Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Whether you’re a birding newbie or a longtime “bird nerd” like me, you probably know that all birds have common needs for food, water, and cover for protection. However, over time birds have developed an incredible variety of adaptations to help them survive in just about any type of environment. That means that within any given area, different species of birds take advantage of different sources of food and cover. As a birder, you can follow habitat clues to both find and identify more species of birds, no matter where you are. When you first arrive at a new location, take some time to scan your surroundings before you set out looking for birds. What broad categories of habitat do you see? Are there woodlands, or wetlands? Sandy beaches, or coastal prairie? Or perhaps a combination? You get the idea.
Now, take a closer look. If there is water, is it fresh water or salt water? Shallow, or deep? Does it have a flow, or is it stagnant? Use these clues to help you narrow down the number of species you consider when trying to identify a bird. For example, imagine you see a bird foraging by diving repeatedly in shallow, fresh water with muddy banks. When you check your field guide or app, you can automatically eliminate any species that require deep salt water with a strong current. It is more likely to be a Pied-billed Grebe than a Common Loon.
If there are trees, what type are they? Hardwood, pine, palm, or ornamental trees with fruit? Are they mature or newly planted? Is the understory clear and open, or dense with scrub and brush? Again, you can use these clues to help you narrow down choices when attempting to identify a bird. If you spot a woodpecker foraging in an urban neighborhood with mature oak trees, it is more likely to be a Downy Woodpecker than a Red-cockaded Woodpecker.
Finally, what type of food sources are available for birds? If there is water, does it have a thriving ecosystem with fish, amphibians, reptiles, insects, or mammals as well as birds? Don’t forget, birds feed on plant materials too! Look for berries or other fruit, acorns and nuts, flowers with nectar, aquatic vegetation – anything that might be attractive to birds. Scavengers also love to forage around areas where people are active, searching for any potential food that may have been left behind or dropped.
I hope that this inspires you to slow down and consider habitat the next time you’re out birding! For more on how to improve your birding skills by following habitat clues, check out this month’s video, or consider signing up for my upcoming virtual workshop on November 17, “Location, Location, Location! Understanding Habitat.”
#LeagueCityBirding Contributed by Kristine Rivers, founder of Birding for Fun