Category Archives: Bird Identification

Learning the Language of Birds

On the trail, Tod continuously encourages us to focus more of our attention on bird language.  We have learned the four baseline communications of birds and their alarm sound, which they make when danger is near.  The baseline communications include: song, contact calls, territorial behavior, and juvenile begging.  After several years, I’m just starting to hear more than their song.

We are all familiar with bird song. Even if we can’t see or identify the singer, we are pleased with the sound.  We have a few birds we recognize with the changing seasons, or get excited to hear as they move through our yard.  We love listening to the golden-crowned sparrow as it sings “Oh, poor me!”; the California towhee’s repetitive chirp; the American robin’s lengthy song at sunset; the chestnut-backed chickadee singing its name.  And, of course, the many we haven’t yet named.

Most of us can identify contact calls and territorial behavior too, if we take a moment to pay attention.  In our yard, the chickadees, junkos and California towhees chatter back and forth with their flock-mates or partners.  They are checking in with each other and staying aware of everyone’s safety and location.

As for territorial behavior, the easiest for our family to see is the in-flight attacks of hummingbirds.  They defend their territory against each other, seemingly all the time.  This spring I also saw a hummingbird dive-bombing a pair of bushtits who seemed to be minding their own business in our plum tree.  Hummingbirds are beautiful, but their aggressive spirit is much, much bigger than their body size!

More recently, we listened for juvenile begging in our yard, the rapid “feed me, feed me” that’s expected from hungry hatchlings.  Tod told us he hears several nests of birds begging every time he leaves his house at this time of year.  We hadn’t heard any!  I made a conscious decision to listen for juvenile begging on Saturday.  Turns out, there are baby birds everywhere!  I heard at least 6 nests of beggars during my walk through the woods.  Awareness and focus lead to discovery!

The last communication, bird alarms, have become more noticeable to the kids and me in the recent months.  Our cats set them off as they walk across the yard.  We set them off when we plow through the forest.  The noise clearly conveys irritation and it is repeated constantly, in an attempt to get someone to go away from their space and to warn others of danger.

Last month, I heard a pair of bushtits alarming intensely.  I fox-walked to the other side of the house to see what was going on and saw a scrub jay tormenting them by sitting near their nest…a few days later the bushtits were gone and the bottom of their beautiful, hanging nest was ripped apart.

I heard another bird alarm this morning at dawn.  An intense alarm was coming from the big oak tree outside our living room.  No birds were singing.  Then, I heard my cat, who had chosen to ignore my calls to come in last night, speed across the deck on the other side of the house.  I jumped up to let her in and she came skidding across the floor, poofy-tailed and aggravated.  The bird kept alarming outside and then I heard something run across my roof…possibly a raccoon?  The bird stopped alarming shortly afterwards and within one minute I heard the dawn chorus of several birds singing to the rising sun.

Listening to the birds can make us aware of activity in our surroundings, whether peaceful or threatening.  We play a couple of games to help remember the different communications. In nature group, each family acted out a type of bird language to remind the group of the five types of communication.   Another favorite game for the kids is Jays and Juncos, where communication through bird alarms is necessary for survival.  And, of course, quiet sit spot time is a great way to listen to the birds…

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Everyone likes birds. What wild creature is more accessible to our eyes and ears, as close to us and everyone in the world, as universal as a bird?   – David Attenborough

Benefits of Nature Journaling

I read a quote recently, which eloquently expressed my feelings regarding the benefits of nature journaling.  The quote is from the preface to the Audubon Society Nature Guide to Western Forests, by Stephen Whitney (Knopf/Borzoi, 1985).  It starts: “A notebook is the single most important piece of equipment a naturalist takes into the field…”

As I’ve built my journal over the past three years, and used it to extend our family’s nature exploration, I fully agree.  Our journals bring many opportunities for learning and later reference.  We combine scientific sketching with language and create memorable sensory connections.   We would not experience nature in the same way if we were just taking our walks and not bringing nature moments back into our home for further study.

“…It is useful for recording daily observations, sketching plants and animals for later reference, taking notes on behavior and habitat, and assisting in identification by recording field marks that otherwise might be forgotten…”

At the marsh, during nature group, we saw three geese near the mouth of the creek, which has breeched to the ocean.  The geese were standing on the rocks, preening and getting knocked into the waves every few minutes.  They were smallish and stout, had a distinctive white marking on their upper neck and a vividly white backside.  

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“…The naturalist’s notebook only increases in value as time goes by and observations accumulate. Soon, patterns begin to emerge from what initially may have been chance encounters with various plants or animals…”

As I stood on the beach, I flipped excitedly back to last spring’s entries in my journal and found my Brant sketch on March 3, 2014 – we had seen them last year at almost the exact same time. Cambria and I had studied and sketched them, near the end of this post.

“…A well-kept notebook that preserves a record of their activities at a particular place over an extended period of time can contribute information valuable to our understanding of nature…” 

The pleasure of seeing the Brants again, recording their seasonal visit to our marsh, and feeling that we were connected to these birds was priceless.  

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Field Guide Browsing & Study

We have many field guides that are left out in the living room for exploration, browsing and study.  Learning happens at random – hence: skulls, birds and LEGO…

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Or, in an organized fashion, as we recently explored several guides to research Snowy Plovers (Charadrius alexandrines nivosus).

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Having a variety of guides available stimulates curiosity more than the single, short paragraph in our main bird book.  The guides give us more information on skulls, tracks, nesting, young, habits and habitats.  We compare pictures, drawings, maps, graphs and diagrams.  These books, combined with several websites (allaboutbirds.org and westernsnowyplover.org), give the kids and me opportunities to find more details and discover the exact variety of bird (plant, animal, fungus) that lives in our area.

In these organized “assignment” studies, we pull out all the guides which apply to our subject and mark each book with tabs.  Then, we assemble our journals with the information we each find most interesting.  The kids are getting good at using reference materials!

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We spent several hours on our Snowy Plover journals.  It’s amazing to see the kids’ focus and involvement in the research.  I always feel a bit excited by this intense learning!

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Snowy plover journals.

Assignment: Dark-eyed Junco Journal

This week’s assignment is to journal the Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis oreganus).  Perhaps we will all learn to better imitate Juncos during our Jays and Juncos game!

Here are the beginnings of the kids’ journals:

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Elijah’s junco is about to land on a branch.

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Cambria made a special note about the junco’s tail feathers in her journal.  She had seen a junco fly up from the ground during her sit spot time and noted the white flash on the tail.  She wanted to do this journal right after sit spot time, since she had just experienced the bird in our yard.  We read junco’s have white outer tail feathers that they tend to flash during flight.  I love this instant connection between sit spot, journaling and scientific notation!

Observe Before You Speak!

We enjoyed a beautiful day at the Marsh this week…the weather was gorgeous and the waves were enormous, giving us hope that rain was on the way.

At one point, we saw this mystery bird on the marsh shore.

Photo by Tod Haddow.

Photo by Tod Haddow.

Someone asked me, “What’s that bird again?” and I instantly answered, “It’s a Godwit.”  And, for the thousandth time, I was remind to think before I speak.

The bird wasn’t a Godwit.  It wasn’t big enough, the coloring was a bit different and the bill was straight, not curved upward.  Everything was different on closer observation.  Note to self – close mouth, open eyes!

After looking at the pictures Tod took, reading about several birds and noting the quick probing beak motion (repeated, straight up and down), I think it was a Long-Billed Dowitcher, but don’t quote me on that!

Regarding bird identifications, I was greatly entertained, later that afternoon, by my brother’s Facebook post.  He is considered an expert birder across the country.  He was commenting on some pictures he had taken of a bird and the incredible (sometimes nasty) discussion surrounding the ID-ing of said bird by many “experts”.  The experts couldn’t agree, came up with countless suggestions, and insulted other’s suggestions along the way.  It was comforting to know even the experts can spout answers, though mudslinging seems unnecessary!

We avoid mudslinging in our group, but we did sling some sand for our beautiful sand art…

And, we found some sand slinging by a raccoon searching for its dinner…

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Photo by Tod Haddow.

(PS – My brother just confirmed the Long-billed Dowitcher identification.  However, he was more specific – it’s in juvenal plumage, which is noticeable in the wing feathers.  Thank you Tristan!)