You’re going to think I’m crazy. During your bird walks this spring, leave the guide book in the car.
Migrants are already trickling back into Maine. This is the weekend when early warblers arrive, including pine, palm and yellow-rumped. Any minute, I will hear my first ruby-crowned kinglet. Soon the trickle of birds will become a torrent, overwhelming new birders just learning their craft. It’s daunting to learn how to identify new birds when there are suddenly so many of them.
I’m told that a good writer writes about what he or she knows. I know all about making mistakes. I’ve made them all. If there was one mistake I made more than any other, it was this: when I was learning to identify a bird, I would do it with book in hand. More times than I can count, I would be looking through the pictures when I should have been looking at the bird. Too often, I would look up from the pages to find it gone. Worse, even if I did match up the bird with its picture, I wouldn’t remember it the next time, since I wasn’t forced to remember it this time.
“The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America” describes 49 warblers. Each description is accompanied by at least three illustrations. That’s enough to flummox most experts. So leave it in the car. That’s right, the fastest way to learn is to look at the bird, not the book. Every bird has field marks that help establish its identity. These fall into helpful categories. Experienced birders look for these field marks without even thinking.
When you see a bird, immediately ask yourself these questions: What color is the breast? Is it streaked? What color is the throat? Does it have wing bars? What is the pattern around the eye? Does it have a mask? An eye ring? An eyebrow? What is the bill like? Is it thick and heavy for eating seeds, or is it slim and pointed for catching insects? Is there a tail pattern? Some birds have white outer tail feathers. Most hawks have barred tail patterns, but mature red-tails are plain.
Remember as much as you can. Write down notes. Finish your walk.
Then you can look at the book. You’ve got enough information to whittle those 49 warblers down to just a handful of candidates. Each field mark you remember will help eliminate half of the possibilities. Just one field mark will reduce the 49 possibilities down to 24. A second field mark will get you down to 12. If you can remember a third, you’re down to just six. Of those six, the odds are good that some of them aren’t in Maine, so you can toss those out of the betting pool.
Try it. Go through your favorite field guide, and count the number of warblers with wing bars. Count the number of warblers with wing bars and black throats. It doesn’t take long to be sure you’ve seen a black-throated green warbler. A white eye-ring and no wing bars? Hey, it’s a Nashville warbler.
Let’s say you see a warbler with absolutely no field marks. It’s uniformly dull green, with no wing bars, no tail markings and not much pattern around the eye. That’s how I know I’ve seen a rare orange-crowned warbler wandering into the state from the northwest. At a distance, the bird is utterly without field marks. Even the lack of field marks is a field mark.
Leaving the book in the car forces you to remember what you saw. This builds character. All of my life I’ve been forced to do what’s good for me. If you can remember the field marks long enough to finish your walk and get back to the car, the odds increase exponentially that you will remember the field marks next time.
Taking note of multiple field marks also saves your bacon. Later in summer, female and immature black-throated green warblers aren’t black-throated. All the other field marks remain the same. When sorting out plumages on a winter trip to Florida, it’s helpful to know that in the offseason, a spotted sandpiper isn’t spotted.
I follow my own advice. Even when I go to a new and distant place, I leave the book in the car. When I think I may be seeing a much-coveted lifer, there is nothing that better focuses my attention on it than the desperation of knowing I don’t have a safety net.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at email@example.com.