The throaty rumble of the motorcycle preceded the dust cloud that billowed up ahead of me. Then silence. Soon the rider, dressed in black leather with metal studs, stepped out of the shady cover of a stand of willows and headed straight for me. A red bandana tied around his head set off his black Fu Manchu mustache. His muscled arms, where he had torn off the sleeves of his T-shirt, were covered with tattoos. I froze in my tracks. He pointed above my head and shouted, “Did you see that peregrine falcon?”
This was not the typical image I had of bird-watchers, whose growing numbers attest to one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the world. Yet, this biker was not atypical either of the newer breed of bird-watchers who lurk behind trees and skulk through bush cover, hoping to add another species to their life list.
RVers especially are flocking to bird-watching as a leisure-time activity, since we are always traveling to different habitats, seeing new bird species. Look how many birdfeeders hang from tree limbs around your campground.
Campgrounds are perfect places to start bird-watching. Your birding neighbors—in fact birders in general—are always willing to help in identifications and sightings. Birds that migrate through or stay to nest in a campground quickly get used to humans and go about their business, making watching them an easy task.
Birds are most active in early morning and late afternoon when feeding. Can there be a better way to start or end your day than with a bird walk?
Birds’ antics are also a cheap and enjoyable form of entertainment. Their behavior differs with the time of year. In spring, decked out in their most opulent breeding feathers, hopeful males sing at the top of their lungs, showing off like teenagers in a shopping mall to attract a mate. Then comes nest building and egg laying. By early summer, after the eggs hatch, the frantic parents flit back and forth feeding their rapidly growing infants’ ravenous appetites.
By fall, the migratory instincts kick in, and they gorge themselves to build up body fat for the long journey to their winter feeding grounds. Migratory birds perform extraordinary feats of endurance, flying incredible distances, navigating by the stars and the earth’s magnetic poles, and returning year after year to the same spots.
Then comes winter, presenting birders with tough challenges to species identification, as males have lost their brightly colored breeding plumages, the key marks to field identification.
The following field clues will help identify one species from another. Within species groups, some specific birds are easy to ID, while others—like the sparrows, warblers, and especially the flycatchers—require more experience. But then, that’s part of the fun and challenge of it. And it’s all right to write in your log, “unidentified flycatcher.”
Size can provide a good starting clue. Some bird books break size down into basic ranges:
• Very small—hummingbirds, kinglets, winter wrens.
• Sparrow —sparrows, warblers.
• Robin—robins, meadowlarks, mockingbirds.
• Pigeon—pigeons, doves.
• Crow —crows, mallard ducks, red-tailed hawks.
• Goose—snow geese, turkey vultures.
• Very Large —bald eagles, great blue herons, pelicans.
Making a final identification of a bird is often done through the process of elimination, and habitat is another method of confirming or eliminating your new discovery’s ID. You are more likely to see a great egret than a snowy ptarmigan wading in a shallow lagoon or lake. Look for ducks and wading birds in watery places and songbirds in trees. You are not likely to find woodpeckers on grassland prairies or desert birds like Gambel’s quail in Vermont.
Experienced birders can often identify birds at a distance by their behavior alone. The soaring of a turkey vulture can be distinguished from the flap-flap-flap-glide of a red-tailed hawk. Towhees, thrashers and sparrows scratch on the ground for seeds. Hawks and falcons often sit on power poles and on high tree branches watching for rodents below, while sandpipers peck along sandy beaches and on mud flats.
Shape and Posture
If you spot a bird sitting silhouetted with the sun behind it, in what photographers call “back lighting,” it can be difficult to discern colors or markings. By using its shape and posture as a guide, you can still narrow down the identification. Some field guides show black shapes that you can compare to your sighting. Clues to look for are body weight (plump or skinny), crests on the head, tail length, leg length and beak or bill shape and length.
Color and Pattern
The bird’s colors on head, body and tail are among the best clues for identification. However, many females do not display the same coloration as males and many birds lose their distinctive coloration during the non-breeding seasons. Identifying colors can be hidden except in certain instances, such as excitation or displaying.
You’re getting good when you can tell a bird’s identity by hearing its call. To get started, concentrate on distinctive bird calls, such as the characteristic caw of the crow, the screeee of a red-tailed hawk, and the clear, mellow whistling of the meadowlark.
Bird-watching gets you into the outdoors, moving about, stretching your limbs, getting exercise that we can all use more of. It sharpens the mind when comparing field markings, behavior characteristics, and the myriad clues that combine to form a positive identification. It heightens the senses, as your eyes scan the sky, the trees, and the ground watching for movement. Your ears perk up as you listen for bird calls, and try to determine their notes and direction. It produces a feeling of awe to watch a mother feed her nestlings or give them their first flight lesson, or to see a hopeful male strut through his mating ritual for an indifferent female.
Look for an inexpensive pair of folding binoculars between 10X and 12X that will fit in your pocket, and a field guide for the area you live and travel in. Write your findings in the guide—where and when you made the identification. Visitor centers, ranger offices and tourist bureaus can provide more narrowly focused regional guides and local bird lists.
These lists tell you what birds you are likely to see and often the season that you can expect to see them. Take bird walks conducted by rangers, volunteers or Audubon Society members, and don’t be afraid to talk to other birders. They are a gregarious bunch, and always willing to answer your questions. Now lace up those hiking boots and get out there. The birds are waiting for you.
Bob Difley was a full-time RVer for 17 years and a regional general manager for a national RV rental and sales company. His articles and photos have appeared in numerous RV publications.