1. Getting Started Learn to See Details One of the biggest differences between the expert birder and the novice is that the expert has spent years training to see details. The beginner must literally learn how to see them. The challenge of seeing and interpreting details in birds is complex, and all of the issues are intertwined. A patient and deliberate approach and an absence of distractions are prerequisites. Active study, asking questions while observing, is important. Anything that promotes detailed study-such as sketching or taking notes-is also very helpful. It is easy for a beginner to be overwhelmed by details and by the challenge and excitement of just seeing a bird. Not having a clear idea of what to focus on can result in an observation that yields no useful information. Experience will cure this, but as a general rule it is best to focus on the bird's bill and face. The shape of the bill will help you to place the bird in a broad group of related species, while the bill and the face together are a distinctively marked part of almost every bird. You must not only practice seeing details but also practice seeing details at a distance. The field marks birders use at a distance are different from the marks used at very close range. Be conscious of this and study the birds to see how distance changes perception. Watching a bird after you have identified it can be a very useful exercise. Watch it fly, watch it move around, watch it forage. Watch a bird as it flies away, but challenge yourself to identify it again based on what you can see at a distance. It's very important to know what youcannotsee on a distant bird. You'll often hear experienced birders say something like, "I didn't see the white patch but I don't think it would have been visible at that distance," or "I didn't see the white patch, and it really should have been visible." This expertise can only be acquired by experience and by consciously testing the limits of perception. Watch for Patterns A large part of identifying birds is knowing what to expect. Having an idea of what youshouldsee and simply looking for confirmation is far simpler and more productive than looking at a bird with no preconceptions. Every aspect of the birds' lives and appearance follows a pattern, and expectations of what species should be present and what they should look like are the precursors to quick and accurate identifications. Birds are found at predictable times and places, and this information can be a very powerful clue. For example: A meadowlark seen in California can be safely identified as a Western Meadowlark based on the fact that the Eastern Meadowlark simply doesn't occur there. You do not need to study plumage details or hear call notes to feel confident in its identification as a Western Meadowlark. On a more subtle level, if the Red-tailed Hawk is the most common large hawk in your area, you can start with the assumption that any large hawks seen are Red-taileds. Then, looking specifically for a reddish tail, white speckling on the scapulars, the correct overall size or proportions, or dozens of other characteristics might be enough for you to conclude within a fraction of a second that you are looking at a Red-tailed Hawk. There is no need to consider other possibilities unless something doesn't match up. Seeing and remembering all the details of variation in birds' appearance, habits, and distribution is much easier when one understands the underlying patterns. By paying attention to patterns, one develops a sense of the expected range of variation and can then quickly recognize and study any bird that doesn't match the expectations. One of the most basic patterns that the bird-watcher needs to understand is the groupings of related species. Everyone knows that ducks are ducks and hawks are hawks. The birder knows that, among ducks, the diving ducksSibley, David Allen is the author of 'Sibley's Birding Basics', published 2002 under ISBN 9780375709661 and ISBN 0375709665.