Wildlife and Nature Photography

Look For Subtle Differences When Identifying Birds

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Not all birds are as easily recognized as the Bald Eagle. Learning the field marks of birds will help with proper identification.

Identification is something that all birders struggle with at some point. Whether you are new to the hobby or have been at it for years, proper identification can be a challenge. This is an aspect of birding I am always trying to improve on, especially when it comes to warblers, sparrows, and shorebirds. Fortunately there are a few things to focus on when trying to properly identify a bird by sight.

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Note the yellow eye and bluish bill of the male Redhead pictured above on the left versus the red eye and solid black bill of the male Canvasback below.


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Eye and bill colour are overlooked field marks that help us tell the difference between a Redhead and a Canvasback.

A few subtle differences within every species will leads to proper identification. In the front of your field guide there is a section devoted to bird identification which describes the various field marks, also referred to as topography of a bird. Many of these distinguishing field marks can be found on the bird’s head. Eye lines, eye rings, and eye brows, are markings to pay attention to when unsure what you have observed. Other areas of the head to pay attention to are the crown, throat, and beak colour. As you move down the bird, markings on the breast, belly, wings, and tail all become important in identification.

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Differentiating between the Field Sparrow above and the American Tree Sparrow below comes down to a few subtle field marks.


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Both birds display rusty crowns and white wing bars, but there are a few key marks that separate these two sparrows. The American Tree Sparrow has a chest spot, eye stripe, and it’s beak has a dark upper with yellow lower mandible. The Field Sparrow lacks the chest spot and eye stripe, has a solid pink beak, and bold white eye ring.

I recommend studying the front of your field guide and familiarizing yourself with the field marks of a bird. Not always is the entire bird visible when birding, so focussing on the part of the bird you can see, and running through a check list in your head will help. Make a mental note of all the distinguishing field marks to reference with your guide later. If you carry a camera with you when you bird, snap a photo. Regardless of the quality of the photo you get, most times they can be used for identification.

As you become more familiar with the various field marks on a bird and what to look for, identification will become easier. As with anything, practice makes perfect, so the more you bird the better you will become.

Good birding,

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5 Responses to “Look For Subtle Differences When Identifying Birds”

  1. Mike Hensen

    Once you get the flycatchers under control, I’ll borrow you for an afternoon! They kill me.

    • Paul Roedding

      The Empidonax Flycatchers are very hard. They all have eye rings and wing bars. During the breeding season they can be identified by voice and habitat. During migration they rarely sing, leaving many, myself included, scratching our heads.

  2. Gillian

    Yes, most of the time I can only identify the Empidonax flycatchers if they are singing. Voice is a terrific way to distinguish between similar-looking species, such as the dowitchers and sparrows, so if you are struggling with those I would suggest learning a few of the common songs to help you out. I have a good ear, and a good handle on IDing birds that are sitting still, but I’m not great at distinguishing many birds in flight, such as accipiters, warblers, and even gulls if they are too far to see the colour of the bill. I had a white-winged gull fly over my yard last winter but couldn’t tell if was a Glaucous or an Iceland, so I can’t add either one to my yard list just yet. 🙁

    Love your sparrow pics above, by the way – I don’t have any decent shots of a Field Sparrow yet.

    • Paul Roedding

      Thanks, identifying by sound is something I am always working on too. I find it really helps with my photography. I don’t always see the bird, but I may hear it, which helps me be more patient and wait for a photo opportunity.

    • Gillian

      I use the Peterson “Birding By Ear” guides and found them excellent. Now when I hear a Black-throated Blue Warbler singing in the woods in May I know what it is, and am willing to put a little more effort into tracking it down.

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