Friday, 2 September 2016

Finding Your Own Birds

Seeing as it is still very 'samey' out there today, here's a post inspired by a comment left on my blog by Sue Murphy. Thanks Sue for the idea, I hope this helps you and others who are keen to find...

For me, I get no greater enjoyment when I'm out birding and finding my own birds.  Of course it is amazing when you bump into an unexpected rarity, but I am not just talking about rare and scarce birds, I'm talking the regular migrants too. 

There are two different tactics when it comes to bird finding. You either are mobile and head to where you have best chances of finding whatever birds it is you want to find, this is why Shetland becomes busy with rarity hunters in Sept/Oct - birders are maximising their chances by travelling there. Or the other option, and the one that is the backbone of patch birding, is you stick with your patch and you just work it as often and as thorough as you can.

I have had a good think over the past few days, and here are my top tips on how to find your own birds:

Know your stuff.

If you do want to find rare and scarce birds, it is so important to know the common species well, how they behave and all their different plumages. Calls are so important too and are often the first clue that something is lurking in the bushes or flying over. This is the part that can take time, but enjoy the learning and just stick at it. I found being around people who are experienced and knowledgeable a huge asset when learning. It's also important to know what habitat any target species like, as this will dictate where you go to look for them.

Chiffchaff,/Willow Warbler/Melodious Warbler?

Find your own place.

It's pretty simple I suppose, if you bird an area that is already heavily birded by others, then there is less chance of you finding something. Whereas if you find yourself your own little patch or area, then it's all yours!  Picking the right spot can be hard though and can take several blank visits, but I would look for geographically different areas - whether it is a headland (however small), or a high point (high ground can be as effective as a headland when it comes to migrants). Water is always good as this increases the potential of what could turn up, whether a lake, river or the sea, and seems to act as a magnet for most types of birds, even species we don't usually associate with water.

The nearest thing we have to a headland, and persistence has paid off.

The early bird catches the juiciest worm.

So many times up Beer Head, even if it has been a good morning for migrants, at about 09:00 it can dry right up and birds seemingly disappear. Sure it can be knackering, and this certainly isn't always the case, but in general get out early before the dog walkers and ramblers. A Stone Curlew on your local patch may only be there until the first person walks along the path and flushes it, make sure that person is you.

Don't be too focused.

So many times I have gone somewhere hoping to find a particular species, but found something completely different. It's important not to be too narrow minded out in the field (I am sometimes guilty of this). If you are hoping to find say a Yellow-browed Warbler, you would quite rightly be concentrating on Long-tailed Tit flocks, but be careful not to walk past that Wryneck hunkered down in the grass to your left, or the Common Crane that's flown silently over.

Wryneck is one of the species that can be easily overlooked.

Expect the unexpected.

If you are lucky enough to find a rare bird and can see what it is as plain as day, do not let the 'but it can't be it's rare' get in the way. Of course you should always appreciate that rare birds are rare, and if you have poor views of something don't let your mind get carried away prematurely, but having a mind set of expect the unexpected is not a bad thing at all.

No an Audouin's Gull shouldn't have been on Seaton Marshes on 14/08/07 but it was!

Surf before bird.

Keeping an eye on the internet, at blogs (like this one!), bird news websites and social media, can give you a good idea of when to look for what. Say for example you desperately want to find your first Yellow Wagtails, when you notice me blogging that there are flocks of them on Beer Head, head out to your nearest cattle covered hill or headland, and I'm sure you will score.

Know where to go.

This is kind of similar to the previous point, and only really counts if you have a few sites to choose from. You wouldn't find me walking around Beer Head in January, or looking for rare late autumn migrants in mid summer.  Go where the birds are likely to be. In winter this may be an estuary, the sea, or some sewage works. In spring and autumn it could well be a headland or a park. It's not just the time of year, it's weather conditions too. On a bright sunny April morning I will go up high to Beer Head to look for migrants, but on a damp foggy April morning I will go birding down in the river valley and the marshes. When it comes to sea watching then it is all about the weather, although I must say in my opinion the sea is always worth a scan whatever the conditions.

If you have a new patch it may take you a few years to work out which areas are best at which times of years and in which weather conditions, but this is the excitement of a new patch!

I found this Stone Curlew on 13/7/07 because I decided where to go given the date and weather,

Stay five minutes more.

How many times do you read "I was just about to give up when..." If you have another five minutes, use it and be patient if you have to. Yes it can sometimes be boring but staying that little longer may make all the difference. The simple rule is the more time out looking, the more chance you have of finding.  

Spotted Crake - a typical species that it pays to be patient for.

Take a few more paces.

Similar to the above point, if you have the time to have a look around the next hedge, or over that brow of the hill, make the extra effort and do it. I wonder how many birds aren't ever found because people have turned around just that little bit too soon.

Birds find birds.

It's surprising how often when out birding, especially in autumn, you can walk for ages and see very little, but then come across a small area that is full of birds. Birds attracts birds, so wherever there is a gathering of whatever species, it pays to spend a little extra time here looking.  Also under this heading must come the fact that gulls are ultra useful when it comes to finding raptors or other large birds (Storks, Cranes, etc), if you learn their alarm calls you will instantly be able to tell when a bird of prey is on its way.  Same applies to a certain extent to passerines too, a flock of Swallows will soon let you know when a Hobby is around.

Use your bins.

I rely heavily on my ears and naked eyes when walking around birding. But it pays to stop and have a scan with your binoculars every now and then, check fence posts and muddy edges, because by the time you have walked up to them, a bird may have slipped off when you weren't looking. This is also important if you want to find birds like raptors, which are often too far away to even see with just your eyes.

Be the first to spot that incoming Osprey over the far hillside.

Look around.

Don't just look in front of you, or down at the ground if you are not having a good day! Look left, right, behind you and up. 

Stray from paths.

If you are able to, in busy spots don't just walk along paths. These paths may have been walked along several times in the ten minutes prior to your visit, so any birds will have probably moved from here. Walk along the other side of the hedge to the path, or even just 10 feet to the side of a path.

Don't believe strangers.

So many times I have walked into a packed bird hide, been told "all is quiet" or "nothing here", and then found sometime decent.  If you don't know someone's ability, then presume they aren't that good however expensive their equipment is (good optics/cameras mean nothing). Equally, if you do go and see someone else's scarce/rare bird,  it's always good practice to challenge the ID in your head, and go through the points that you would look for if you had found it yourself.

Don't give up.

Well this one is pretty self explanatory, but it is harder than it sounds. If you are going through a quiet spell try and stay positive and just keep plugging away. Sometimes it helps to try something different or change tactics.

Well I hope you found this a good read.  This is how my brain works, and hopefully sharing it will help others to get enjoyment from finding their own birds...


  1. Can I add one more? Enjoy the common birds. If you love watching common birds it means you are in the field and looking at habitat where birds are (feeding resting whatever)....all the more chance you will stumble on something good. But even if you don't, watching Wheatears, Lapwings or juv Willow Warblers is just awesome!

  2. Exacty, that is so important I agree. It's what makes me go out every day to be honest because the common birds are great to watch as they are.

  3. Another great post. Thanks so much for your blog - I found it by accident and now check in daily to see what's happening down in Seaton and learn something new about birds.

    1. Hi 'Novice'. That's very kind of you, I am delighted you stumbled across my blog and that you now use it often. In case you didn't realise, my twitter account is displayed on the left hand side of my blog, so if I don't get chance to write a blog post that day, news of what's about will be posted there. All the best, Steve.

  4. Great article. I read this article properly. This is one of the best posts. Thanks sharing this article
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  5. Excellent advice with some really useful tips - thanks Steve

    1. Hi there, am so glad you like it! I have basically put out what goes on in my brain, so hope it works for you :-) Wishing you all the best.

  6. Hi Steve
    I've been out of the country for a while & was checking up to see what I've missed on your blog whilst I've been away. What a great post! I'll be going out with renewed vigour to find my own birds! Thanks! Sue