How do you see birds? Looking is how you see them. The better questions are how and where to look.
Have you ever looked for agates on a rocky beach? It takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust to the appearance of agates. At first, you see little or no difference among the rocks. Then, an agate or two. Finally, eyes keyed to the task, agates are easier to see. It’s the same for spotting birds.
With sufficient practice you create a search image: a mental image of what, generally speaking, a bird looks like, or what kind of movement defines a bird. Once acquired, this image can be yours for life.
The adjustment can be quick — not instant, but not years. If you look and listen, you can train your eyes to see and your brain to be quickly reactive.
Where to look
This all works better if the habitat is at least halfway appropriate. You might be surprised at what you find in your neighborhood, any neighborhood, if you just stand and listen. You will have more success, though, if you are somewhere with trees, bushes, shrubs, weeds, flowers, long grass, dirt, mud, puddles, and water small or large, standing or running.
Clue: Look for public land where the managing agency has created paths and trails for access. Paths and trails are a very good beginning.
Look in trees near and far, in tangles of shrub, in weedy patches, among reeds and cattails. Watch for movement. Look for things shaped like birds, and things that look odd. Watch for anomalies. Your search image is that anomaly.
Look at fences and wires and poles and posts. Hawks, owls and meadowlarks like to sit on posts. Smaller birds sit on wires.
Look at muddy farm fields. Look at harvested farm fields. Watch the rural roadside. If you can see birds from inside the vehicle, don’t get out. You are in an excellent blind. (While driving, it is best if the passenger in a moving vehicle is the designated looker.)
Look for birds overhead or soaring in the distance. Look on power lines, on tree trunks, on the outer or higher branches of trees, in the shade on the ground. Look for birds along and on shorelines, particularly during spring migration. Look hard on water; birds there often disappear in the waves and the glare.
Look for movement on the horizon. Check the source of fleeting movement you see from the corners of your eyes. Look for unusual silhouettes. If a shadow floats across the ground in front of you, look up.
Move slowly and quietly. Stop walking now and then. Become part of where you are. Look at everything.
In spring, male birds sing courtship songs. They most often do this from exposed or high perches, most likely in sun. Look there.
Raptors like sunny perches in early morning. Look for obvious perch points in the sun. Raptors also perch high, the better to watch for prey. Look on poles and light standards and highway signs. Look at large stick nests. Look twice at bumps in the nest.
Ground-feeders like shade. Little brown birds in semi-light are more difficult for predators to see. Look there. Look in berry bushes and fruit trees at appropriate times of the year. Look on sewage treatment ponds. Water birds love those ponds. Look for nest boxes. Look up, often.
Crows bunching up over there? Loud and raucous? Look for the source of their excitement. Crows harass raptors and owls. Look just below their dive. Watch for the victim to flee.
Eventually, your eyes will automatically go to all of these places. Your eyes will see, your brain will react, you will see more birds.
The best looking most often is in the morning; early is better. Look in rain and fog. Migrants come to ground when it rains. Birding in lousy weather can be excellent.
We often think that there are more birds somewhere else. But, if we were there, we would want to be here. Cultivate patience. Stand quietly in one place, alert. Listen. Watch for movement. Be aware.
When birding with others, consider that success is often inversely proportionate to the number of observers.
My friend Mike says birders should listen, listen, listen all the time. And if your birding partner talks too much, he says, find a new partner.
A good book on this subject is “On Looking” by Alexandra Horowitz. She takes urban walks with experts from 11 different fields of knowledge, describing what they see that she doesn’t. They have the search images in mind that she has yet to develop.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.