Taking Notes

A Field Sparrow photographed from a distance through thick fog. Good field notes would be more useful.

If you use eBird, and I hope you do, you will notice that when you report a bird that is unusual for your area, eBird requires you to make a comment. The purpose of this is to provide some documentation to support your sighting, making it more valuable for scientific purposes.

Unfortunately, many comments do not accomplish this. I recently saw a report for a bird that would be extremely rare for my area. The comment read, “singing in my tree.” Similar types of comment include “at the feeder” or “I had just spent 30 minutes in the bathroom so I stepped outside for some fresh air and saw this bird.” None of these really provide any useful information.

If you are going to document a bird, whether for eBird or for a bird records committee, make sure your comments actually describe the bird you saw. Things to include in your description include:

  • the size and shape of the bird in direct comparison to nearby species.
  • the size and shape of the bill
  • distinguishing marks or patterns
  • any vocalizations that you heard
  • behaviors
  • the habitat being used

With the advancement of digital photography in the past decade, it seems that everyone is a photographer now. If you can get a good photo of the bird in question, by all means, do so. But birds do not always pose for photos, and the lighting is often bad. So don’t underestimate the value of a crude sketch and some field notes. Even the most basic drawing, surrounded by brief written descriptions, can provide enough support for a solid rare bird report. 

A detailed article on taking field notes, based on my article in Birding, is available on my Patreon.


Slaty-backed Gull

My first lifer of 2009 was a Slaty-backed Gull that has been hanging out in downtown Portland lately. It was a pretty painless twitch on the lifelist; 1. learn about the bird from email   2. drive downtown and find a parking space   3. find the gull standing on a light on the Broadway Bridge   4. ka-ching!


While I didn’t have to work very hard for this particular bird, it takes a well-earned spot on my list. I have been studying gulls rather intently for several years, learning to recognize the common species. (One needs to be familiar with the common birds if you want to recognize a rarity when you see one.) Slaty-backed has been very high on my want-list for two reasons. First, it is normally found in Asia, so it is hard to find in Oregon. Second, several years ago I thought I had found one, only to learn that I had made an identification error. While the incident was rather embarrassing (I immediately reported the bird, as I should have.) it did provide a valuable opportunity to learn what a Slaty-backed Gull really should look like.


This is the bird that got me excited a few years ago. It is actually a third-cycle WesternXGlaucous-winged hybrid. It bears some similarities to a Slaty-backed, but the mantle is too light, the markings on the head are too evenly mottled, and the bill is too fat and bulbous. The pale eye on this bird is unusual, adding to my confusion. While many birders pointed out my error, one actually explained why this wasn’t a Slaty-backed Gull, providing me with a great boost in my gull identification skills.


So while I didn’t need a lot of luck or effort to see this particular bird, seeing it provided a bit of closure for one facet of my birding development. Thus I join this third-cycle Slaty-backed Gull in the Happy Dance to celebrate another tick on the life list.

Powering Down


Last week I mailed by trusty binocular to the repair center in Rhode Island to have the focusing mechanism upgraded. The original mechanism is very slow, causing me to miss a lot of birds. The new mechanism will be faster. So for the next few weeks I will be using my back-up binoc, which requires an adjustment on my part.

I have always used 10-power binoculars. I like the extra “reach” I get with 10X, especially when looking at distant shorebirds on mudflats, hawks in flight, and seabirds at the coast. The glass I am using now is 7-power, and the world looks smaller.

There are advantages to a 7X binoc. Since it doesn’t magnify as much, it provides a wider field of view, making it easier to find birds in heavy cover. The image also tends to be slightly brighter in a 7X glass and there is less magnification of any shaking in my hands, so the image is more stable. (If you ever want a demonstration of just how much your hands shake, take your binocular out at night and focus on a single star. You will be amazed at how much that little point of light jumps around. Luckily, our brains filter out much of this movement when we are watching birds.) I bought this 7X binoc for pelagic trips. The movement of the waves combined with a vibrating diesel engine make 10X binocs practically useless.

Despite these advantages, I still miss my 10X binocular. Yes, the 7X glass provides a clear, bright, stable image. And yes, a smaller image might force me to look harder at subtle details. But I like the full-frame views afforded by 10X. I like being able to count the four primary tips projecting on the wing of an American Golden Plover and seeing the leg feathering on a Rough-legged Hawk. Call me weak, but I like the extra power. Maybe it is just a guy thing.

Best Bird Attractant Ever

With all due respect to Pete Dunne, I have never been a big fan of pishing. I am not very successful at bringing birds in with the technique, and I find it rather annoying in the field when other birders do it. But I still try it, having been taught for several decades that it is the thing to do.

So it was recently as I birded Blue Hill in Maine. I heard some bird activity near a little rock bluff, and started pishing to draw birds down from the rim into better lighting. At first I heard Red-breasted Nuthatches and Black-capped Chickadees, joined by Golden-crowned Kinglets and Dark-eyed Juncos. More and more birds joined in as the flock started moving to the edge of the bluff.

The pishing seemed to be working. Birds started dropping down over the bluff.

A Blackburnian Warbler joined the flock, as did several Yellow-rumped Warblers

Perhaps I had finally mastered the art of pishing. No. What really had this flock of birds worked up was nothing I was doing. It was something far more interesting to them, and myself.

It was an Eastern Milk Snake, a beautiful specimen about three feet in length (pretty large for this species). The birds were following the snake through the woods to keep an eye on it. Being at the right place at the right time allowed me to enjoy the snake and her entourage. My little pishing noises were of no consequence. So once again I am reminded to watch, blend in with the surroundings, and enjoy what happens by.

Warbler Neck

In the current issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest, I have a piece on warbler neck, that stiffness and pain we get from looking into the treetops for too long. While some fatigue is inevitable after a long day in the field, our birding posture can prevent most of the discomfort and long-term damage associated with warbler neck. The article goes into greater detail, but here are two photos showing typical bad posture (left) and good posture (right).

In the left photo, notice how the shoulders are hunched up and the neck is bent back sharply. This leads to fatigue and excessive wear on the cervical vertebrae. This is my wife, Marsha, posing for this photo. Her posture is normally quite good, so it took a lot of posing on my part to get her this scrunched up.
In the right photo, the shoulders are down and the neck is gently sloping back. The body forms a single gentle arch from the head to the feet with no sharp kinks in between. This is Lauri Elizabeth, an instructor of The Alexander Technique, a method of movement and body alignment. I always sit up straighter when she is around.

What a difference a day makes

Last Friday I went to Sauvie Island to scout out locations for my class field trip on Saturday. The birding was great, not only for sparrows (which was the topic of the class) but for other birds as well. Along Rentenaar Road I found large flocks of White-crowned and Golden-crowned Sparrows, several Lincoln’s Sparrows and a Fox Sparrow. More unusual were three Common Ravens, a dark-morph Rough-legged Hawk, and a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers flying over the farm fields. California Quail were calling from the blackberry thickets along the road.

The following morning, with my class in tow, I walked the same stretch of road. The White-crowned flock was much smaller. We saw only one distant Lincoln’s. The ravens, Rough-legged, and Pileateds were nowhere to be seen, and the California Quail called from way back in the fields. But we did find a White-throated Sparrow, a Peregrine Falcon, and a Red-breasted Sapsucker, which I hadn’t seen the day before.

This brings up an obvious, but often forgotten tenet of birding: Those who find the greatest diversity of species and the most rarities are those that spend the most time in the field. If it seems like other birders are finding a lot more birds than you are, take a look at how often you actually go birding. Successful birding is not entirely dependent on skill and experience. Sometimes it is just a matter of getting out to where the birds are.

California Quail