5 Steps to Better Birding

Satin Bowerbird juvenile

 This is written to assist those who are new to birding. You will learn how we spotted this rare sighting in an unexpected location, as I share how you can get the most satisfying birding experience. This will be especially helpful if you are a novice birdwatcher becoming a fully fledged birder. Click on photos to enlarge them.

Initially, before you start, it is important to decide what kind of birds you want to find, and best LOCATION where you are likely find them. Local and learnt knowledge is helpful as well as The Australian Bird Guide and Finding Australian Birds both obtainable from CSIRO Publishing.

These books will help locate where particular species of bird are found in Australia and what habitat you are most likely to find them in, Other factors may involve the time of day (low tide for viewing waders, or night time for owls), the time of year or season (for migratory species) and the current weather (very hot, very dry, very windy or very wet conditions can have a negative affect). Otherwise, many of us just do a pot luck bird walk through National Parks, Reserves and State Forests and be thankful for what we might see, often surprised when we find the unexpected bird or birding experience. For our example I will take my daughter and two grand children ( one pictured above) on a stroll through our local Oatley Park Reserve on a pot luck bird walk. Because many Australian birds are territorial and non migratory, you can usually predict what birds you are likely to see in any given location. The Bird Field Guide will help with the geographic location of each bird (where in which States) including any races (subspecies) that a particular specie may have.

1. Listen

My first instruction to my accompanying family is to quietly listen for bird calls as they walk along the bush track. Most of the time you will hear a bird before you see it. Australia has one of the largest number of songbirds, and many have a very distinctive call which identifies them immediately. One of the skills one gains from mindful listening is to identify each bird one hears from its call. The call can tell you where to look ( nearby or further on, in tree or on ground) as well as what the bird is actually doing at the time. There are Australian birds which are gifted with many different calls, and also the ability to learn and copy the calls of other birds. The Superb Lyrebird and Satin Bowerbird are but two good examples. Listen to this Lyrebird immitate at least 6 different birds, as well as make its own peculiar call.

Eventually, one can identify when mimicry is being displayed by a Lyrebird or other bird, by skillful listening. The greatest aid to the Australian birder is the Michael Morcombe eGuide  iphone app. which I have listed on the BirdingInfoTips page of my website half way down the page under Helpful Birding Links. This app allows you to hear the calls of the different birds. Slowly move to where the bird call is loudest, stop moving if the bird stops calling, as it has probably seen you and become cautious, and  LOOK for movement in the direction you last heard the call. This is a similar call to what we heard, and what drew us to discover the bird pictured above. We were drawn to a tree by the pond where we could here a strange buzzing sound which I knew from experience was a Satin Bowerbird call. You will need to turn your volume up to hear it.

Be aware that with some birds it will not be their call or song that will draw attention, but careful listening may detect bark being torn and stripped from trees (eg. Crested Shrike-tit, Eastern Whipbird and the Treecreepers), leaf litter being overturned (Logrunner, Whipbird, Bassian Thrush), scratching sounds (Lyrebird, Brush Turkey) or it may be the sound of crunching pine cones and falling debris from the Cockatoo and Parrot family.

One golden birding principle is that ‘If you wait (sitting quietly is best) the birds will come to you.’ Mixed Feeding Flocks (MFFs) are constantly moving through areas of forest and field, and many territorial birds (non flock birds) will also do a circuit and return through the same area several times a day.

You will know the birds arrive by the many birds twittering as they feed and communicate with each other. Our birds are able to learn to communicate in the dialects of bird species other than their own, thus MFFs are common with smaller insectivorous and seed eating birds, and brings the advantages of safety in numbers, and better food and water locating. So wait in a place where you find birds moving, you may find a birdway. Areas that pass near fresh water sources, around lakes and swamps are often the best. Just wait there for a while and LISTEN.

2. Look

 

So on hearing the bird, one starts looking in the direction of the call. The most helpful tool at this stage are your eyes and your binoculars. The aim is to look for any movement at all in the vegetation and focus in on it.  My grandchildren were spotting the bird high in a tree above the track but we could not see it well.

It sounded distressed because other birds such as Noisy Miners were attempting to attack it, as they are very territorial and this bird was strange to this part of the park, and in fact is not usually seen here at all.  My observation revealed what appeared to be a juvenile Satin Bowerbird possibly a fledgling from early last Spring.  It is probably checking out the park for food, as these birds are primarily native fruit eaters (figs, berries etc). Both immature sexes look like the female, as it will take seven to eight  years for the male to mature to adult plumage but only two to three for the female. Bare in mind also that many birds go quiet and sit in the shade, mainly during the heat of the day. Also particular birds such as the Golden Whistler will go quiet during the Winter (non breeding months) and be heard almost continuously during Spring, making him much easier to find.

This is why early morning and evening are the best times to go birding, as these times are when most birds are calling as they actively feed and move about. Aussie honeyeaters (over 70 species) feed on insects, nectar, small native fruits and lerps. You may notice that particular songbirds sing less when overcast  than when the sun is out, they seem to pick up their song as the sun re emerges. 

Honeyeaters, lorikeets and Parrots are attracted to flowering eucalypts, Grevilea, Bottlebrush and Mountain Devil, so just wait about 10 to 20 feet from the flowers and birds should visit. Often you will see birds already feeding off nectar rich flowers, so just wait there and watch as different species visit. Birds are easier to see and often more exposed when feeding.

3. Locate

The next step is to LOCATE the bird so you can view it and/or photograph it. My wife is the ‘spotter‘ and I am the ‘shooter‘, so for me if I do not get a photograph of the bird I have not truly seen it. This is the case for many birders, we like to see the treasure we have spotted again at home. The value of doing this leads later to our last 2 steps. If you are using a telescopic lens, the secret is to pull back the focus and view in the general direction of the bird and then gradually extend the lens till you have it in focus. It is most frustrating to attempt to focus from a fully extended lens.

A bird will usually move away when it notices you watching it, so the idea is to remain very still and inconspicuous as possible. If the bird is in full sun, try and remain in the shade as you observe it so that it makes you less noticeable. Also remain very quiet and avoid using flash. I almost never use flash on birds as it alarms them and can affect the eyes of some birds such as owls and penguins. The improved  ISO technology on my Canon camera allows me to get relative good photos even in reduced light. As we walked by the pond we found this clutch of baby Chestnut Teal resting.

We quietly passed so not to disturb their rest, though they noticed us they did not scuttle to water as they saw we kept our distance and were not threatening. You will find that each species of bird has a different distance of tolerance  to another. For example I wan walk right up to a Magpie or Kookaburra and they will not show fear, where as an Eastern Curlew will sound the alarm and fly off if I get within 50 meters of it. Here is one of my best friends patting a Kookaburra he is feeding. The bird trusts him and permits him to enter his safety zone. 

These Chestnut Teal (above) were easy to locate as they were visible, as many waterbirds and waders are, exposed near the water or on it, unlike passerines (tree birds) which can be more challenging to capture hidden in among the dark eucalypt trees. One of the reasons Australian bird photography is more challenging then elsewhere is that our trees are very dense and dark green, not allowing much light through, We noticed the difference when birding in Britain, how the lighter larger leaves allow more light in. Once the bird is in focus the photo can be taken. Sadly, most of the time I have to take Manual shots due to the small depth of field of my lens, to make sure the bird is in focus. Many times, people marvel at how I can get shots in very small windows between trees, and the only way is Manual with much effort. Considering my left eye has greatly impaired vision, I give thanks to God when I get a decent photo. Some birds are almost impossible to photograph due to their fast continuous movement or their ability to remain hidden beneath thick shrubbery. IT can take much patience and many hours stalking these ones before success is procured. 

4. Log

Many birders, similar to myself, have said that the greatest delight is going home after the birding adventure and opening their box of treasures, meaning viewing the photographs they have taken. Photographing birds is a very positive and useful way of logging and recording your bird finds in addition to simply recording your findings in a book. The date, place time of day and species found. Many birders keep year round records of their finds, becoming very tuned in to and mindful to various birding areas and their resident birds. So much so that one can take you to a particular bird with a greater than 80% probability. My log is my photos. Each birding outing is a named and dated folder containing my photo treasures, backed up on several drives. My lifers and better photos are also transferred to my Speciated Bird Album of Australian Birds, which is a massive collection of all the birds I have seen, a folder for each specie, on a 2T drive. I set targets for new birds I want to discover each year (lifers) and plan to visit their areas.

5. Learn

In addition to just viewing the bird photograph, it is a teaching tool familiarizing you with the bird appearance and physical features. I also like to capture sound files and video clips of bird behaviour to help me in learning about the bird specie. Each time I find a new bird (lifer), I have not seen before, I study it up in my Bird Field Guide to find out more about it, its characteristics, location, male, female and immature forms, how and where it nests etc. I will venture back out to attempt to photograph the complete set of male, female and juvenile if it is possible, though this is not always possible as lone birds often drift into our forests. So what do I learn from this juvenile Satin Bowerbird? I identified it as juvenile from my Bird Field Guide where it was described having dark patches on head and neck, less colour on chest and dark grey legs. Compare.

Here by comparing my photos of  a mature female with the juvenile I can learn to identify not just the bird itself, but its level of maturity, body shape, beak, how it sits on the branch, its calls and what it feeds on. I eventually will have a mind map of where I can find this bird locally as well as seasonally. The mature male is the most elusive of the family and looks quite different. This is the case with many birds. In many species the male will take longer to mature, and when it does its plumage may change to brighter or different colours to female. 

The immature always look similar to the female till they mature as a protective form of camouflage. Most of the colour changes and breeding plumage changes all have to do with signifying to both females and males this bird is ready to breed and bring forth offspring. Some birds go through several plumage changes a year passing in and out of breeding (eclipse), the Fairy-wrens are a good example of this. The male retains his blue tail but looses his beautiful blue and black plumage. So finding this juvenile bird as we did, brought further learning and understanding of this species, and opened the way for more interest in birding to my grandchildren who love to accompany us on our birding adventures. last week’s post showed a juvenile Rainbow Lorikeet I discovered, with its parent. Having them side by side helps highlight the developing characteristics of the young bird.

I hope this has been helpful, it was posted in my blog mid January 2019. If this has been helpful you may like to read my helpful birding hints found on my Birding InfoTips page.

NOTE: All photos, videos and music used on this website are photographed, composed, performed  by the site owner and remains his copyrighted property, unless otherwise stated. The use of any material that is not original material of the site owner is duly acknowledged as such. © W. A. Hewson 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018