I don't know if it's the oncoming fall migration or the fact that I have 2 major birding trips planned, but my hunger for studying birds is at a high right now. Wait, I know the real reason. Now that I am done university and am a free man, I have more time to concentrate on my hobby rather than stress over tests, assignments, and essays that have little or nothing to do with anything I'm interested in.
I've been taking full advantage of this sudden revival of interest and reading my field guides, listening to my bird CD's, but most importantly, paying much more attention to the finer details. In my blog, I have started to use many scientific terms just to get more comfortable. Basic and alternate plumages, bird topography, identifying the bird rather than just the species if that makes sense (i.e. instead of just identifying Ring-billed Gulls as Ring-billed Gulls, I want to start identifying their age as well). This becomes imperative as I have learned. Juveniles, too. Those little mystery birds that pop up and don't match anything in your basic guide (of course, the Bible of birding, Sibley's has a juvenile plate for almost every species so it's a good reference). Well, if you've been studying, even those guys will become easier to identify, and you'll gain an appreciation of times of molt, aging, feather wear, breeding distribution and countless other important features. It's also more fun. As I described on my High Park blog, a group of Mallards, which I often dismiss entirely, became an intense moment of close study. In fact, these common guys: Ring-billed Gull, House Sparrow, Rock Pigeon, Mallards, are all great starting points for the study of finer details. Being able to look at a bird and actually identify where its tertials, malar, auriculars, etc. are located can be pretty fun (and rewarding).
O.K., I'm starting to sound like I'm just starting birdwatching so I better stop. In my 12 years I definitely regret not learning the finer details earlier on. However, there are steps involved in this hobby that prevent early learning anyway, I think. Beginners just go out and look at the birds and become fascinated at how many species they can pick up in a local woodlot. For me, as time progressed, I started to buy a few guides, looking through them for hours at a time, looking over numerous field marks, and getting to know the names of all of the North American birds. Then, the field study became more intensive. I was birding! Identifying by studying the bird then finding it in the guide. Through time, you get the book memorized (as well as evolutionary order) so that you aren't desperately searching for a warbler species in the sparrows section. I then reached a level of comfort where I could identify many birds, while admittedly too many still went unidentified. After some time, I started to love learning about range, early/late arrivals during migration, rare versus uncommon versus abundant species, etc. I still do, and I still have a lot to learn. Eventually, I realized how important song identification is and started to listen to bird tapes (warblers are a great place to start in my opinion).
Now? I'm into everything I just listed, but all of it in much more depth. I am currently trying to learn to age birds in the field and it's been a great experience so far. I also want to learn a lot more about songs and calls (I have never studied this enough). I also love statistics on when each species arrives during migration, breeding ranges and times, early and late dates for specific areas, etc. I was sorely disappointed when Point Pelee Natural History News was canceled. Alan Wormington's section on birds of note during each season was always fascinating to me and I spent a lot of time reading through each account.
Anyway, now I've written a bit of a brief background to my past, as well as where I'm headed for the future. It can be frustrating at times to see how far ahead people are in their skills, but hell I'm still young! I've got a lot of time to hone my skills and I started early, so that's certainly a bonus. In the next few years, I really hope to become a much better birder. Time will tell.