A beginners' guide to backyard birding

Posted on Mon May 4, 2020.

For some, cooking, reading or art have become new hobbies during this extended period of lockdown. For others, those extra hours spent in the garden or on the balcony may have led you to notice some of the feathered friends who frequent your home.

The great thing about bird-watching is it's an activity for everyone, irrespective of your age or experience! So, we've come up with a beginners' guide to help you identify some of the local birdlife in your own backyard.

Getting started:

What you'll need: A bird guidebook or app (our guide's prefer to use Roberts Bird Guide for Southern Africa) to help you identify the birds, some patience and a sense of humour! If you're not in South Africa, have a look for a guide that's relevant to your country or area.

Also helpful to have: A pair of binoculars and a notebook for documenting some key characteristics of the birds you see.

Who can do it? Anyone! You don't need to be an ornithologist or own a pair of Swarovski binoculars to take an interest in bird-watching. All you have to do is find a comfy spot to sit quietly or take a slow stroll through the garden and look around you. You can even bird-watch from the kitchen window as you do the washing up!

I've seen a bird, how do I work out what it is?

As with any hobby, identifying birds becomes easier with both practice and experience, so go easy on yourself to begin with. No one can expect to be an expert when they first start!

Even our guides, who can identify birds simply based on the shape of their wings, call or flight pattern, started off knowing very little about the birds themselves and still have times when they find it challenging to pinpoint a particular species.

Start by taking a few moments to page through your bird guide. This will help you to become familiar with the different family groups of birds, each of which has its own set of defining characteristics. Being able to narrow down your choices to just a handful of species makes it far easier to decipher who your subject is.

What to focus your attention on:

When you see a bird for the first time, the key features to take note of are the bird’s size, colour, feather patterns, and beak shape. These are the characteristics that are going to help you place your subject into a family group.

For example, bee-eaters and rollers are brightly coloured, sparrows and finchs are very small in size and eagles have a sharp beak and talons. Luckily, most bird books have a handy index at the front to allow you to navigate to the most helpful pages.

Start by asking yourself these simple questions:

1) Where did I see the bird?

Was it in a tree or on the ground? Was it in the water or on land? The particular habitat that you found the bird in is going to give you a big clue as to who it might be. For example, shorebirds like gulls and petrels tend to congregate around coastal areas, whereas kingfishers prefer more riverine habitats.

Don't forget to check the distribution map in your bird guide! This gives you a clear picture of the geographical range in which you will find your subject and is often the determining factor when it comes to separating two or more species that look very similar.

2) What colour was the bird?

Colourful birds are generally the easiest to identify, with unique patterns and blocks of colour making it simple to distinguish between related species. Sometimes, you will notice a difference in colour between the sexes and also throughout the seasons.

It is usually the male who is adorned with striking plumage whereas the females are often drab and dull. These breath-taking displays of colour are a way for males to attract females to mate, and therefore might only occur when the birds are breeding at a particular time of year.

As you can see, the female Southern masked weaver above is far more cryptically coloured than her bright yellow counterpart below!

3) What was the bird doing?

Finally, a bird's behaviour is the last, vital piece to our puzzle. In much the same way that birds have a unique appearance, they also have unique ways of moving, flying, sitting and acting.

Take the woodpecker below, for example: there are only a handful of species you might see tapping away at the bark of a tree like this, so we can immediately narrow down our search.

So, what is your bird doing? Is it perched on a branch? Is it soaring in the sky? Is it displaying to a mate? Is it in a flock or by itself? Is it flicking its wings or bobbing its tail? All of these subtle nuances in behaviour might just be the key to successfully identifying your subject.

What's in a name?

Bird common names continue to change as more genetic and DNA testing is carried out. This research is important, however, because it tells us how closely related species are and allows researchers to recategorize birds more accurately based on their similarities and differences.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to keep up! It helps to have the most recent edition of your bird guide which often lists the variety of names each bird is known by, including a couple in different languages.

Many birds get their names based on some description or defining trait of their appearance. For example, the male 'Red-headed weaver' pictured below, whose striking scarlet plumage is unmistakable!

Top tip: Don't get worked up over the LBB's!

The LBB's (Little Brown Birds), also known as LBJ's (Little Brown Jobs), are notoriously difficult to identify and include birds like larks, warblers, chats and pipits. Don't worry! You are not the only one struggling to distinguish the difference between the two near-identical species of lark that live in your area.

Even some of the best ornithologists will admit to second-guessing themselves when it comes to accurately identifying these guys. Bird-watching is supposed to be a relaxing activity, not a stressful one. When you're starting out, we recommend focusing your efforts on some of the more identifiable species and save the more challenging ones for later.

It won't take long for you to become familiar with the birds that frequent your street or garden. If you want to get a headstart then your trusty bird app might give you a list of recorded species for your area.

Keep track of how many birds you have successfully identified using your phone app or Birdlife SA's handy checklist which you can download here. For bird calls, we recommend checking out xeno-canto, a fantastic citizen science project sharing recordings from around the world.

Challenge Accepted!

If you've got a South African bird guide, why not have a go at identifying the birds in this article? Looking at photographs is a great way to practice as you are able to spend time examining the bird's physical characteristics without it hopping around or flying away!

At the end of the day, there's no right or wrong way to watch birds. Above all, the most important thing is to relax and enjoy it. Sometimes it's good to resist the urge to immediately reach for your binoculars or guidebook and simply sit and watch the bird for as long as it will let you.

As author Grant Hutchison said, “There is an unreasonable joy to be had from the observation of small birds going about their bright, oblivious business."

Article written by Elly Gearing with photos courtesy of Peter Cavanagh, Nerise Bekker and Elly Gearing.