Oh, how I envy novice birders. They have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of new birds to discover. Their future is full of “oh wow” moments, as when a Baltimore oriole or scarlet tanager is seen for the first time. There are so many new birds waiting to be identified, and all of them close to home.
Alas, I have exhausted that inexhaustible supply. I am so familiar with our Maine birds that I often don’t even bother to look when I hear a good one. For me, finding new birds means expending frequent flyer miles. I used up a bunch this month, leaping at the chance to join a Maine Audubon tour of Costa Rica.
For 10 glorious days, I got to feel like a novice again. There were multitudes of birds I’d never seen before, or even imagined. Costa Rica is smaller than Maine, yet it has more birds than all of North America put together. Maine has one hummingbird species. Costa Rica has 50. During much of the tour, I was totally clueless. It felt great.
The experience of cluelessness tested the identification advice I’ve given you over the years. I spent much of the tour trying to figure out what I was doing right and analyzing what I was doing dead wrong. As it turns out, the skills necessary to identify a bird at your feeder are not much different than those needed in a Central American jungle, except for the need to avoid deadly snakes.
A common mistake for inexperienced birders is too much reliance on the field guide. Books show color and field marks well, but a picture doesn’t convey the more important information. Probably the most useful characteristic for bird identification is size. Size matters. Female American goldfinches and evening grosbeaks look similar, but the grosbeak is twice the size. In Maine, there is just one tree creeper species, the brown creeper. In Costa Rica, there are 16, plus several similar species. Inevitably, the size difference is the first thing to notice.