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Birdwatching

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Watch birds as often as possible. More time you devote to them, faster you will get to know them. Try to identify each bird you see, but do not be upset if you fail, even experienced ones do not always succeed. You should still try, and in time you will eventually succeed. Start with exploration of common and ordinary species in your area. The better you know them, the easier you will notice/identify the others.

On weekends you should go out early in the morning for a few hours on the familiar ground that you know (or expect) is productive in terms of birds - the best places are where more habitats meet and intertwine, for example: forests, meadows and rivers. Wetlands provide for a good opportunity for exercise, as they offer greater number of large and noticeable species, easy to identify. Aside from water, the fruit, whether wild or cultivated, is an attraction for many bird species. Birds are most easily observed when they are most active. During the year, that would be the period of migration (late February - April and August - November) and the nesting period (mostly March - June or July). But, in the mountains, depending on the height, the period is in May or June; with larger species of predators, February - August. During the day, the peak of activities is in the morning, starting from half an hour before until four hours after the sunrise, and even four hours during the cool and fresh day; and the late afternoon (say after 15:00 during the cooler day, or after 16:00 in the warm day). The noon is a period of reduced activity, with exception of large predators, which enjoy themselves in warm ascending air currents.

Walk slowly and quietly, looking in all directions and listening constantly. Search with your eyes (they have much wider field of view than the binoculars), paying particular attention to movements. Although many birds are chirping, it will take some time before you are able to identify them by voice (this capability is developed over time). At first, pay attention to the direction from which the sound is coming and you might see the bird producing it.

Outdoors you will see birds when they take off in front of you, and most often the place where they land. In the overgrown fields stop from time to time, standing or sitting quietly, with branches partly hiding you, but do not restrict your view, allowing the birds to relax and forget about you.

IDENTIFICATION

1) APPEARANCE
2) SONG AND VOCALISATION
3) ACTIVITY
4) HABITAT

The essence of bird watching is in identification in the field, i.e. the ability to accurately specify the type by watching/listening in nature. The type is determined by the appearance of birds, song/vocalisation, behavior, and habitats in which you see them (though, remember that birds have wings and that they may appear where no one would hope they would). Pay attention to the ASAH - appearance, song, activity and habitat:

1) APPEARANCE

a) Body and size is something that requires at least a grain of experience in order to be observed and described in any way, but the question of 'how birds are built' is key to accurate determination of the type. Is it puffy like robin - Erithacus rubecula or slim like white wagtail - Motacilla Alba? How is their body positioned when they stand - almost horizontal, inclined, almost vertical, or vertical? The size of the bird in the field is difficult to assess, and it is best to compare it with some other bird observed in the vicinity.
b) Shape and color of the beak – Shape of the beak speaks of the nutrition of the bird. What is the beak of the bird like – long and thin as that of blackcaps - Sylvia atricapilla (insects), short and conical as of the house sparrow - Passer domesticus (grains), elongated, dagger-like beak as of common terns - Sterna hirundo (fish), or bent as of the common kestrel - Falco tinnunculus (meat)?
c) Length and color of feet – Shape of birds' feet speak of their lifestyle, hence the type of the bird. The longest legs are those of herons - Ardeidae and storks - Ciconidae - birds that feed by wading on water or ponds, and at the other side there is swift-Apus sp. that feeds into the air, landing only to its nest and it has the smallest feet in the world of birds.
d) Feathers and characters – What color is your bird? Most of the birds are 'lighter from below and darker from above', but are there typical colors, scheme of light-dark surfaces on the wings, tail and super tail, lighter and darker stripes on the head? Usually, it is not important to remember the complete arrangement of colors on the bird, it is enough for you to know those so-called key features, 'characters' (usually marked by the arrow in the key). But for you to remember bird characters, you will need both time and experience.

2) SONG AND VOCALISATION

Experienced observers of birds will identify most of small songbirds by songs, although they don't see them at all in the crowns of trees. The role of the song is about the defense of the territory from the rival male, in attracting the female and strengthening ties between couples. The song reaches its peak during the spring dawn, and walking through the woods or fields at this time promises a real concert. If you cannot determine the type by ear, follow the song in order to locate the bird because of the visual identification.

3) ACTIVITY

What does the bird do? Forage? Is the bird hunting in the air, is it lurking by standing on the branches, seeking on the tree bark or under it, on the ground, on the water surface or diving after it? Does it fly? Does it take deep dives and rises like a great spotted woodpecker - Dendrocopos major, or fast and rectilinear dives as kingfisher - Alcedo atthis? Does it walk? Step, jump, wade through the mud, or swim? Does it walk like a jackdaw - Corvus monedula, or jumps like a house sparrow - Passer domesticus?

4) HABITAT

In what habitat is the bird spotted? In the plain, small hill or high in the mountains (do you know the altitude, approximately)? Was it on the water (sea, river, lake, or swamp?), on the sandy or pebbly beach, or muddy coast? In the reeds or underwood, in a meadow or on freshly cultivated field, in the hedge, sands, forest (deciduous, evergreen, mixed, rare, dense)? Or on peat bogs, rocky grounds, cliffs or the sandbank beneath it, high mountain pastures and swards? Or was it in the so-called artificial habitats such as salt pans, fish ponds, sugar refinery collectors, farmyard manure, mining pits and tailings pond, settlements, along the road? In addition to 'macro-habitat', note the 'micro-habitat': seen on the ground (in rare or thick grass, high or low, continuous or fragmented, or on the bare ground) or in the crown of the tree (low or high, at the tree or the outside branches)?

Copyright 2008 Dragan V. Simić

 

BIRD RINGING

Ringing of birds is widespread scientific activity that allows us to find out where young birds go after they leave the nest (postnatal dispersion), migration routes, the life of birds in the nature (as opposed to species in captivity, which generally live longer), etc. You might notice the bird with several bright plastic rings on the legs (used in Serbia on the griffon vultures - Gyps fulvus and spoonbill - Platalea leucorodia). In addition to plastic color rings, they can be even metal, with the combination of letters and numbers. Metal ones are much more used, but more difficult to detect. In case you find a live bird with plastic rings, note the color combination and the leg on which the ring is placed (e.g. the blue ring above, the yellow below on the left, and the red above, the metal below on the right leg). If you find a dead bird with a ring, take the ring with you, and note the number on it, the type, date and location where you found it, as well as the cause of death (if it is possible for you to assess). Ringed birds you can report to CZIP, and than will shall send official report to EURING - European Union for Ringing of Birds. The best case would be to send us the ring as well. The Center will eventually inform you about where and when your bird was ringed, how much was the distance between the two sites and how old she was.

BINOCULARS

The basic specification of binoculars is determined by two numbers, for example 8x30 or 10x40. The first number indicates the magnification and the second diameter of the front lens in millimeters. Magnification of 10x means that the bird that is let's say 100 m away from you in theory you see as its only 10 meters away. In practice, depth of field decreases with increasing of magnification – the zone between the nearest and farthest point where the image is sharp enough (and you need to turn the focus ring more frequently in order to zoom, and the birds will not always wait for you), then, the width of the field of view decreases as well (which makes it difficult to locate birds), and the smallest proximity to which an image can be zoomed usually decreases as well. Suppose you're standing next to a bush with the hopping bird on the other side, and you cannot see it well because of the branches. If binoculars can zoom that close, the branches are becoming blurred and transparent, and the bird laid bare. The quality of optics, expressed with sharpness and brightness is more important than the magnification. The larger the lens diameter, the binoculars is 'receiving' more light, so the picture is brighter, sharper and with clearer details. On the other hand, the larger the lens diameter, the binoculars are bigger and heavier. Even lightweight binoculars around your neck will be heavy as bricks after few hours, and larger ones need not even comment. Contrary to that, lower magnification usually brings clearer picture and wider field of view.

HOW TO CHOOSE

Accorindg to the author, the recommend binocular should have an increase of 8 or 10x (since the 9x has not been produced very often). Models 8x35 or 8x40 are perhaps the best choice for general-purpose binoculars (in any case, they are my favorites), for example, for small songbirds and those who can be approached to some extent, and for the overgrown and forest habitats (observation up to 30 meters of distance). These binoculars are smaller and lighter than those with a 10x magnification, and have wider field of view. For forest habitats, minimal proximity is essential to which the binoculars can zoom. It is necessary to zoom to at least 3m, and preferably less. Models of 10x40 or 10x50 are a good choice for larger birds, water birds and predators, which will not let you get close to them, and open, sparsely vegetated, steppe or aquatic habitats (observations over 30 meters of distance).

FIELD NOTEBOOK

In addition to binoculars and the manual to determine the type, the field notebook is a required prop. In the beginning it will mostly serve to sketch observed birds which you do not succeed to find in the manual right away. You should not rely on your memory, because it often happens that after a while you believe that you saw something that was not there. If the bird that you see is slightly nervous, it is better to observe it for as long as possible, and then sketch immediately, than to look for the manual, risking to lose the bird out of the sight. The time you spend on the turning f pages will be a wasted time for observation, and you can fail to notice crucial details. It does not matter if you do not know how to sketch, start with large and small circle and connect them with the neck, draw a beak on the smaller circle and tail and feet on the large one, and then add the observed pattern at the exact place. Next to the drawing, write the color of feathers of each part of the body. Do not forget to describe the color of the beak and legs, as well as any characteristic behavior, such as elevating of tail or twitching of wings. When you had noted the observed, hold on to what the bird has and a process of elimination (no yellow legs – it is not this one, no black beak – it is not even this one), leave for later. After you wrote down everything you had seen, take your manual and try to find your bird. Now is the time for the process of elimination. In the manual, a character can be mentioned that you have not observed and the bird had already flown. Do not write this additionally, hold on to original notes. This way you learn to distinguish and remember species of your region more often, and that will sharpen your eye for those rare ones. Regular taking of notes makes you prepared for serious bird watching, and you will record everything that professional ornithologists record as well.

Copyright 2008 Dragan V. Simić

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