Birding Tips: Tricky Birds to Identify

By now you’ve all surely read my 6 previous blog posts, and therefore you now qualify as experienced birders. But if you want to achieve black belt birding status like I have (as in karate, a birder’s experience level is indicated by the color of their binocular strap, which birders call a “belt”; as you can see from my selfies, my binocular belt is black) then you need to really study your birds closely! You may think you can tell every bird apart, but then it turns out what you thought was a type of pigeon was actually a type of dove, or maybe what you thought was a real owl may just be a plastic owl used to decorate rooftops. A lot of birds can be tricky like this, so if you want the respect of other birders and birds alike, then you’ve got to know how to identify even the most trickiest! So I’ve devised this handy set of tips for how to tell ‘em all apart:

Shorebirds: I consider shorebirds to be one of the most difficult groups of birds to identify, so I’ll get them out of the way first. If it’s a fairly nondescript grayish-brown little thing with a long, thin, & sometimes curved bill: it’s a sandpiper. If it doesn’t really fit that description, like for instance if it has any dark feathers on it: then it’s a plover. If it’s a Killdeer: that, too, is a plover!

Hawks: Throughout the ‘Burgh and the rest of the world in general, the most common type of hawk is the Redtail Hawk. In fact, 99 times out of 100, you’ll look up at a hawk only to see that it’s just another stupid Redtail. Therefore, I typically rely on this ratio, and only bother to look at about 1% of the hawks I ever see. (Look, I’ll admit I’m a little unfairly prejudiced against hawks, but I just don’t like them, okay? Some of them eat other birds, so I just can’t get over that.)

I’ve never been interested enough to take a picture of a hawk, so here is a photograph of the type of habitat in which you might look up and see yet another Redtail.

I’ve never been interested enough to take a picture of a hawk, so here is a photograph of the type of habitat in which you might look up and see yet another Redtail.

Sparrows: Is it singing? Always remember that there’s a bird called the Song Sparrow, and then you’ll be able to effortlessly identify the sparrows you hear singing. White-throated Sparrows (or White-crowned Sparrows, as the ones without white throats are called) often hide deep within the bushes, so if you see a little brown bird in thick vegetation, it’s probably a White-throated Sparrow, so you don’t really need to try and look at it. House Sparrows are only found around houses (as are House Finches, but those are finches, so they do not belong in a discussion about sparrows). Henslow’s Sparrows are awful little pests.

Seagulls: Seagull identification is tough! Some of them have black heads, some of them don’t. At this point in my training, I can pretty easily tell if a seagull has a black head or not, and even sometimes if it used to have a black head before “molting” it away, because they often still have a little black up there. However, even then I’m rarely able to narrow them down to species, so in that case I think it’s best to just play it safe and simply check the box for “Black-headed Gull” on eBird reports. As for seagulls with white heads, we only have one kind here in Pittsburgh, but they only ever hang out around the Highland Park Bridge, and one time I swerved my car into the side of the bridge while trying to identify them, so I cannot recommend going for those birds. The golden rule of birding is that sometimes you just have to leave birds unidentified. (Unless you’re basically pretty sure you know what you saw.)

Seagulls accumulate in numbers up to the millions, and even then it’s nearly impossible to tell any of them apart, they all just look like a bunch of seagulls. I mean, I can’t tell the difference between any of these ones, can you?

Seagulls accumulate in numbers up to the millions, and even then it’s nearly impossible to tell any of them apart, they all just look like a bunch of seagulls. I mean, I can’t tell the difference between any of these ones, can you?

Flycatchers/gnatcatchers: This type of identification requires you to look not at the bird itself, but rather what the bird is eating. A trick here is: gnats are usually too small to be seen even through binoculars, so if you see a bird go after something but can’t see what it is, then that bird is probably a gnatcatcher.

Blackbirds: Crows are the most common blackbird on earth. Why, you might see them in any type of habitat, even the Arctic Tundra! So that means most blackbirds you see are going to be crows, which is boring. If it’s a blackbird with red wings, it’s a Red-winged Blackbird, ya dope! (You may think cardinals fit this description, but you have to admit that little black patch on their face is hardly enough to call them blackbirds, don’t you?) Grackles may have tails that look like a boat (Boat-tailed Grackle), pretty great tails (Great-tailed Grackle), or tails that just look like other common birds’ tails (Common-tailed Grackle). For some reason Sibley misidentifies orioles as being in the blackbird family, but any amateur can even see that they’re orange!

Here’s a picture of some American Crows flying over the ‘Burgh in early February. You can tell these are crows and not grackles because grackles aren’t really around here this time of year, although sometimes they are. (In which case: use caution!!!)

Here’s a picture of some American Crows flying over the ‘Burgh in early February. You can tell these are crows and not grackles because grackles aren’t really around here this time of year, although sometimes they are. (In which case: use caution!!!)

Turkeys: Male Wild Turkeys have a gross dangly thing on their face, while females do not. Don’t let this fool you though: they are the same species.

Warblers: You’re on your own with this one, too many of ‘em!!! Just kiddin’, I’ll help ya out! A lot of warblers just look like how they are named: Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Orange-crowned Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler. Others don’t really look like their names at all: Ovenbird, Kentucky Warbler, Yellow Warbler (should be called Yellow-with-a-little-red Warbler to distinguish from the many other yellow warblers), Cedar Waxwing. ALL warblers usually stay up too high in the treetops to really be seen, so I advise only counting them, then putting that number next to “warbler sp.” (which stands for “warbler spotted”) on eBird lists.

Kinglets: One of them has a ruby crown (Ruby-crowned Kinglet). The other: a golden crown (Golden-crowned Kinglet). It’s really that simple!

Kinglets are too small and fidgety for me to take a photograph of, because I like to put a lot of time and effort into setting up my shots just right, with the lighting and backdrop and such. But luckily I already have a framed picture of one with a golden crown (a Golden-crowned Kinglet) on my wall, which is a decent photograph taken by some other birder whose name I unfortunately can’t remember right now.

Kinglets are too small and fidgety for me to photograph, because I like to put a lot of time and effort into setting up my shots just right, with the lighting and backdrop and such. But luckily I already have a framed picture of one with a golden crown (a Golden-crowned Kinglet) on my wall, which is a pretty decent photograph taken by some other birder whose name I unfortunately can’t remember right now.

Okay, that’s all there is to know! Now I think you’re ready to hit the woods and identify all these tricky birds on your own! Good luck!!!

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3 Responses to Birding Tips: Tricky Birds to Identify

  1. HDAWG says:

    You’ve just demystified all my troubles with hawks and blackbirds! You’re such a honorable birder!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Squidtea says:

    My friend and I have a super hard time with warblers, but they usually turn out to be Palm Warblers so that’s what we say if we see one, though when we look through our pictures later they turn out to be Yellow-Rumped… Stupid tiny birds! 🙂

    Like

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