Bird watching as a hobby has been traced back to the late-18th century as portrayed in the works of English naturalists and ornithologists Gilbert White, Thomas Bewick and George Montagu. During the Victorian Era, the study of birds became fashionable, but not necessarily in their natural habitats, as collectors obtained specimens of eggs and preserved dead birds sourced from around the world. In the late 19th century the Audubon Society in the United States and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in Britain were founded to protect birds from these collectors and from the increasingly popular feather trade. In 1901 a book published by British ornithologist and writer Edmund Selous, entitled simply Bird Watching, is thought to have been the origin of the term describing the practice of observing birds in their natural habitat – a pastime which requires plenty of patience.
In today’s society which is increasing becoming accustomed to instant gratification, patience may sometimes be seen as a hindrance rather than a virtue, and this may be the case among birding enthusiasts who are using mobile phone apps to mimic birdsong in an effort to attract birds. Wardens on England’s Brownsea Island have recently reported instances where visitors have used these mobile apps to mimic the unique call of the Nightjar, apparently so they could get a clearer photograph. What these visitors may not realize is that they are breaking a law (the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981) which was put into place to protect nesting birds from being intentionally disturbed. Designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA), Brownsea Island is home to a host of bird species, including the Nightjar which, thanks to conservation efforts, has experienced an increase in numbers in recent years.
When a recorded birdsong is played repeatedly it is likely to divert the bird from essential duties, such as feeding its young. It may also prompt a bird to interrupt the mating process to chase off what it perceives to be a rival in order to protect its territory.
Giving birders the benefit of the doubt that they may be unaware of the negative impact their birdsong apps are having, the Dorset Wildlife Trust is launching an online campaign to warn people of the harm they may inadvertently be causing. To reinforce the message, signs will be erected on each of the 42 reserves overseen by the Trust requesting that birdsong apps not be used in the reserves.
Bird watching involves identifying birds by their physical attributes as well as by their behavior. There are 9 points that can be used when identifying bird species – size, color, shape, bill (shape and color), leg (length and color), eye color, flight pattern, habitat and distribution. It is best to use a field guide for your area, for example a field guide on identifying British birds if you are in Britain, as these will contain the species for your area. The secret to bird identification is to recognize which family the bird belongs to. From there, finding the exact species is matter of elimination.
Let us take the example of identifying birds of prey. If you saw a large raptor with legs feathered to the feet, large powerful talons, you would know that it is a true eagle. To identify the exact species you would consider habitat, size and coloration. Another example of identifying birds of prey is: If you saw a small raptor with pointed wings, a long narrow tail, facial markings like “sideburns”, direct flight with rapid wing beats and hunting on the wing, you would know it belongs to the falcon family. By process of elimination you would identify the exact species of falcon.
When identifying backyard birds, consider the above points and pay particular attention to distribution. Distribution is an accurate and great help in identifying a bird. If a bird is noted as not being found in your area, chances are it’s a different species that you have spotted. Identifying garden birds can be difficult and may require the use of binoculars to note leg and bill color. However, starting with identifying backyard birds is the perfect way to begin birding.
Another useful way to determine bird species is by identifying bird song. Many CDs are available to assist in identifying bird song. Bird song is very species specific and leaves you with little doubt as to the bird you are listening to.
Once you have started to identify birds using the above tips, you will understand the delight that many bird watchers experience in observing these feathered wonders.
The Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia) was first recorded by Alexander Wilson in the 1800s. He had noticed a specimen in the magnolia trees while in Mississippi. The name ‘Magnolia’ has persisted through the years, although this bird is native to the northeastern regions of the United States. Wilson had at first used the English name of “Black and Yellow Warbler” with “magnolia” as the Latin name. The Magnolia Warbler is part of the warbler family and is the most common of the warbler species in this area. These warblers prefer to forage close to the ground and in low growing bushes. Preferred habitat would be overgrown pastures, on the edges of a swamp or lake, or clearings that have small trees.
The Magnolia Warbler is a tiny bird that is approximately 13 centimeters in length and weighs about nine grams. It has bright yellow plumage over its throat, breast and belly, and is striped with black on its breast. The warbler also has a black mask on his face, a pale gray colored crown, and a white broken eye ring. The black coloring continues down its back, and runs into gray wings that have broad white edges. The female is relatively similar, with duller coloring. Its wingspan is about 20 centimeters, and the birds have extremely weak flight abilities, which results in the rapid beating of wings, and the alternating of wings to rest.
Male Magnolia Warblers are known to have two different bird songs. The one is used during the mating season, and the other is to protect its territory. The warbler feeds on insects as its primary source of food, but will also eat berries, and if humans have been kind enough to leave any bread product out they will gladly eat that too.
Shallow grass and root nests are built for the female to lay her eggs in. The warbler female will lay between three to five eggs, usually four, which are white in color and have brown spots on the shell. Only the female Magnolia Warbler will take part in the 11 to 13 day incubation period. The males will assist in the feeding of the chicks after they have hatched. Chicks will fledge the nest after 8 to 10 days.
It truly is amazing to wake up in the morning to the sound of birds twittering and chirping in the fresh dawn air. Bird calls are a language of their own and are carefully uttered to convey important messages. Bird sounds are a great form of communication as they can be heard even when the “speaker” is not seen or is a far way off.
Bird sounds are separated into songs and calls. Bird calls are simple notes produced by males and females throughout the year. The sound of bird song is more elaborate and musical, telling other birds: “This is my territory”. Different bird calls are sounded for different purposes. Contact calls keep birds in a flock aware of each others whereabouts. However in large colonies it is important to also have breeding calls which are recognized by mates, parents and young. Alarm calls attract other birds to assist in attacking predators and stopping their silent approach.
Bird song is especially important at the beginning of the breeding season, and is also prominent before migrating or when stopping along the way. Certain species defend their territory all year round and thus sing continually, and in some cases both male and female will sing for this purpose. Bird song is most effective in the morning as sound travels farther in the still air. Birds will often perch on high, exposed positions to make their voices heard, as this reduces interference from surrounding bush and allows the sound to travel more effectively.
A fascinating bird sound is that of the lyretailed honeyguide of Central Africa. This bird will fly above the tree tops whilst singing; it then spirals down from these great heights. Whilst spiraling its tail vibrates and the wind blowing through its spiky feathers sounds like a loud drum. This sound can be heard over a great distance.
Many people listen to recordings of bird calls and use these in identifying birds as each bird has unique calls and sounds. So next time you listen to birds calling outside your window, consider what message they are trying to convey.
Most people are aware of the fact that years of pollution is taking its toll on our planet and the creatures on it, but when it comes to birds it is sometimes difficult to get an accurate estimate of exactly how badly particular species have been affected. That is all about to change, thanks to a new voice-recording method that has been developed specifically to assist bird conservationists.