The recent extraordinary growth in
popularity of Birdwatching as a hobby and the wave of interest in
exploring, protecting and learning about the environment seem to be
symptoms of a single desire: to become part of the natural world. I would
like this involvement and participation in Birdwatching to be
un-intimidating and easy, so with Elbert's help I have put together a few
thoughts and helpful hints that might gently introduce the novice or even
the complete idiot to the Avian world.
We will begin by clarifying what a
Birdwatcher is...already it gets confusing! There are a few terms we
should define first.
ORNITHOLOGIST- It simply means a person who studies birds, a term usually
reserved to describe those serious scientific types that have some sort
of degree in the subject and thus a rightful claim to moral superiority.
BIRDWATCHER - Well, I hope you can get this one without much explanation,
just a person who watches birds. Beginning or experienced, usually they
own some binoculars, a field guide, know where to find a Roadside hawk,
and keep a list of sightings. Today the connotation of birdwatcher is not
hip and although it's an accurate and descriptive title, there are just
too many to constitute an elite.
BIRDER - As you may have already guessed, the hip, elite and seriously
involved in identifying and collecting listings. Example: If you are a
"birder" you don't go birdwatching, you go "birding" to adventurous
TWITCHER - This list wouldn't be complete without listing the "Twitcher".
Bill Oddie, in his famous "Little Black Bird Book" defines it as,
"Someone who is obsessed with ėTicks' (British for "mark it off your
list"), races around the country chasing rare birds, uses all the correct
terms and marks off the list as he goes."
Now that you know the players, let's take a look
at EQUIPMENT and CLOTHING. You will need: binoculars, an old hat, a field
guide to bird identification, a rain poncho, insect repellent, a notebook
and pen, a water bottle, a camera and film and sun screen.
Think you're ready? Not quite...what are we looking
at? You think that's a trick question, don't you? Birders are identifying
birds! This seems to be the largest most important subject-what is it?
Identifying a bird correctly isn't easy. It's best to
start by putting it in an order, which brings us to "Taxonomy". Taxonomy
is simply categorizing the bird in related groups. It's done with Latin
names. The groups start with the largest group to the smallest
individual. This is how it goes: Kingdom - whether it's a plant or an
animal; Class - in this case, Avian (things that have feathers); Order -
there are 34 orders that make up the big groups, for example, Herons,
Hummingbirds, Owls, etc.; Family - medium-size groups within the big
groups; Genus - a small group of closely related species; Species - the
smallest division. It's best to think of species as a population;
Subspecies - simply stated-a race!
Birders seem to only be concerned with the last three.
You would record, for example, Caracara c.
cachinnans (the Laughing falcon). Don't worry, it's all
there in the field guide.
Ah yes, the field guide, a book of color pictures,
names all in order and you'd think that would make it easy. There is your
bird sitting on the telephone wire patiently waiting while you look it
up, correctly identify it and record it in your notebook. You have the
binoculars focused in on it, but it just doesn't look like the
illustration. Your problem could be another favorite topic of a true
Birdwatcher, Molting and Plumage. When it doesn't look like the photo in
the field guide, it can usually be blamed on the fact that birds change
feathers for the occasion. Feathers are different patterns and colors at
different stages of their lives for a variety of reasons. "Immature" is
one of the most common reasons you may not find it easily identifiable.
For example, the little Blue Heron is white for its first year until it
goes into its breeding season. Molting is the process by which birds
change their plumage. Old feathers simply don't fly a bird as well as new
feathers, neither do they attract the opposite sex. So migration and
breeding are the two major reasons to molt. Plumage is used to describe
what one might call your wardrobe "summer plumage, winter plumage,
breeding plumage," all different looks of the same species.
Now before you go out into the world thinking you're keen on
birds, let's arm ourselves with a vocabulary and take a look at some
terms you'll need to use. Birders use words you won't find in spell
check. "Ish" is used to describe something that's not quite what it is,
for example, blue-ish, red-ish, dark-ish. This gives you a lot of
latitude to cover a mistaken ID. Eyeshine is the color reaction to a
bird's eyes when they have a light shined on them at night, for example,
blue eyeshine or green eyeshine. Topknot, as you might guess, is the
strange thing on the top of the bird's head. Understory is the place
where you might find a jungle bird, in the "understory" of the trees.
Rufus is a color, sort of red-ish rusty-brown and surprisingly most birds
have something you could describe as rufus. Use it a lot.
So, what have we learned? Even you can be
a Birdwatcher. You're not an ornithologist; don't twitch, be prepared,
keep a list of birds you identify, and don't ever take yourself too