speed birding: identification on the road

Recently, I returned from Argentina and Uruguay (on a lovely trip with my choir!!). Abroad, we spent the majority of our time (when we weren’t singing, that is) in cities or driving between cities. If I’d had my way, we would have visited more parks or done a few hikes in the surrounding countryside, but as it were, we mostly remained in the urban heart of Buenos Aires. So in terms of birding, that meant little to no nature, no experience, and—oh no!—no binoculars. I hadn’t even brought the zoom lens for my camera. I also realized on day 2 that Merlin, my trusty bird ID app, didn’t include Argentina in any of its regional guides. So, without my usual tools, I set out to make the most of my eyes and notebook.

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monk parakeets in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay!

Thankfully, in the city, some familiar feathers greeted me—rock pigeons were everywhere, hopping along busy sidewalks and perching on statues. But as it turns out, most of my active birding ended up being from the window seat of a charter bus, traversing the flat countryside from city to city.

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a rufous hornero, the national bird of Argentina!

And surprisingly, in the few seconds it took to spot a bird, observe a few details, and whiz past on the highway, I managed to catch a few key pieces of information that helped me identify the majority of these bus birds (?!).

 

 

 

While these weren’t the best conditions for accuracy and quantity of sightings, I was surprised by how many different birds I saw! So don’t give up on car birding, especially when you’re in a new place without much time to walk around. You never know what you’ll see, and it passes the time (6 hour bus rides, looking @ you)!

Here are my top things to observe when IDing on the go. These are also super applicable to birding in general, but when you’re in a moving vehicle, it helps to know exactly what to look for!

  1. silhouette

    What shape was the bird? Did it have long legs like a shorebird? How was it perching? What shape were the wings? The silhouette of a bird is the fastest way to identify its family. Sometimes, you can tell what a bird is just based on its shape!

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    a perching picazuro pigeon!

  2. color

    Next, try to determine the main colors of the bird. If it has different patches of color, indicate where on the body these different colors are located.

  3. size

    This can be a bit tricky from inside a vehicle, but see if you can approximate the size of the bird based on its surroundings. Often, it helps to compare the bird mentally to a bird whose size you’re familiar with. For example, if you think of a sparrow as a small bird, a robin as a mid-sized bird, and an eagle as a large bird, you can make a note of how your bird compares to these size references.

  4. habitat and behavior

    Even after you pass the bird, you can observe its environment. Additionally, note the activity of the bird when you saw it. Was it perched on a fence? Wading in water? Was it alone or in a flock?

  5. unique features

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    look for details like the eye line on these cinclodes!

    If you see a bird close enough to notice patterns or detailing on the head, wings, tail, etc, definitely note these down. The color of the beak and legs can also be very helpful in identification, especially when it comes to distinguishing similar species from each other. Even if you weren’t that close, some birds have very visible interesting features—for example, I was able to identify a southern lapwing based on its crest (a few extra long feathers on the back of the head) which made the bird look like it had a rattail (??).

And finally, try to look it up as soon as possible. Maybe you weren’t able to jot down that many details, or maybe you still have a clear image of the bird in your mind. The longer you wait, the more likely you are to forget information (unless you really write down every single thing you noticed!).

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a caracara at a ranch we visited!

Also, as you might guess, “speed birding” has a higher level of uncertainty than birding at a regular pace. For several of the birds I had spotted, although I had written down everything I could observe from the bus, I couldn’t confidently conclude which species they were.

 

I saw a good number of coots in marshes along the road, for example, but since I hadn’t been close enough to observe their bill markings, I couldn’t say which of the three or four common species I had seen.

But that’s ok! I think birding on the go is a good way to keep yourself entertained and observe the landscape around you (especially if you’re in a totally new place!). And more importantly, speed birding hones your skills for your future birding adventures. Sometimes, you only get a few seconds to look at a bird before it flies away! If you already know what to look for, you’re much more likely to get an accurate record of information that is useful in identification.

So even if you don’t plan to bird from the car anytime soon, hopefully this helps you figure out a strategy for identification! And as always, happy birding!!!

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