Kevin T. Karlson
Bird and Nature Photography

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Birding by Impression - Getting Started

Birding by impression starts with the basics of relative size, structure, behavior/body language, habitat use, general coloration and voice. These field characters show far less variability than plumage details, so they create a more reliable starting point for initial field identification. Many birds can be identified solely with the application of several of these concepts. Some extremely similar species require further study involving detailed analysis of plumage and structural characters, but these examples are few.

 The beauty and effectiveness of this approach lies in its simplicity. It doesn’t require knowledge of complicated feather anatomy or prior experience with birds, although the latter will eventually become a major part of the process. This simple technique will become second nature and part of your unconscious thought process after a period of time. Start by forming detailed impressions of birds in your own backyard, particularly in flight, and use these as benchmarks for sizing and comparing unfamiliar birds.

Birding by Impression works best if several basic field characters are noted. Don’t rely on just one concept to form your ID, but use all impressions to create a fast, accurate conclusion. Don’t be discouraged if results are not immediate. Practice is the key to success in all disciplines. I have given a number of workshops using this discipline at various national birding festivals over the last two years, with enthusiastic response from birders of all levels, especially beginners.

Listed below are a number of basic impressions to follow. The first three are the most important to determine initially, with the rest following in random order.

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SIZE: This is the first and often most important feature to determine. Use other familiar birds seen in the area to help with your conclusion, or nearby inanimate objects, such as soda cans or bottles. Some helpful questions to ask might be: Is it as large as a Robin, or as small as a sparrow? A close size estimate will eliminate many possible choices.

SHAPE AND STRUCTURE: These closely related terms are very important to your initial ID impressions. For our purposes, shape represents overall body configuration while structure includes individual features such as bill shape and length, leg length and  wing to tail comparison.  Try to look at each bird with an artist’s eye, and create a mental sketch of its outline. Rather than confusing ornithological terms, your impression might include the descriptions “fat and dumpy with a short, stubby bill”, or “slim and tapered with medium-length, dark legs”. With practice, these first two impressions will often narrow your choices to several, or even one, species.

BEHAVIOR/BODY LANGUAGE: The way a bird feeds, flies or walks may be helpful to your overall ID picture. Note a bird’s movements over a period of time, or the manner of flight in short duration. For example, does a shorebird feed sewing machine fashion by probing in one location, or does it move constantly while picking at the surface? Does a raptor fly straight from wood line to wood line, or fly over open spaces with periodic buoyant movements?  Sometimes a particular behavior is not helpful, especially if a bird is out of place in migration. Many birds are typically found in large flocks outside the breeding season, such as Dunlin, Red Knots, Starlings, blackbirds, grackles and White Pelicans. This can be helpful when distant flocks are seen.

HABITAT USE: The habitat a bird uses to feed or just plain hang out in may be helpful to your ID. Some birds are rarely found away from certain habitats, such as Sanderlings along open beachfronts, Reddish Egrets in salt or brackish coastal locations, and Pine and Cape May Warblers feeding in coniferous trees. Note the habitat a bird is using, and add it to your overall impression.

OVERALL COLORATION: The general coloration of a bird is important to your first impression. Instead of analyzing individual feathers, note the overall color or combination of colors.

COMPARISONS TO NEARBY BIRDS: Direct comparison with nearby birds helps determine size, especially if you are familiar with the nearby birds. This impression is not listed in order of importance here, since direct comparison with very similar appearing species is the best way to pinpoint subtle differences. In our new shorebird guide, we point out previously unreported structural field marks that are helpful to separate both dowitchers, Eastern from Western Willet and Western from Semipalmated Sandpiper in all plumages.

VOCALIZATIONS: The songs or calls that a bird gives, particularly in flight, are often diagnostic by themselves to a bird’s ID. When in doubt, jot down the best description of a call note or song, and compare it to your possible choices in a field guide.  

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