Bird Watching for Beginners
by Bill Chestnut
Where to see Birds
We don’t need a bird hide at Inverawe. Our birds aren’t tame but they are not shy, either. We don’t feed the birds at Inverawe, they can do that for themselves but we do provide bird baths. Inverawe can get very dry in summer. We think that some of the guys with fur and whiskers drink from the bird baths at night, too. Away from Inverawe, your best chance of seeing birds is at a park at the edge of a bush area, where birds are used to seeing people.
You will need a field guide for birds in your area. Guides we like are:
- Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, by Pizzey and Knight, published by Harper Collins
- Field Guide to the Birds of Australia, by Simpson and Day, published by Penguin under the Viking imprint)
- Field Guide to Tasmanian Birds, by Dave Watts, published by Reed New Holland
Additionally, we couldn’t manage without The Australian Bird Calls Tasmania CD, recorded by David Stewart. This CD is the single most valuable source we have for identifying birds. Most birds have more than one call and learning these will let you form a mental map of all the bird activity swirling around you. Try: http://www.naturesound.com.au/cd_tasmania.htm for supply details.
You will also need a set of binoculars. Most serious bird watchers have a fairly high powered set but I use a small set that slips easily into my jacket pocket. Mostly I'm spotting birds when I am working on the property, so most of my bird spotting is done with the naked eye.
What to Wear
You are more likely to see birds if you dress in fairly quiet, loose fitting clothes. Shapeless browns and greys are ideal. Find a seat where the background helps obscure your shape and sit still and quiet. If you are still and quiet and not too obvious, the birds will resume their activities.
Time and Patience
Experienced bird watchers disappear at Inverawe for hours. You won’t see many birds in a quick visit. It takes time for the birds to adjust to your presence. You are more likely to see birds just after sunrise, and just before sunset. This is when birds are at their busiest, foraging.
Horses for Courses
Every bird species has its own environmental niche. If you want to see a particular bird you need to go somewhere that environment exists or create the environment on your own property as we have done at Inverawe. Some birds rarely leave the tree canopy, some hop around branches and tree trunks searching for insects under loose bark, whilst others like the grasslands.
Residents and Visitors
Some birds are regular residents. New Holland Honeyeaters are with us, every day of the year. Other birds are seasonal visitors. We see Robins in the autumn, rarely at other times. Green Rosellas turn up when certain plants are in flower. Some birds turn up, hang around for a while, and then disappear. White Goshawks and Little Falcons fit this category. Some birds visit just once – once we saw a Pacific Heron. It was around for a couple of days and then vanished, never to return. Other birds, like Wedge Tails and Sea Eagles, wander over an extended range of which Inverawe is only a part. As a bird watcher you need to be around at the right time. If you learn your regular residents, this will help you identify less common species. The Swamp Harrier is such a common sight at Inverawe that we judge other, less familiar raptors in comparison – larger than, smaller than, flatter wing dihedral and so on.
Having trouble identifying the bird?
- Start with size in relation to familiar birds. Use your field guide to check the size of the familiar bird. That will narrow down the field. If your bird looks smaller than a Sparrow you are looking for a bird less than 15 cm long, for instance
- Get an idea of general shape. All Gulls are Gull shaped, whatever their size and coloring, and a duck is a duck is a duck, unless it is a goose but ducks and geese are both members of the same family.
- Observe what the bird is doing. Is it nectar feeding, chasing insects on the wing, winkling insects out from under loose bark?
- Look also for coloration and pattern. Colour can vary from bird to bird (and immature birds are often quite different). Colour also depends on available light – the difference between dark shade and bright sunlight but colour pattern is more constant.
- Listen for the bird’s call, although picking a species from call requires some experience. You are more likely to hear a bush bird before you see it. I have heard the Golden Whistler many, many times but I have yet to see one.
- If the bird is on the wing, watch the flight pattern. Ducks flap their wings a lot, whilst honeyeaters have a jinking flight. Additionally, the size and shape of wing is distinctive. Duck wings are amidships and roughly triangular, whilst gull wings have a distintive double curve. With a little experience you can distinguish between various raptors, for example, by the wing shape and the angle of the wings in flight.
Most of all, keep bird watching. Identifying species can be very frustrating for beginners, as the bird in the field often just doesn’t seem to be in the guide. The good news is the more time you spend watching, the better you will get. Good luck!
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