The Art of Bird Identification


Being an indoor cat, Rocco as developed a refined taste in books.

My new hero: Pete Dunne, author of many books about birds and birding, but The Art of Bird Identification is a jewel. A friend recommended this slim volume to me a few weeks ago and I've already renewed it twice from my local public library. Yes, I will buy a copy--probably several to give as gifts to the Accidental Naturalist-style birders who have resolved to become more intentional, but don't quite know how. Pete Dunne tells you how and makes you want to try.

  "Actually, bird identification bores me," is the shocker that opens Dunne's book. "If all you want to do is pin a name to a bird, buy and use a field guide," he continues. "But if you are serious about birding, if you want to learn a skill set you can apply to the identification of all birds, stationary and in flight, near and far, then read this book."

   All the birds? In just 135 pages? There has to be some kind of gimmick, right? In fact, there are no gimmicks, no flash cards, no apps. Just a common-sense approach that relies on seeing the big picture--the traits that unite North American birds in 75 bird families (hummingbirds, flycatchers, waterfowl, loons, alcids, and the like). Those traits include the general shape of the bird, how it moves, its habitat, its feeding style, and degree of sociability.


An illustration fromThe Art of Bird Identification .

We often ignore these traits when we are out in the field with our dog-eared, high-lighted field guide and our bird checklist. And why do we ignore these traits? Because, Dunne suggests, many standard field guides focus on identification of birds from structure and plumage characteristics--characteristics closely and carefully observed by scientists using collected specimens (birds shot and preserved). No one, Dunne asserts, can see the sharp shin on a sharp-shinned hawk unless that bird is in hand. The "shotgun school" of bird identification puts at a disadvantage all the birds like me who fumble with binoculars, don't have a spotting scope, or go birding in places where the birds don't sit still long enough to have their shins or napes observed.  Dunne's book is designed to help you id a twitchy yellow blur in the bushes.

The Art of Bird Identification is not intended to be a replacement for a field guide. Dunne believes field guides are useful (and essential) but only if we understand how to use them. Which, apparently, most of us don't. I find myself flipping back and forth through my National Geographic field guide trying to match the bird I think I saw with one of the pictures in the book. According to this system, there are quite a number of birds of the desert and alpine tundra flitting around the salt marshes of Puget Sound. Had I bothered to study the salt-marsh habitat, read up on the families of birds that might be found there, I might have avoided these embarrassing mis-identifications. Waxwing not Phainopepla. Marsh Wren, not Canyon Wren.

   Perhaps the best advice in Dunne's book is to start with the common birds in your back yard--the ones whose names you learned, the ones you checklisted long ago--and learn "how they stand, move, forage, and fly. Become intimate with them. (There's a name for this activity. It's called 'bird watching.')"


How could you not trust the advice of an author with back-cover photo like this one?

   Thus, I have learned that the birds on my backyard feeder are Pine Siskins. And now, thanks to Dunne's encouragement, I know something about their family, who they hang with, their habits, and their personality (elsewhere, Dunne calls them "The Bratty, Streaky, Little Pipsqueak at the Thistle Feeder"). And I know why they are at my feeder.

Washington State Murrelets

Very very unlikely, actually impossible that you will see a Marbled Murrelet like this one, but this downy chick was just too cute not to share.

After my talk at Nisqually NWR last night, several people asked me where they can see Marbled Murrelets in Washington State. Many seemed ready to head out into the old-growth forest to pitch a tent or lawn chair for a Dawn Stakeout.

So, here is some guidance to where the birds are. Make sure you visit the "About the Bird" page of my website where you can hear the murrelet's distinctive "keer" call. This is important as it will help you spot them as they fly overhead at high speeds, looking not unlike a dark meteor.

Right now (mid-August) the birds are nearing the end of the chick-rearing stage in the forests; many chicks have already fledged or will be doing so until late September. Until the chicks fledge, the adults will be making regular daily flights in from the sea carrying small fish to feed their chicks. The adults make most these feeding visits--from 1 to 8 visits a day--early in the morning, usually before sunrise. Other visits are made around dusk. These are low-light times and afford the murrelets protection from diurnal predators such as hawks and falcons.

Marbled Murrelets are widely distributed in coastal areas of Washington and are closely associated with old-growth coastal forests. Luckily, we still have these forests within Olympic National Forest, Olympic National Park, Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie NF, Gifford Pinchot NF, North Cascades NP, Mt. Rainier NP, the Makah, Lummi, and Quinault Reservations, and Department of Natural Resources lands.

They inhabit the calm, shallow coastal waters and bays and are concentrated in the southern and eastern end of the Stariti fo Juan de Fuca, Sequim, Disovery and Chuckanut Bays, the San Juan Islands, and Puget Sound. The Skokomish Delta along Hood Canal is a good spot; guided birding tours are offered by Skokomish Dept. of Natural Resources on the second Saturday of every month ( Twanoh State Park, also along Hood Canal, is a 182-acre state park with coniferous forests.

During the breeding season (late April through September) your best bets are on the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands. Tongue Point (at Salt Creek Recreation Area on Hwy 101) and Discovery Creek Recreation Area (between Sequim and Port Angeles off Hwy 101). Areas of high concentration include the south shore of Lopez Island, the southwest shore of Lummi Island, and Obstruction and Peavine Passes between Orcas and Blakely Island in the San Juan Islands. Try Fort Worden State Park in Port Townsend. My adventure on the radio-tagging boats began at Ediz Hook in Port Angeles; birds will be flying off the water there and heading into the Olympic NF and NP forests.

Birders in Olympia tell me they have seen Marbled Murrelets as close in as Boston Harbor (on the water). Our common local alcid in South Puget Sound is a relative of the Marbled Murrelet, the Pigeon Guillemot; they are out on the water now with their young.

If you're in the forest looking for Murrelets, it's best to pitch your tent or folding chair where you can see a large patch of sky through the trees. Make sure you're alert, focused, mindful, and very quiet 45 minutes before sunrise. Tip your head back and scan the sky for small, high-speed silhouettes. If you're like me (oh no!) you'll hear the murrelets calling well before you will be able to spot them. It takes some practice to hear the call and turn your head toward quickly enough to see it before it vanishes into the forest. For the next two hours (until 75 minutes after sunrise) keep gazing at the sky, turning your body around, making little crop circles with your feet. If you are lucky, you'll hear and see the birds. If you don't see or hear any, you are still lucky. You've spent a morning in Murrelet Country.

Please contact me through my website if you've been successful or have new places to add to this list.