“How to identify birds using the clues in feathers, habitats, behaviors, and sounds.”
A friend of mine from Australia visited over Thanksgiving and brought with him not only a fancy pair of binoculars, but also a small field guide of birds local to my area and a passion to reach a life goal. I was skeptical at first, thinking to myself, “What a nerd”; but saying out loud, “I’ll drive you anywhere you want to go.” Yet the more I watched him get excited at the smallest movement in the trees and the more I heard him talk about how he only needed 8 more species sightings before his life-list spanning almost 30 years reached an even 1,000, the more transfixed I became over this old-man’s hobby.
Not long after my friend left (he didn’t reach his 1,000th sighting here, but later did when he visited the Philippines), I asked my wife to help order me the cheapest professional-grade binoculars, as well as a field guide listing over 1,400 of my nation’s birds. Knowing I couldn’t simply jump into birding as an amateur with no training, I decided to find as much help as I could. And that’s how I came across David Allen Sibley’s Sibley’s Birding Basics.
I was happy with the intro this book gave me into birding, though I found that even his intro got too tedious for a beginner like me, with all his detailed descriptions of feather-types and molting patterns, etc. What I wanted (and what I got early on) was how to spot a bird and differentiate it from the host of others who might look similar to it. Just yet, I don’t need the “Why?” as much as the “How?”
Sibley’s help in describing key points such as beak color and length, key pattern areas such as around the eyes and at the edges of wings, and key tricks such as size or color differentiation helped me begin pegging species in the field two weeks before I thought I would be ready. I had planned to spend one month in the field trying to spot and identify whatever birds I found, but I realized within two weeks that I was able to pick up on these tiny cues and peg many of the birds I saw. Thus far, only three weeks into my newfound birding adventure, I’ve sighted nineteen species in and around my city, the coolest of which is a type of cuckoo I guarantee I would never have seen had I not picked up this surprisingly addictive hobby.
I wish that Sibley had added a bit more to his chapter on birding etiquette, at least more than the measly 2-3 paragraphs he offered, but I guess that’s what the birding blogs are for. As birding basics go, though, Sibley’s has it all. I recommend it to the serious beginner.