IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to post this information here although it is by no means a Kruger only tip on birding. On SABirdNet a couple of people mentioned that they have problems with identifying waders (me included) and from the responses thus far this one by Trevor Hardaker, in my opinion, is very helpful. Surely not only for waders as these principals can be applied to and group of similar looking birds. I hope that you will also find it of help in your birding. It is quiet a long post, but worth it IMHO
Perhaps the problem that many people have with identifying difficult groups of birds is more fundamental than what as actually already been suggested. I agree with many of the points already raised about what to look for in terms of diagnostic features, etc., but I think we have to take a further step back to look at what is potentially the real problem.
Over the years, I have watched the way many different people make their approach to birdwatching. I am not suggesting that there is only one correct way to bird, but in my humble opinion, there are certain fundamental errors that are being made.
The primary problem I have experienced is that people try to obtain an exact match with the bird they are watching and the illustration in their field guide - almost like playing the card game "Snap!". Countless descriptions in rarity submissions I have seen have contained the sentence "The bird looked exactly like the illustration in the field guide".
The field guides serve only as an aide to identification. There is no way they could possibly cover every eventuality. Waders, for example, have a number of different plumages, varying from juvenile, through 1st year plumages to adults which have a summer (breeding) plumage and a winter
(non-breeding) plumage, also known as basic and alternate plumages by some.
So, if your bird is in an intermediate phase between plumages, you are not going to get an exact match in the field guide.
One almost needs to go through an apprenticeship for birding to learn what to do. This may sound derogatory to some, but it is not meant to be. Look around you and watch what other birders are doing when they look at a bird.
This may assist you in developing your own skills and will teach you how to look at a bird.
When you are faced with a small bird at some wetland feeding along the muddy edges, what should you do? Its really down to basics...first quickly look at the habitat and the bird's habits. From that, you can very quickly establish that it is a wader of some sort. Then, get a feel for the size. Compare it to something you know well e.g it is about the size of a sparrow or a weaver or whatever. By getting a feel for the size, you have already narrowed down the possibilities.
Let's assume our bird is sparrow sized. That means we can cut out all the larger waders like Greenshanks, Godwits, Curlews, Whimbrels, large plovers and the larger sandpipers. So, we are really left with the small sandpipers and stints and sanderling.
Next, we quickly look at the bill length and compare it to the head. Is the bill the same length as the head roughly, or is it noticeably shorter or longer. In our case, the bill is roughly the same length as the head.
Immediately, we eliminate all the small plovers who's bills are much shorter than the heads and we also cut out others like Curlew Sandpiper, Dunlin, Broad-billed Sandpiper, etc. who's bills are obviously longer than the head.
Based on our local field guides, we have now cut down the possibilities to about 8 or 9 species. A quick glance at the bare parts colouration reveals that our bird has dark legs and a wholly dark bill. Immediately, we eliminate a few more and are down to 5 possibles.
The 5 are Sanderling, Little and Red-necked Stint and White-rumped and Baird's Sandpiper. These are all small waders with dark bare parts. So, we've now got to look a bit more closely at the bird and see further details.
Next we try and ascertain the age and plumage of the bird and whether it is moult or not. Lets assume the bird is in fresh winter plumage without any moult.
Looking more closely at the bird, we can see that the wings don't project hugely beyond the tail when they are folded. We quickly eliminate White-rumped and Bairds by doing this and are down to 3 possibles.
In fact, the projection of the wings beyond the tail is pretty non-existent, so it probably should eliminate Sanderling as well, but we quickly check the overall plumage of the bird and find that it is not particularly pale and going back to size, Sanderling is probably just a little too big to be compared to a Sparrow. So, another possibility eliminated.
Down to the 2 stints - We now have to start looking very carefully at the bird. What is the leg length and what is the tibia/tarsus ratio like? What does the bill really look like? Is it wide at the base? Does the tip look pointed or blunt? What does the plumage actually look like? Are the feathers uniformly coloured or do they have darker centres and paler fringes? Are the pale fringes white or are they a buff colour? You really have to pull the bird apart feather by feather.(figuratively speaking of course!!!)
Once you have satisfied yourself with all of the above points, you should have no problem putting a name to a bird. Obviously, taking field notes is extremely useful (especially before consulting a field guide) and in today's modern digital age, a few photos through your telescope may just help you to clinch the ID as well.
Needless to say, having the correct literature available is invaluable. I have a travelling library that is permanently in my car while I am out birding. Besides containing the normal local field guides, it also, amongst others, has a copy of the following books in it:
Collin's Bird Guide to the birds of Britain and Europe by Mullarney, Svensson, Zetterstrom and Grant
- arguably one of the best field guides in the world and having many overlaps with species in SA including great detail on the waders.
Shorebirds - An Identification Guide
by Hayman, Marchant and Prater
- an illustrated guide to all the waders of the world giving more detail on identification pitfalls and plumage variations than any field guide.
Photographic guide to Waders of the World by Rosair and Cottridge
- many great photos of various plumages of all species and often a useful added reference in the field.
Finally, the comment that time in the field is a big plus is very true. Not only does it improve your knowledge of various species, but it actually serves to hone your basic birding skills which is imperative in assisting you to making identifications.
Sorry for all the waffle. Needless to say, waders are one of my favourite groups of birds and I could go on for ever, but rather not! I'm now off to go and find some waders to look at......
"The measure of life is not its duration but its donation." - Peter Marshall