Birds by Flight! Maybe Not as Hard as Once Thought...

10:43 PM

Personally I find identifying birds in flight exciting and thrilling. Although it presents many challenges to all skill level of birders just the atmosphere of standing at the tip of Point Pelee, Rondeau or Long Point watching thousands of birds reverse migrate off the point or migrate to the point is an amazing sight all birders should experience. 
Although flying birds quite often present a lot of challenges, such as seemingly whizzing by doing Mach 2, there is often poor lighting and the distance between the bird and observer is less than optimal. Identifying birds in flight is not as difficult as it seems, however knowing what clues and features to look for and a bit of practice will better your id skills.

Quiz Bird #1 (Photo credit from Google)

While a flying bird may only give a birder a quick glimpse, it still presents many clues and field marks that can be used to successfully puzzle out the identity of the bird. The first step of identifying birds in general is by determining whether the bird is a Passerine, Near-Passerine, Raptor or Waterbird etc. Once you have determined the bird (for example Quiz Bird #1) is a Passerine you want to use the following tips below to piece together the clues and field marks and determine which family, genus and evidently what species the bird is. Here are some general tips when identifying birds in flight:

General Impression
  • “Jizz”: Although identifying birds by “Jizz” is dismissed by many as some kind of birding alchemy, there is some physical basis to the idea. Personally I often can make reliable identifications in the field at a glance by utilizing jizz. Often jizz is useful for identifying to the family or genus, rather than identifying it to the species level. For example you can say "the bird had the jizz of a warbler, but I couldn't tell what species."
Plumage and Features
  • Plumage Colouration: What is the bird’s general plumage colouration? Single toned Brown, Black or is the bird patterned black and white etc. This can be particularly useful with warblers as you can often separate them in from their general colour. 
  • Plumage Characteristic & Details: Does the bird have any distinct features on the wings, like wing bars, wrist markings? Are there any patterns on the upperwing and underwing such as stripes, streaks or spots? Are there any distinct streaks, spots or colour patters on the body, back, tail, rump, undertail covers, chest or head? Are there any areas that contrast compared to the rest of the birds plumage? These are all important feature to study.  Typically in field guides they often accentuate and point out such features to help birders identify between birds in the same family, such as Sparrows.
  • Wing Shape: How long and wide are the wings compared to the bird? Do the primary feathers play or are they held close together? Do the trailing edges of the wings have a bulge or are they straight? Are the wingtips pointed, rounded or blunt? Are there any notches in primary feathers? Wing shape is a very important feature in many cases in identifying birds.  Birds such as Bonaparte’s Gulls have pointed wings where as Little Gulls (a very similar species to Bonaparte’s) have more rounded wing shapes.
  • Body Shape and Stature: Is the bird big, small, slender or bulky? What size and shape is the body when compared to the wings and tail? How are the head and legs held in flight? For example, this can be particularly useful when identifying loons in flight as they often extend their neck and head out in a drooping fashion and their feet dangle behind their tail. What is the wing position (dihedral) when seen head-on or from below?
  • Tail: How long is the tail in comparison to the bird? Is it forked, wedged, rounded or blunt? Is there a subterminal band or other streaks or bands? 

Quiz Bird #2 (Photo credit from Google)

  • Flight Calls: Is the bird making any noise in flight? Is it calling? What does it sound like, a warbler “chip”, a thrush “chuck”, a Dickcissel “buzz” or the random noise Starling’s make?
Behavior in Flight
  • Purpose of Flight: Is the bird migrating, hunting, hawking, gathering nesting materials, courting a mate or foraging? 
  • Flight Style: What direction is the bird flying? Is it traveling a straight path or turning in circles? Is it hovering like a Hummingbird, diving like a Seabird or undulating in flight like a Finch or Woodpecker? How does the flight path compare to the wing rhythm? When flying straight, is the bird level or toggling side to side like Swifts? Is the bird soaring, gliding or actively flapping? How fast are the wing beats, are they slow and methodical or fast and short wing beats?
  • Flock Size: Is the bird flying alone or in a flock? How many birds are in the flock? Is the flock traveling in a coordinated shape or pattern? Are there multiple bird species within the flock? These can all be important factors in terms of identifying your bird, often species such as blackbirds mix flocks and species like thrushes fly alone.

Quiz Bird #3 (Photo credit from Google)

Now it’s important to remember not every bird can be identified for various reasons. Moving closer, changing positions may offer better views of flying birds. But it’s important to just be patient when watching birds in flight and over time you will develop your own personal tricks for identifying flying birds.
I hope everyone enjoys my post, I am interested to hear your comments and answers regarding the trickster quiz birds!

Good birding everyone,

Brett Fried

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  1. Just a note to say that the Bird Quiz answers will be revealed in two weeks (January 17, 2012) so get those answers in!

    ~ Kristen

  2. Off the top of my head I'm going to guess Hermit Warbler for 2nd photo. For the other two I'm going to have to look them up and post my guesses in another comment.


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