Birds Are Wildlife
3 Ways To Identify Birds With No Field Marks
I turn the calendar to May to find myself presented with a photograph of a Zitting Cisticola. Well! If there was ever a bird that was a generic bird, it’s the Zitting Cisticola.
Unless it’s the Chiffchaff. Or the Acadian Flycatcher. Or the Warbling Vireo.
Don’t even pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Those birds that you’re standing there, and you’re looking at the bird, and it’s looking at you, and you haven’t got a clue.
Those birds for whom the nickname LBJ — Little Brown Job — was created.
Without field marks, many birders don’t even know where to begin. But, let’s face it, sometimes field marks let you down. Get in the habit of looking and listening beyond the field marks, and you will take a great leap ahead in your ability to identify more birds.
Listen to the song
Very similar species are often easiest to separate by voice.
Both American Crow and Fish Crow use my yard in southeastern Louisiana. How much fun would it be trying to distinguish those two if they weren’t so talkative? The American Crow full of swaggering self-assertion. The Fish Crow a compulsive naysayer always ready to chime in with a skeptical, “Nuh-uh.”
We think of them as easy birds because they’re so vocal. If they were silent, they’d be trouble.
The headache-inducing Empidonax genus is another good example. Where I live, Acadian Flycatcher is our breeding species. But we’ve got a variety of look-alike migrants.
You can tear your hair studying their plumage. Or you can learn and listen to their calls. The Acadian Flycatcher has a distinctive two-noted song, which I always hear as an imperious demand for pizza. The Least Flycatcher has a more abrupt song, almost a single syllable to my ear.
Some species were actually discovered because they have different songs. Until the 1970s, the Willow and Alder Flycatcher were considered a single species, Traill’s Flycatcher. Genetic tests later proved what the different songs suggested — they are two separate species.
Alder Flycatcher is said to call, “Free beer,” while Willow is said to be calling, “Fitzhew.” Some of the popular North American mnemonics were collected in a handy-dandy list.
Personally, I hear the Alder saying something that involves three syllables, while the Willow does more of a modified wolf-whistle. But feel free to describe the calls to yourself anyway you like, as long as it helps you remember what they sound like.
Want a library of bird songs at your fingertips? I’ve been using the Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. There are “bird packs” for many regions. I’ve personally tested it in the US Southeast, Mexico, Belize, and Panama as far south as Darien, but you can get coverage of a great many other regions.
Look at the bird’s proportions
Sometimes birds lack field marks because you can’t see them. A distant bird in flight on a bright day is a silhouette. Perhaps that’s why counters at hawk watch sites were among the first to develop identification techniques based on the shape and proportions of the bird.
If all you see is the silhouette of a flying bird, it’s easy to remember to look at the shape. That’s all you’ve got. But shape can also provide useful clues for identifying perched birds.
For example. Where they’re both in range, a new birder might confuse juvenile Turkey Vultures and Lesser Yellow-Headed Vultures. Juvenile Turkeys lack the red heads of the adults. Juvenile Lesser Yellow-Heads lack the eponymous yellow heads.
So you’ve got two big browny-black vultures with gray heads. Can you name that tune in one note?
Actually, you can. Wing/tail proportions distinguish the perched birds at a glance. Lesser Yellow-Head’s wingtips extend well beyond the tip of the tail. Turkey Vultures have shorter wings in proportion to their bodies, so the wingtips don’t go beyond the tail.
Another example is Plumbeous Kite versus Mississippi Kite. You can see the problem in the paired photographs below.
True, an adult Plumbeous flying overhead couldn’t be easier to identify. The primary feathers show a beautiful patch of red. But we don’t wish to startle perched birds for no better reason than to name them. Besides, they’re often perched high enough that they ignore us petty humans anyway.
Again, no worries. The very long wings of the Plumbeous Kite — so long they look a bit silly to me peeping out from beneath the tail — are a dead giveaway. The wings of the Mississippi Kite are nowhere near as long.
Whenever you have two very similar birds that confuse you, it’s worth checking around to see if they have subtle (or even obvious) differences in their proportions.
Look at what the bird is doing
My third suggestion will rarely get you to species level. However, it will very often help you eliminate possibilities and get you down to genus level.
As a new birder, or a birder in a new area, we’ve all been faced with the problem of not even knowing where to begin to look in our guide. That’s a great time to stop looking at the book and start looking at the behavior.
An example. I’m at a western lake crowded with various waterfowl and shorebirds doing various waterfowl-y and shorebird-y sorts of things.
One companion calls them all ducks. If he was on his own, he’d be here for a while.
Another says, “Look, there’s a bubble popper!” Now we’re talking. There’s one group of birds that spins around like a top to create a whirlpool to help stir up their prey — the phalaropes.
Once we know what section of the book to open, the field marks we see in the glass are actually useful.
And, sometimes, the behavior is the field mark. The Cloud Cisticola is a grassland bird of southern Africa related to the Zitting Cisticola that inspired this article. Honestly? To look at, it’s a bird.
In Marievale Bird Sanctuary near Johannesburg, South Africa, the guide nudged my arm. “Watch this.”
Suddenly, a small dot rocketed “a thousand meters into the sky,” let loose a burst of song, and then dived straight down. There were no field marks — this bottle rocket of a bird was too fast, too distant, and too dark against the bright day. The display flight was all.
Just like that, the Cloud Cisticola went from meh to unforgettable. Even if you never see the details of the plumage, you’ll always remember the spirit of a bird that flew so high to release its song.
May 8 is Global Big Day. If you’re new to birding or to big days, feel free to give some of these tips a try. Even if you’re not a competitive lister, learning to identify birds faster gives you a better shot at naming your bird before it takes off.