I don’t know about you, but whenever I talk to a birder with decades of experience I leave the conversation with two feelings. First: admiration, for their ability to confidently identify any species by call or the slightest glimpse. This feeling is surpassed, however, by the disappointment at realising I may never reach their level of expertise. So if you’re just starting out birding here’s some advice from an intermediate birder, someone who’s at a level easily achievable by yourselves. Once you get here that gap to the virtuosos (hopefully) won’t seem such a leap.
1) Focus on families first. If you’re unsure of a bird’s species, be satisfied with narrowing it down as far as you can. I encountered this with waders, ‘Is it a Knot or a Dunlin? Oh, maybe it’s a Sanderling’ I said leafing through the field guide. My frustration eased when I realised that I could at least narrow things down the next time, by starting with these three and eliminating from there. It may sound stupid, but I learned to be satisfied (though not happy) with being able to take one look and say, ‘It’s one of three species’ etc. and so my ID skills had improved however slightly and gave me a challenge to build on the next time. The message here is not to expect too much too soon, just knowing the family of birds your unknown species belongs to eliminates hundreds of other species. Familiarise yourself with bird families and work down from there.
2) Set challenges. Following on from family focussed birding, I set myself challenges. Last year it was to see all British Thrushes, this involved a short new year’s day walk to tick off Blackbird and Song thrush, before a slightly harder (though still fairly easy) search for a Mistle thrush. This was followed up by a short drive to some hedged farmland to see flocks of Redwing and Fieldfare and concluded with a weekend’s remote hiking to tick off Ring Ouzel in the summer. By aiming for just 6 species I learned so much, I had to know when and where to look. Given that some thrush species are resident whilst others are winter visitors and another a summer visitor, I had to gain an intimate knowledge of this bird family.
One of this year’s challenges is all Corvid species in a day. I’m currently planning a route which should see me to tick off all 8. Some being trickier than others. Try picking a family and working out when and where you’d need to be in order to see them all in the shortest possible time period, even if you don’t actually complete or even attempt the challenge, the other species seen, or books read would still be valuable learning.
3) Localised Guides. Don’t be tempted by a book which lists all species in Europe. I found myself looking at 6 identical images and had to eliminate species by reading four pages of information. By the time I’d gotten it down to two species, the bird had vanished. A localised guide is much more concise and less daunting, and hopefully less frustrating. By focussing on being able to ID species you’re likely to encounter, something a little rarer will be much more obvious when it’s around.
4) Get a patch. This is linked with the localised field guide advice. it’s great to be able to trek around the country ticking off as many species as you can but gaining an intimate knowledge of a small patch is just as rewarding. I walk around an area less than 1km2 whenever I’m home in Durham and as far as I’m aware there’s never been a rarity or ‘lifer’, just your usual cast of common birds. This may seem dull but viewing the same patch across the year can tune you into the life cycle of the birds there. You learn when certain migrants arrive and leave, which order they begin to sing in, where you’re most likely to see each species at any point in the year. This intimacy with common species ties in with the points above, when something rare comes along you’ll be able to discount all of your usual species with relative ease.
5) Don’t give up! This is by far the most important tip I can give you. I stopped birding at 13 due to frustration and bullying (from classmates AND teachers) over my hobby. The result, I went to University to start my BSc in Animal Conservation with only limited knowledge of a few common species. I curse the day I packed away my field guide and binoculars and turned to ‘cooler’ hobbies and beg for a chance to see that teacher again!
The overall message here is to enjoy, don’t be too harsh on yourself, one day you’ll be an ‘intermediate’ birder, then becoming a virtuoso won’t seem too daunting!