Birding Basics

Birding Basics:

WoodpeckerBirding is frequently cited as the largest outdoor activity by number of participants in the United Sates.  This number is so large because it includes everyone from people who simply have a bird feeder to those individuals who spend thousands of dollars chasing rarities across the country.  If you are interested in enjoying the birds present in McHenry County, below is a listing of activities that can help you get started.  It can be quite overwhelming at first, so plan to learn just a little bit on each outing.  You will be surprised at how much you will see and experience in a short while. 

1. How to Find Birds:

Birds can be found anywhere, but you will quickly learn that recognizing good habitat will make finding them much easier.  Birds can be very specific to certain habitat types. So a hike with a variety of habitats frequently works well.  Check out the McHenry County Birding Guide (link here) or the Habitats of McHenry County (link here) for some good starting places.  You can also join one of our field trips (link here) since the best habitats are targeted for our activities.

Birds can be active any time of day or night, but your chances of seeing them increase near dusk and dawn. It can be tough to roll out of bed for a 6 a.m. hike, but you will quickly notice that there is a lot more bird activity at that time.  An early start is also the best way to beat the heat in the summer.

Bird feeders will attract some, but not all bird species to your yard.  The best thing about them is that you can place the feeder where you can best view the birds, and have the birds come to you.

a.  Place the feeder close to trees and bushes so the birds will feel safe.  Hawks will eventually find your yard if you are attracting many birds to it.  Heavier vegetation levels will help even out the playing field.  A feeder out in the open will leave the birds very exposed to predation.

b.  Choose high quality bird seed.  Many grocery and big box stores sell bird seed mixes with a lot of cheap ingredients.  You will find a lot of that seed ends up on the ground and causes problems.  It also does not attract the best birds.  Overall, the best, broad-range quality seed is probably black oil sunflower.  Many birds are strongly attracted to it.  Other specialty types are also available.  You may have to try several varieties before you find what works the best in your yard.  Be sure to keep your seed dry or it will rot very quickly.  Storing it in a closed container will prevent moths from breeding in the seed.

c.  Bird feeders work best in neighborhoods with older trees.  A new subdivision is essentially a bird desert.  You might have to wait several years for success in that situation.

d.  Before you buy any feeders or poles, you should consider how you feel about squirrels, raccoons, and other mammals eating your seed at a very fast pace.  You may wish to purchase baffles to place on the pole below each feeder or buy feeders that are squirrel proof.  Actually squirrel resistant might be a better term. Squirrels are quite ingenious.

e.  High quality suet will attract more birds than the cheap varieties that get advertised. Make sure you get suet that is stabilized for the hot months if you wish to feed it year round.

f. Orange halves and jelly will attract orioles for the first few weeks in May. They usually stop coming once all the insects come out.

g.  Bird feeders need to be cleaned frequently to keep disease down in bird populations.  House finches in particular can get conjunctivitis readily spread at bird feeders.  Do not allow your bird feeding to be a negative to the environment.

h.  Consider natural landscaping to attract more birds to your yard.  Think of it as a free bird food source!  Many berry plants will attract large numbers of birds, particularly in the fall.  Native shrubs also have more native caterpillars which will draw in different types of birds that only eat insects.  Check the Gardening for Wildlife link (attach Gardening for Wildlife link) for ideas on natural landscaping.

i.  Bird houses can be an important conservation aid for some bird species.  If you live by an open tall grass area with at least seven acres, a bluebird house is likely to be successful.  Other birds that regularly use bird houses are chickadees, house wrens, tree swallows, woodpeckers, tufted titmice, great crested flycatchers, wood ducks, nuthatches, hooded mergansers, and kestrels in our area.  Screech owls will often use wood duck boxes in the winter.

j.  A water source will attract birds.  This is especially true if no local water is handy. Make sure this is cleaned often to keep down disease and to make sure mosquitoes do not breed in stagnant water.

k.  Hummingbird feeders work well in areas with trees.  The sugar water is very easy to make by boiling 4 parts water with 1 part table sugar.  Do not add red food coloring since it will hurt the hummingbirds’ kidneys.

2. Identifying Birds:

KingfisherBird identification can be quite daunting at the beginning.  Four hundred forty bird species have been sighted in Illinois, and around 700 breeding bird species occur in the U.S.  Some species are very visually distinctive, while others can only reliably be told apart in the field by their song.  No one learns all of these identifications at once.  It is an accumulative process where a few bird IDs may get fixed in your mind on each bird hike.  Over time this will really add up. 

Some suggestions to help your ID skills are:

a.  You will need a field guide to identify birds, although cell phone technology is advancing very rapidly, which may supplant most field guides in the future.  Be sure to look through the different guides that are available.  Some will use photos and others illustrations.  Most expert birders prefer the illustrations, but it comes down to personal choice. 

How will you carry your field guide?  Make sure it will fit in your pocket if that will be your main mode of transport.  Also, consider a simpler guide at the beginning.  The Sibley and National Geographic guides are very detailed with every subspecies, gender, and age group shown.  You might consider the Peterson Eastern or Golden Guides as a beginner.  These are much reduced in content, and it will make it easier for you to become familiar with most local birds.

Make sure you become familiar with your field guide before venturing out.  The more quickly you can locate the proper family of birds, the more likely you will be able to find a specific bird in the guide.  Paging through the entire guide frequently does not work well.  Your memory will get muddled by viewing many different images in the field guide.

b.  A good first step is to learn the different families of birds in your area.  Some bird families will look very similar.  Vireos, old world warblers, and new world warblers are infamous for confusing beginners.  You will not identify them if you are in the wrong bird family in your field guide.  Behavior may help.  For instance, vireos like to crawl along branches while warblers flit between them.

c.  Identifying birds will require looking for specific field marks.  Most field guides will include arrows or text to point out distinguishing features.  Ideally a species name is based on some obvious characteristic.  Note the following on any bird you might see for distinguishing features: bill size, shape, and color, head pattern and color, wing bars (wing stripes), the back and belly color, throat color, and the color and pattern on the tail.  This can be a challenge with small hyperactive birds where you may only get a brief glimpse.  So take in as much detail as you can to aid your identification.

Another great way to learn bird ID is to go on field trips with other birders (field trip link).  You will learn all sorts of good hints on identification from the people who know how to find local species.

d.  It will also be helpful to learn bird songs.  Most of us like to see the birds for their bright colors and behaviors.  However, knowing some bird songs can greatly increase the number of birds and bird species you will find.  Bird songs are usually loud and will travel some distance.  By learning bird songs, you will know where to look for your target species, and also know if you want to spend time looking for a cryptic species hidden away in vegetation.  There are also some species that are very tough to find without locating their general area by their song.

Try to learn a song or two each time you go out on a field trip.  Learn the common species first since they will be present in abundance.  Then when you hear something new, you know to stop and look for it.   Over time your brain will perk up and tell you what species are present by the songs that are out there.

Many field guides include mnemonics, a phrase that will capture the essence of a bird song.  For instance, chickadees really do say “chickadee-dee-dee-dee”.  While many mnemonics in books are very good, you could make up your own to help you.  You may remember using mnemonics as a study aid in school, and you will probably find them useful in the field as well.         

e.  Learn the “jizz”  or overall impression of a bird.  Expert birders can ID a bird at quite a distance in bad light by the way it acts, which habitat it is in, and their posture.  This will come with experience over time.   A really nice aspect of this is that it improves your efficiency and makes birding more rewarding.  Instead of just sighting a bird and checking it off on a list, you will get to know their ecology.   You will get to the point where you will know how to go out and find any local species, and be able to predict what species should be present in any habitat type.  This understanding can be highly satisfying since you really understand what is occurring in the world around you.

If you would like to study up in detail on a specific local species, check out the Birds of North America Series, which was donated by McHenry County Audubon Society to the library at McHenry County College. These books contain six to ten page reports with in-depth details on the life history of our local bird species.                  

f.  Finally, birding etiquette needs to be mentioned. It is very important to not harass bird species.  Migrating birds operate on the edge of having enough energy to make their trips, and breeding birds can be naturally stressed trying to feed a growing family.  Added stress from us could harm the species we want to see and enjoy.  So keep down the noise level.  Do not try to flush birds.  Wait for birds to come out to you.  Limit the use of taped calls, particularly in heavily birded areas.  Birds use calls to challenge other birds, and a loud tape can sound like a five-foot tall bird is coming after them.  Also, make sure you are not creating trails right to their nest.  Many mammalian predators will follow these trails to an easy meal.

Please also respect property rights so you are not the individual that ruins an experience for everyone else.  Trespassing can be a major problem by some birders.  And while some people get overly enamored with the competitive aspect of birding, make sure you share all your sightings with other birders.  Everyone has something to share, so make sure people want to reciprocate and help you see and learn more.

3. Binoculars & Spotting Scopes: 

Binoculars allow you to observe at a distance and frequently keep you from disturbing or scaring the birds.  Many bird colors appear muted in poor light or at a distance.  Good binoculars will greatly enhance your viewing experience.  You will soon realize that there are many, many choices of binoculars.  These range from super cheap ($10-25) to super expensive ($2000+).  So how do you choose?

Make sure you try out your binoculars before you buy them.  Look around at close and distant objects, both in full sun and deep shade.  Hang them around your neck.  Will they be comfortable to carry for several hours? Waterproof binoculars are also a good idea for use in rainy weather. 

Generally high quality binoculars will be much better, particularly in low light conditions. Spending more, if you can afford it, is usually a wise choice.  The quality of the optics and films to reduce glare are much better on quality pairs of binoculars.

Binoculars are sold with two prominent numbers separated by an “X”.  A typical size is 8 X 35. The first number stands for the amount of magnification.  This number typically ranges from seven to ten. The binoculars with larger numbers are much bigger, and therefore, much heavier, so make sure you try out any binoculars before buying them.  Larger magnification will make the birds larger in your view, but a downside occurs in heavy vegetation.  The limited field of view can make it harder to find birds where no good landmarks exist.  Rainforest birding usually calls for seven or eight times magnification to make sure an individual can quickly focus on a species.

The second number is the size of the outer lens.  The larger sizes will allow more light into the binoculars.  This becomes more important in low light conditions.  The very small pocket-sized binoculars are not recommended for this reason.  A small pair with an 8 X 22 lens size will perform very poorly for a lot of birding conditions.  Resist the idea of a light pair that fits in your pocket. 

Finally, there are medium-sized telescopes called spotting scopes that you will notice many birders using for seeing species at a distance.  Viewing waterfowl and shorebirds is the most common use for spotting scopes.  These require a tripod, which needs to be a strong one to remain still in the wind.  While spotting scopes are expensive, they will be a nice addition to your birding equipment once you have decided that birding is a serious activity for you.  Until then, look through lots of other birders’ scopes.  Most birders will be happy to share their scopes with you.  You can get an idea of what type and quality range fits your needs in that way.