about because of it's vocalizations.  Over the course of several days, I kept going back to the place where I heard it's voice until I finally saw the Cooper's hawk itself.


Also listen for distress, or alarm calls from birds and Squirrels in the area.  Crows, for example, are great for letting you know when a large bird of prey is close by.  When this happens it is usually many crows whose voices suddenly rise up in communication and often you will soon see large numbers of crows harassing another bird in the sky.  Typically this will be a large hawk or an eagle, but it can also be a raven or an owl.


Squirrels serve the same purpose, although it's sometimes difficult to establish what has upset a Squirrel.  It could merely be your own presence that has caused it.   If many Squirrels are upset however, and still so even when you left the area they are guarding as their own, check out the tree tops and the branches, or tree trunks at mid-level and chances are good that you will see a predatory bird of some kind.

White-winged Crossbill

Listen for unusual sounds, such as tapping, rustling branches, things falling and even silence.  Tapping or rapping sounds can indicate the presence of a Woodpecker for example, or a  Blue Jays cracking open hazelnuts against a branch.  Things falling to the forest floor may be just squirrels dropping pine cones, but can also be White winged Crossbills  feeding in the treetops.  Rustling branches often indicate a startled bird or birds.  Sometimes you can also hear the wing beat of a bird, especially if it is of the larger variety.  I once spotted a Crow chasing a Merlin because I heard wing beats behind me.  Silence or the sudden absence of small birds can also indicate the presence of a raptor.  By using your hearing, you will not only soon learn to identify many birds by their song, both quickly and unconsciously, but will also be more successful in finding bird species to view.

Follow your instincts.  This one is a little more difficult to define, but for me, essentially this means that my unconscious is prompting me to act.  Whether you like taking pictures of birds or not, following your instincts is essential.  For instance, I have often seen birds and made an assumption about what I have seen, but taken the picture anyway, only to be surprised at what I had on camera when I got home.

Red-Tailed Hawk

On one occasion I just stood completely still on a foot path  without really knowing why and then for the same unknown reason looked to the right. There was a bird sitting quietly on a branch not fifteen feet away.  One that I had never seen before.  Another time I found myself following a certain sound to it's source, even though I thought I had identified that sound, and was completely startled by a Nuthatch.  Bird's do sometimes make unexpected sounds.  So if for some unknown reason you stop and focus on a specific bird, follow a certain path or sound, or look in a certain direction, without really knowing why be patient, you just might be pleasantly surprised.

Determination and patience are actually natural abilities that can be developed to improve your birdwatching experience.  Realize that when you only briefly glimpse a specific, or a new bird, you usually have the opportunity to see the same bird again depending of course on the season.  This might require several trips back to the general area where you saw it.  Trust me when I tell you it is well worth the feeling of triumph when you finally do.  Take my experience with the Northern Harrier for example, the only place that I saw one was near a golf course, and it actually took many trips back to the area and more than a year before I saw it again.

Hawk in the tree top
Moving carefully and slowly through the woods requires patience, but aids in increasing your chances of spotting birds.  Sometimes this means walking along one slow step at a time and even standing still for short periods.  More often than not, if you move too quickly, you will startle the birds and the result is that they are gone before you get a good look at them. 

Use your natural ability to learn.  That is, learn as much as you can about the different species of birds native to your area, as well as those in the area you will be exploring, including distinguishing physical characteristics or marks, their habitat, food preference and behavior.  There are many books available on bird species, and the internet is a very convenient and quick tool for digging up information on birds as well.  Carrying this information around in your head is very useful, as you will see once you happen across two birds that are very similar in appearance, or when you are deciding where to go on your birding adventures.



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