The Centennial Valley hosts over 200 bird species throughout the year. Many come here for the warmer months, some just stop by during migration, while others stick around to endure the harsh winters. With such high avian diversity, Centennial Valley is a unique place to gain an appreciation for birds and dive into the world of birding. It can seem a little daunting at first, but with a little bit of practice, anyone can be a birder.
Whether you are at home or visiting the Taft-Nicholson Center, here are some tips
to help get you started:
1. Get a Bird Field Guide
Here at the Taft-Nicholson Center we like to use the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, as well as a smaller quick reference guide featuring the most common birds of the Northern Rocky Mountains. However, we have a limited supply of bird guides in our library here, so we recommend bringing your own if you have one. There are also birding apps that you can download for free, turning your phone into a pocket-sized field guide. Our favorites are the Merlin Bird ID by Cornell Lab and the Audubon Bird Guide.
2. Invest in Binoculars
A decent pair of binoculars makes a world of difference when birding. Binoculars are described by their magnification power and their objective lens diameter. For example, binoculars that are 8x42 have a magnification of 8 and a lens diameter of 42mm. Binoculars with a magnification of 7-10 and a lens diameter of 30-42mm are best for birding.
3. Note the Habitat
Take note of what type of the habitat you are in, and where the bird is found within that habitat (i.e., soaring above, in the treetops, on a tree trunk, on the ground). Check the habitat description and range map in your guide. This can help narrow down what can otherwise be an overwhelming list of similar looking birds. Some of the habitats where you may find yourself birding in Centennial Valley include wetlands, grasslands, sagebrush steppe, and mixed conifer forest.
4. Estimate Size
Exact size can be impossible to determine in the field, but relative size is very useful. Use birds you may already know well as a scale. Is the bird you are looking at bigger or smaller than a robin?
5. Body Shapes
Take note of the general body shape, as well as the shapes and relative sizes of the bill, tail, wings, and head. As you practice birding, you will be able to place birds into groups based on their overall shape.
6. Observe Behavior
Pay attention to behavior. This includes how it is sitting or standing, how it moves, flight patterns, and feeding behavior. If you practice this enough with common birds, it can make it easier to recognize them based on their distinct behavior. Examples include swarming swallows, a woodpecker’s’ undulating flight pattern, flycatchers perched upright on branches, and phalaropes swimming in circles
7. Focus on Patterns Over Colors
Focusing on color alone can be misleading, especially if the lighting isn’t right, if the bird species exhibits sexual dimorphism, or if birds are no longer in breeding plumage. Try to focus on patterns of light and dark areas - these can often be spotted even from far away or in poor lighting when color is less reliable.
8. Learn to Recognize Songs and Calls
Bird species have unique songs and calls, which can be helpful for identifying birds you can see as well as those you can’t find. Some songs can be memorized with mnemonics (such as the Olive-sided Flycatcher’s “quick three beers”), but others will take more practice. You can listen to recordings of bird songs on bird guide apps and websites, such as allaboutbirds.org and audubon.org.
The most important thing to remember is to get out there and enjoy nature while you
practice these new skills. Don’t get discouraged when a bird stumps you. Trying to
solve the puzzle is half the fun.