This fall has been a terrific time for watching backyard birds. Not only are we seeing a large number of birds, but the variety has been wonderful. In the fall we normally see more jays, juncos, nuthatches and chickadees than we do in other seasons, but for some reason this autumn is off the charts.
Many of you are seeing Steller’s jays at your backyard feeders for the first time ever. Not only are we hearing reports of the fairly common white-breasted nuthatch, but also of the scarcer red-breasted and pygmy nuthatches. Evening grosbeaks are starting to show up, flickers have been common, juncos are everywhere and we’re seeing more mountain chickadees than usual.
It’s great to see new birds, but identifying them can be a challenge. Here are some tips.
1. Look at the bird. Study it. Don’t grab your field guide right away, but rather practice paying attention to key details like the bird’s bill and facial markings. After you’ve examined the bird closely, then look for it in your field guide. A decent pair of binoculars placed in an easy to grab location can make a big difference in nailing down a few key markings.
2. Where is the bird? Is it on the ground? On your seed feeder? Suet feeder? Clinging to a tree? Common ground feeding birds include juncos, towhees, flickers, dove and some sparrow species. Members of the woodpecker family, bushtits and nuthatches like suet and are often seen in trees. Grosbeaks, house finches, chickadees, jays and nuthatches like seed feeders. Jays love nuts. Noticing where a bird is hanging out or eating can help to narrow down the options.
3. Notice the color and markings. Is the bird mostly brown, or is it more grayish or white? Are there any distinct colors on the head or tail or underbelly? Does it have a distinctive eyebrow/eye stripe or streaks on its chest? Look for any distinctive colors or markings and memorize a couple of the most obvious ones. Once the bird flies off and you grab your field guide, it can be hard to remember more than two or three key identifiers.
4. Pay attention to the bird’s size and shape. Size is tricky and difficult to judge from afar. Unless you have a known reference point and can say for sure that the bird is a certain length, size can be tough to judge correctly. Particularly large backyard birds like jays, flickers and curve-billed thrashers are a bit easier because their size really does stand out. Most backyard birds fall into the small to medium size, which doesn’t help narrow things down. It’s more helpful to observe if the bird has a crest or a very long bill or a long tail. Often I’ll ask someone if their mystery bird is smaller than a robin, or bigger or smaller than a sparrow. Most people know what size these birds are, and this comparison helps to place unknown birds into a general size range.
You’ll find that once you really nail down a handful of your most common backyard visitors, identifying others gets easier. You’ll notice when something odd shows up, and won’t struggle to figure out if it’s just your everyday house finch or junco. Keep a good field guide and binoculars close at hand, bring your feeders and birdbath near enough to a window for easy observation, be patient and enjoy the birds in your own backyard.
Anne Schmauss is the co-owner of Wild Birds Unlimited in Santa Fe and she loves to hear your bird stories. She is the author of “For the Birds: A Month by Month Guide to Attracting Birds to Your Backyard” and “Birdhouses of the World.”