Last week I wrote about my search for a better way to learn birds. I will now conclude the story. (link to last week’s blog)
What the Researchers Discovered
The researchers found out that the most effective way of learning and more importantly, retaining, is to learn a small amount of material and test yourself on it. Repeatedly. Using things like flashcards or small written tests. Once you have learned a small amount of material do the same thing with the next group of material. BUT MAKE SURE TO GO BACK AND TEST YOURSELF ON THE PREVIOUS MATERIAL ON A REGULAR BASIS.
On to Southern California and Costa Rica
So how did I implement the research? For next to nothing I purchased a second copy of Stiles and Skutch’s Birds of Costa Rica from Amazon. I already had a copy of Sibley’s Western Birds that I decided to sacrifice for the cause. After reviewing status and distribution charts for both areas, I came up with a list of birds to study.
Using an Exacto knife I proceeded to cut out the selected birds and tape them to the back of 3×5 note cards. Then I wrote the key field marks and for Costa Rica birds the area’s they might be seen. I started with the birds listed as common and moved to uncommon. This was not a fast process. I had the common birds done in a couple of weeks. However I was still cutting out the uncommon species the week before we left for Costa Rica.
I settled in a routine of quizzing myself while I was on the treadmill (i.e. dreadmill – I hate being indoors). Let me say that sure helped pass the time. I worked in groups of 15-20 cards and would quiz myself on the picture, asking what field marks made this different from similar species. I usually never did get them all right, like confusing the Scarlet-thighed Dacnis and Red-legged Honeycreeper.
Here is the key point, the birds whose names I couldn’t remember immediately in the field, I recognized enough that I could describe them in my voice recorder and easily ID them back at the lodge.
In both Southern California and Costa Rica I had no problems with any of the birds I studied. The problem I did have were birds that were so low on the status and distribution lists that I hadn’t bothered to learn them. Carrying the voice recorder and describing the birds in detail made ID’ing them relatively easy though.
I finished both trips without any lingering doubts like I had on previous trips.
Going forward I will now use this method before migration or before traveling to new areas. I have already made cards for the winter finches and hawks I might encounter in the Midwest. Soon I will be making cards for what I hope will be an early spring migration.
So how do you learn new birds? Please leave an answer in the comment section.