Using Field Guides to Find Uncommon Birds

This is the next post in helping birders find uncommon birds.

So you have figured out which uncommon birds you are going to look for in your area, you know all the varied habitats in your area, and you know you will probably need to spend a great deal of time finding uncommon birds in your area. So now we move on to using the literature available for birders to find uncommon birds in their areas.

What follows is not a review of field guides. This is about which field guide I have found useful for finding uncommon birds. Each field guide has its plus and minuses and somewhere down the road I’ll discuss those issues.

In case you forgot what the cover of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America looked like, here is a picture of my worn copy.

In case you forgot what the cover of The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America looked like,
here is a picture of my worn copy.

For initial habitat information I usually go with The Sibley Field Guide To Birds of Eastern North America. I own several field guides including Sibley’s big book, the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of America, and The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America.  And I have looked through several others in bookstores. I am sure there are others that also cover habitat, but for the basic understanding I come back to Sibley’s Eastern. I come back to Sibley’s Eastern because it is concise, easy-to-read, and gives a good brief description of the habitat you should be looking for. Sibley’s big book, National Geographic, and Stokes deal with bird ID more.

And to illustrate how little info is in a typical field guide -  Winter Wren - The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

And to illustrate how little info is in a typical field guide –
Winter Wren – The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America

What we are after in a field guide our hints to the habitat. The example bird I will use over the next few blogs will be the Winter Wren, a fairly uncommon bird in the Midwest.  I never had a lot of luck finding Winter Wrens in North-Central Illinois except for one spot. And I have yet to find one in Johnson County in 2013 and it has turned into my nemesis bird for the year. I know it’s in Johnson County but I still haven’t found one.

So reading page 307 of Sibley’s Eastern Field Guide he states that a Winter Wren is “uncommon in damp shaded areas, such as at edges of wooded swamps, where it climbs around fallen logs and overturned stumps.” That’s it. Twenty-one words. I know the guide has to cover all species in Eastern NA so it has to be concise.  And it could probably be more specific for your particular area, but those 21 words say a lot. I am betting the Winter Wrens you have seen fall into that habitat description. I know mine have. Both the Winter Wrens in Illinois and it’s cousin the Pacific Wren in Oregon.

And if you have really been out bushwhacking you can probably rattle off 3-4 locations in your area that match that  type of habitat. A wooded stream with very little undergrowth. A stream on the edge of a forest. Or a stream in a canyon cut out of limestone cliffs. Noticed I said streams. I have always seen them by small, slow flowing streams.

So from that brief description we should be able to find Winter Wrens in any area.  But personally that is the rub in Johnson County. Very few areas with small running streams in wooded areas. But I will keep searching.

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