How to Really Learn the Birds

Anyone who has never witnessed the migratory passage of Western Tanagers through the parks and gardens of the Northern San Joaquin Valley is missing one of our grander local spectacles.

Male Western Tanagers have brilliant, flame-colored faces atop a bright yellow body cloaked in handsome black wings. Though stunning, they are easy to overlook as they pass through only during spring and fall migration. Nonetheless, with a little practice, almost anyone can learn to enjoy this spectacular bird, as well as many other avian beauties.

The key to enjoying local bird life lies in narrowing your focus. The Northern San Joaquin Valley hosts over three-hundred bird species. It’s a daunting task to learn them all; fortunately, one need not learn even half the birds to enjoy our winged friends. Learning the birds can be simplified by following one rule: Learn the common birds around you.

Learning the common birds involves understanding bird distribution and status. Distribution just means where and status means when. For example, some birds are found more often in parks and gardens, others in ponds and wetlands. That’s the “where” of the equation. “Status” refers to whether the birds are migrants, year-round residents, winter visitors, common, uncommon or rare. Focusing on the common birds around you enables you to learn the birds much faster and builds a base of knowledge you can use to learn even more birds.

To find out the status and distribution of birds in your area you need a checklist of local birds. The Stanislaus Audubon Society has a checklist of Stanislaus and Merced County birds here. Most checklists indicate rare birds with an asterisk; these birds can be eliminated from your target list.

You’ll also need a good field guide, one that includes range maps. The range maps indicate where and when the birds occur. They will give you a good idea of the status of the birds in your area. Merced and Stanislaus County residents will soon have Stanislaus Audubon’s new local guide, which will not only show the status of local birds with a bar graph, but will also include places to go.

Once equipped with a checklist and field guide, you should have a pair of binoculars. While not absolutely essential, binoculars enhance the experience of seeing birds. Close-up views reveal how beautiful the birds really are and also enable the viewer to focus on important field marks.

Field marks are characteristics that help identify birds. For example, the Black Phoebe, a common bird in the Northern San Joaquin Valley, has a black hood and vest with a white lower belly. These features are best seen with binoculars, though binoculars aren’t essential. The male Wood Duck, another common bird, is easily identified by his colorful plumage, but binoculars reveal stunning subtle detail and make viewing the bird more rewarding.

In the 1930’s, Roger Tory Peterson almost single-handedly popularized bird watching by authoring field guides that featured the Peterson Method for identifying birds. The Peterson Method simplifies bird identification by focusing on the one or two key field marks that distinguish one species from another. While not the only way to learn the birds, the Peterson Method can expedite learning, especially for beginners. It’s easy to learn the Peterson Method even from one of Peterson’s older field guides; many are available cheap.

Once equipped with a local checklist and field guide, remember to use the Target Method to learn the birds. The Target Method simply means that one goes out looking for a particular bird or birds. For example, most Valley residents know the Scrub Jay, but not by its proper name. They call it the “Blue Jay.” The beginning birder can study the differences between the “Blue Jay,” a common resident of the east, and our own Scrub Jay, and then go out and confirm the common Blue Jay by its field marks.

Using the Target Method enables you to avoid one of the beginning birder’s common mistakes, leafing frantically through a bird book while in the field. This behavior causes two problems. One, it takes the birder’s eye off the bird. Two, it produces frustration when you realize how many different species and plumages are represented in the typical field guide. The sum of these problems is usually a mistaken ID, or a quick exit from birding.

Once you’ve targeted and identified a few birds, you begin to recognize the various groups of birds: sparrows, finches, jays, blackbirds, wrens, doves, etc. Recognizing the group, or “taxon,” enables you to find birds much easier in the field guide, where they are arranged in taxonomic order. Just remember, the rule is, “When in the field, keep your eyes on the bird, not in the guide.” Study the bird closely, take notes when possible, or even a photograph. Use the guide once the bird has flown (and they always do, some too soon).

The best way to begin with the Target Method is to search for a familiar bird, say the aforementioned Scrub Jay (or a Mourning Dove), locate it, confirm the field marks, and put it on your checklist of birds. Keeping a checklist helps the learning process.

After practicing the method, begin searching for birds you don’t know. Here’s a list of year-round residents, easily found in many of our parks and gardens: Black Phoebe, American Robin, Northern Mockingbird, Oak Titmouse, Nuttall’s Woodpecker, Anna’s Hummingbird, Rufous-sided Towhee, Red-Shouldered Hawk. Once you’ve learned to find a targeted bird, begin practicing the finer points of bird identification. For example, learn to tell the difference between the American Goldfinch and the Lesser Goldfinch.

You’ll soon find that you can easily recognize twenty or thirty local birds. And you’ll look forward to the changing seasons when fall brings winter residents, including White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows. You may even begin to look forward to targeting a migrating Western Tanager next migration.


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