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Birding Identification 101

Updated on December 27, 2013

Some South African Kingfishers

The easily identified largest Kingfisher-Giant Kingfisher
The easily identified largest Kingfisher-Giant Kingfisher | Source
The Pygmy Kingfisher-notice the blue crown does not reach the eye line
The Pygmy Kingfisher-notice the blue crown does not reach the eye line | Source
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, often seen in our garden.
Brown-hooded Kingfisher, often seen in our garden. | Source
Malachite Kingfisher- notice the blue crown extends to the eye line
Malachite Kingfisher- notice the blue crown extends to the eye line | Source
Woodland Kingfisher- not found in our area.
Woodland Kingfisher- not found in our area. | Source

The first thing that you need to know is that identifying the many different birds in an area is a very difficult project to undertake. There are certain birds that are easy to recognize because you have seen them so often and you know them by name and sight. In birding terms you are familiar with their “jizz”. This word is taken from the acronym GISS used in the war to identify planes in the sky and stood for “general information about size and shape .Today birders have adapted that acronym to JIZZ and is stands for”general size, shape and appearance”. The Cape Wagtail that regularly looks for grubs and worms on your lawn is probably known by everyone in the family as a “Waggie” because of its unique behaviour of wagging its tail as it walks.

The bird that nests under the eve of your house is obviously a Swallow because of its swallow shape, size, kind of nest and behaviour. What kind of Swallow it is however becomes more of a challenge. In our area there are several different species of Swallow that arrive as summer visitors from the north.

If we look carefully at the two small Kingfishers in this area there are two ways of deciding if it is Malachite or a Pygmy Kingfisher. Habitat will be the first indicator. If the Kingfisher is perched or flying over water it is probably Malachite because this species feeds on fish and other aquatic food. The Pygmy is found in wooded areas or gardens because it feeds on insects and grubs. The other indicator is the size of the blue crown and how far it extends next to the eye. Otherwise the coloring and size of the two smallest kingfishers is very similar.

There are a few essential pieces of equipment needed by anyone wanting to become a more serious birder; a pair of binoculars is essential in order to see the bird more clearly and a field guide to find the bird’s actual name. Many different field guides are available at the local bookshop and here personal preference needs to dictate which one you choose. Buy the best field glasses you can afford and ones marked 40x10 or 35x8 are the most popular.

A small notebook and pencil/pen is important to take notes and many birders now days also carry a digital camera to record an image of a bird that they cannot easily identify in the field, for later research. If you can afford it then a smart phone or tablet with a copy of your local bird field guide is very helpful. Some South African Birders have the latest Roberts at their finger tips giving them a lot of information on birds/calls/distribution and everything else you may need in the field.

The first question that comes into the picture when you spot a particular bird is what general kind of bird is it? Here size and what it is doing becomes important. General features like shape of bill and colours then assist with further identification. In the Southern African area most field guides group the 930 plus birds into about 25 general groups that would include water birds, raptors, sunbirds, waders, doves, sea birds, cisticolas,warblers, etc. Some of these groups are large (raptors) and some are small (kingfishers). The larger groups are then further divided into subgroups. The raptors for example are divided into vultures, eagles, buzzards, Hawks, Kites, etc.

Once you have established what kind of bird it is you then move on to a more specific diagnosis. If it is a Swallow, which of the swallows in your area is it? Using your field glasses note as many specific characteristics as you can. Often birds do not hang around for a long time and so note down what you see, either in your mind or preferably in your note book. A sketch is very useful showing any markings that you notice. Two of the local Swallows have a striped belly and so this is important to note. Are the markings well defined or not? That will tell you if it is a Lesser Striped Swallow or a Greater Striped Swallow. Be careful however! The name Lesser Striped or Greater Striped refers to the size of the Swallow and not how distinct its stripes are. In fact the more clearly marked one is the Lesser Striped Swallow.

As you become more skilled you will also know what birds are likely to be found in your area. What the bird is doing and what the habitat is that it is found in are further clues in identifying it. Some bird species are so close in appearance that it is only by identifying the call that they can be told apart.

The more you look at birds through your field glasses, the more you note distinctive features and the more that you then check those features in the field guide the more skilled you will become. Many birders keep a life list of birds that they see. Lists for specific areas and trips can also be fun. Others simply like watching birds and their behaviour. The beauty of being a birder is that you can practice the hobby at many different levels.

It is very helpful to join your local Bird Club and go on organized outings with more experienced birders who are usually very helpful towards newcomers. Good luck as you join the many people all over the world who are taking up this fascinating and challenging pastime.


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    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Glad you enjoyed it, thanks for commenting!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Very nicely done, Johan! I liked the fact that you used you varied kingfishers as an example here. Splendid work.

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks for your kind comment and I am glad it was useful.

    • Genna East profile image

      Genna East 4 years ago from Massachusetts, USA

      I’ve sometimes wondered how bird identification is actually accomplished. Thank you for this knowledgeable and common sense approach. And your photos are simply beautiful!

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks for your kind comments Faith Reaper. God Bless!

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 4 years ago from southern USA

      Fascinating hub on bird identification! Thank you for your informative hub and beautiful photos!

      Enjoyed the read.

      Up and more and sharing

      Blessings, Faith Reaper

    • Johan Smulders profile image

      Johan Smulders 4 years ago from East London, South Africa

      Thanks for the comment.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 4 years ago

      This was very informative Johan. It reminded me of when I was learning about the birds when I started in my backyard years ago. Those were beautiful photos and shots. This definitely gets a 'thumbs up'!