Enjoying the Birds of the Ottawa Valley
Getting Serious about Birds


A birder is someone for whom looking for birds and identifying them is an avocation, or at least a primary hobby. An ornithologist, on the other hand, looks at birds, at their behaviour, anatomy, and abilities, while a naturalist appreciates birds in association with other living things and their environment.

The two essentials for a birder are a field guide and binocular. For advice on field guides, see "Books on Birds".

How to Choose a Binocular

Binoculars are labelled by two numbers, such as 7x35. The first number, 7, is the magnification. The higher the magnification, the more difficult a binocular is to aim and hold steady. The second number, 35, is the light-gathering power. The higher the number, the heavier the binocular. A light-gathering power more than five times the magnification is wasted for birding. Wide-angle binoculars are heavy, bulky, and require that your eye fit too closely to the eyepiece for comfort in cold weather. But, the view makes it easier to keep track of warblers flitting around in trees.

Most birders prefer a center-focus light-weight 7 power binocular for general-purpose use. The most popular is the (recently discontinued) Bushnell Custom 7x35.

A binocular is two monoculars (telescopes), mounted together with a V-shaped hinge. The two must point in the same direction. Many cheap ones do not.

To check a binocular that you are thinking of buying, hold it, with the point of the V upwards, up to your eyes. Alternately closing one eye, then the other, bend the binocular hinge until both eyes see a circle of light. The circle should be sharp, all around. Outside the circle should be perfectly black. You have now adjusted the distance between the telescopes to match the distance between your eyes.

Look for a brick wall, or similar evenly patterned surface. Stand facing it, square on, from at least ten meters away, with no glass or other obstructions in the way. Close your right eye and focus the left telescope using the center-focus knob. Now close your left eye, and focus the right telescope using only the eyepiece +- adjustment. You should now be able to close both your eyes, then open either one in turn, and see the field in focus, without any feeling of eyestrain. Everything should be in focus both at the center of the field and at the edges.

Now, look for a building, at least 100 meters away. Close your right eye. Aim the binocular so that the edge of the building is precisely at the left edge of your field of view. Open your right eye, close your left. If the binocular is in alignment, the building will still appear precisely at the edge of view. As before, alternate eyes as a check. Next, make sure, in the same way, that the top of the building is precisely at the top of the field of view for both eyes.

If the binocular is not in alignment, or if its focus is not even across the field, do not buy it, no matter what the price. These problems can not be fixed. Never buy a binocular unless you are allowed to carry out these checks, on the actual binocular you will buy, before you pay for it.

Expensive binoculars are more likely to stay aligned, despite inevitable bumps in the field, than cheap ones. Their focusing adjustments are more likely to work evenly over extremes of temperature.

To see the difference between a cheap binocular (under $100 late 1985) and a moderately-priced one ($100-$250), look at a telephone pole against the sky. The cheap one will show coloured fringes along the edges of the pole, particularly if the pole is at the edge of the field of view. The pole may also appear curved when at the edge of the field. If you don't know whether you are looking at coloured feathers or at imperfections of a binocular, it's hard to identify birds!

The main difference between medium-priced and expensive binoculars is the control of contrast. The Nature Canada bookstore used to have a perfect demonstration site for binoculars, overlooking the old Ottawa train station. A cheap binocular showed sunlit parapets, with featureless shadows under them. A moderately-expensive pair revealed shadowy pigeons, nesting under the parapets. The extremely expensive Leitz Trinovid enabled a viewer to see the colours of the pigeons' feathers, because the brilliant light from the parapets did not leak over into the shadows.

A binocular is the item of equipment you will use the most of any, on whose quality you will rely to see crucial details of birds from deep shadow to reflection-crazed waterfront. $250 may seem like a lot of money, but with care your purchase will last a lifetime. Oh yes, if it comes with a case, throw it away. Binoculars have to be available!

When you are really "hooked" on birds, you may add a 10x binocular for shorebirds and gulls (I prefer a Bushnell Broadfield 10x40 to any other, regardless of power), but most confirmed birders get a telescope and tripod. A Bushnell Spacemaster with the 22x wide-angle eyepiece is the most prized scope. Some have a zoom eyepiece to 45x. Manfrotto is the current local favourite among tripods. Another favourite "second eye" is the shirt-pocket 6x24 binocular that you never feel like leaving behind when you "aren't going to be birding".

Other Equipment

Keep a notebook, and not just for lists or rarities. Review of your own written notes is the best possible way to sharpen your observational skills. It is the way to build evidence that a particular bird action is diagnostic for, or strongly suggestive of, a species identification. It helps you determine which of your birding locations are the consistent "winners". And, it brings back memories of those little experiences in nature that glow in the mind.

The most exciting birds always seem to turn up on the worst days. And, of course, for most birds, the buggier the better and the more isolated the better. So, get a light knapsack, and keep in it:

Take out your car jack and use it once, to be sure it works. Oil it once a year to prevent rust seizing it up. Modern tires are so reliable that most drivers tend to forget about them. But, you will be demanding much more of them than most people do, when driving into dumps and over back country roads.

During winter months, especially when owling, you will be driving on little-travelled roads. Keep a warm sleeping bag for each person in your party, and a change of clothing (in case of a fall into water) in the trunk of your car at all times. Cars break down when you least expect them to. Don't expect to be able to hail a passing car for help any more. Drivers are now terrified of mass murderers. It's safety first to plan for survival without outside help.

Finally, get 1:50,000 scale maps for the areas you will be birding in frequently, from the Energy Mines & Resources map office at Carling and Booth, Ottawa, or from provincial Ministry of Natural Resources offices. (They are now available on-line). These maps show most watercourses and significant wetlands in their area, the contours of the land, and areas covered by trees. They also show even the most minor road, as long as it existed at the time of printing. (Note: just because a road is shown, it is not necessarily public. Cartographers can't see No Trespassing signs on their aerial photos!) They will help you to get to the little gems of birding spots that follow in the "Checklist of Locations", and to find new ones.

Identifying Birds

How do birders identify birds? Let me start with a short tour of our brain, where identification takes place.

Our brain has many distinct parts, but it is generally believed that the part called the cerebral cortex is responsible for most recognition of pattern in our lives, for consciousness, speech, and logic. The cortex is divided into two sections, right and left, connected by a bundle of nerves that communicate between the two halves. Step-by-step (linear, or analytical) logic, including the construction of grammatical speech, is done mostly by the left side, while holistic (associative, or synthesis) thinking is done mostly by the right. The two brains are very nearly two different people.

In Canada, our schools rigorously train us to use the left brain, to analyze concepts into separate pieces, to verbalize them and communicate them. The right brain is not merely ignored, but is specifically suppressed as being "illogical". Artists have long known that the right brain perceives deeper truths than the left. Artificial intelligence research is showing that the right brain is just as logical as the left. Its logic deals successfully with problems that are too complex for the left brain to handle. Our brain can possibly think of a billion things at once. Left brain logic seems to be limited to a dozen or so. And, we can verbalize only one!

The best birders rely almost totally on the right side to build (synthesize) an identification from what they see. They then struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, to communicate, through the left brain, why they know what bird they have seen.

So, to identify birds well in the field, you must overcome your schooling, and exercise your right brain until you use it as much as your left. (Ornithologists and banders cannot afford the uncertainties of right-brain methods, but, with a bird in the hand, there is time for their left-brain techniques.) Many birders begin this process by simply reading their childhood bird guide for hour after hour, until they absorb it. But, more effective ways of developing right-brain thinking are needed once a left-brain mind-set has become entrenched with age. Here, translated from well known methods used to train artists to "see", is the best exercise I know of.

Pick a common bird, a male house sparrow, at your feeder where you can watch it easily for ten minutes or so. Look at the end of the bill, then trace every outline slowly with your eyes, saying to yourself what you see: "stout bill with sharp point, almost as thick as long, black, surrounded by black on face; black patch, starts as a line at the top of the bill, then goes to the top of the eye, down to the bottom of the eye, back almost to the bill, then down the throat, broadens into a large patch on the chest ..."

When you have finished, turn away and do relatively mundane things unrelated to birds, wash the dishes or whatever, for about half an hour. Then, do the same exercise again. There are a lot of neat details on "just a house sparrow", aren't there!

After a while, you will be aware that when you look at the bird, your mind is saying "house sparrow", quick as a blink, and that, several seconds later, the "black bill, black throat ..." routine surfaces in your mind. Your right brain has now learned a bird, and has learned to communicate its identity to your left brain. The left then starts to explain what your right brain told it.

Now, continue with the actions of a house sparrow. Describe to yourself the way it hops or runs, its actions while it feeds, the way it takes flight, again for about ten minutes at a stretch.

Watch how fast it flaps its wings. As a bird gets heavier, its wings get longer in relation to its body size. They flap more slowly, or the bird flies faster. Birds that are heavy for their size flap quickly and fly fast, like a one kilogram mallard. Those that are light for their size flap slowly, like a one kilogram great grey owl.

Watch the way it hovers over the feeder. Only birds with large areas of wing in proportion to their weight (low wing loading, in aeronautical parlance), and flexible joints, can hover for long.

Watch the way it flies. The wing of a small bird has more air resistance (drag) for its upward lift compared to the wing of a large bird. It's most efficient for the smallest birds to close their wings and coast when not flapping. Medium sized birds flap continuously (crows), larger ones flap then glide (ravens), while the largest require so much energy to flap that they glide whenever possible (turkey vultures).

After a while, you will be driving down the street, a bird will flash up from the road some distance ahead, and your right brain will whisper "house sparrow".

Next, listen to all the sounds it makes: the "chireep" nest-site song, the "ch-ch-ch" of confrontation, the nasal "kewkew" warning of predators, the many single-note calls of a mated pair. When you awake in the morning, and your first thought, at the "cheep" from outside the window, is "house sparrow", your right brain has learned, essentially, how to identify the bird in any situation where you might encounter it.

I suggest that you choose a chickadee for your second exercise. It is easy to watch one for long periods in association with house sparrows. Its darting actions, due to its extremely light weight, are so different from sparrows that you will become sensitized to watching for this aspect of identifying birds. Flight and feeding motions are an aspect hardly ever touched on in field guides. All good birders rely heavily on them.

Then, choose a common bird from each bird family, so that you will be acquainted with all major local types of birds. The following are particularly suitable:

From then on, take the world as it comes, one bird at a time.

Later, use the same technique to add a different dimension to your knowledge. Pick one visible feature of a bird, then go through your field guide studying just that one point on all the birds that might appear here. Bill shape and size (compared to the head) should be your first choice. Your field guide will have further suggestions.

Photographing Birds

white-breasted nuthatch - Ray Holland Telephoto lenses are a necessity to get a reasonable image size of any bird, except at a window feeder. You will find that 400 mm is the most useful focal length with any but the tamest birds, with 35 mm equipment. There are two types of telephotos, mirrors and "normal".

Most mirror lenses have very poor resolution off center. (The Nikon ones are notable exceptions.) All mirrors have two other problems. The depth of field is less than with normal lenses at the same f/stop. Unlike normal lenses, mirrors cannot be focused wide open, then stopped down for the film to give more focusing latitude. Their advantages are light weight, small size and low price.

Normal lenses are of fixed focal length, or variable (zoom). Locating a bird with a fixed long lens can be a real problem, but all but extremely expensive zoom lenses have very poor resolution at these focal lengths. Ray Holland used a fixed 300 mm for the photo at right. Since no one makes accessory viewfinders any more, many precious seconds can be saved in the field if you make your own sighting device.

Use a very solid tripod and a camera body with a well-balanced mirror to minimize shake. Firmly fasten a lens hood to maximize contrast (minimize flare) and to protect the lens from being scratched by branches. The additional protection of a Tupperware cover to fit the lens hood is worthwhile while on the move. Rewind exposed film right into its cassette, to avoid double-exposing an entire roll. (Pockets are not the best filing systems.)

So outfitted, load your pockets with film, and practise judging what a bird is going to do next. A breeding bird is either going to hide, or sing from one of several singing perches around the edge of its territory. Watch the bird for a while to locate its favoured spots. The best technique with a non-resident bird is to stay still, crouched down, while a friend persuades the bird to move towards the camera. If alone, crouch and move slowly. Or, stay in a car as a blind, hide behind foliage, or use a portable blind, then use a tape recorder to lure a bird in to a singing perch.

Avoid photographing birds on their nests. Especially, avoid rearranging the nest surroundings to look photogenic. Eggs will become chilled, or nestlings hungry, while you are around. Predators are attracted by upset birds, and by unnatural scenery. A photograph that results in the death of your subject isn't worth it.

High-power strobe flash systems were required for quality colour photographs of birds until a few years ago. Today's high speed colour negative film makes them unnecessary except for photographs of birds in flight. (I use Fuji 800 with no flash for almost all my bird photos.) If you would photograph birds in flight, you will also be into things like scaffolding and photoelectric shutter controls, far beyond the scope of this book.

The best bird photographs illuminate a special moment in the life of the subject. Always ask "Why am I taking this picture?" Compose a specific answer in your viewfinder. Ask "What is the bird thinking?" Wait until the instant that its action shows it.

Practise using extremes of depth of field, lighting, and colour contrast to simplify your compositions. Especially, check the background. Looking through a telephoto lens with its small depth of field, it is easy to overlook background objects that turn a good photograph into a mere snapshot. Start with subjects like milkweed pods and insects, then progress to birds.

Finally, crop your pictures, even if you take slides. There should be a balance between what your subject is "saying", and the environment in which it is saying it. A viewer's eye should be drawn into a picture directly, not have to hurdle unwanted details around the edges.

But, be prepared. Bird photography means patience. Lots of it.

Drawing Birds

chimney swift - Michael Sankey Birds are creatures of motion. The first technique to practise if you would draw them is the quick sketch, gesture drawing. Start with simple unmoving objects: a single blade of grass, then a bursting seed pod, then a bird skin in the Museum. Work at reducing the number of lines you must draw while retaining the essential features of your subject. When a friend can recognize the species of a bird skin sketched in a single minute, you are ready to enjoy drawing birds in the field.

Next, learn to draw movement itself. Draw a series of pictures on pages of a pad which, when fanned, show a bird landing or taking off from a feeder. Find a friend with a movie camera and single frame viewer to study flying motions. You will soon see that flying is hard work! Feathers have to push air around, lots of it. Little feet have muscles to grab branches, to absorb landing shock, and to launch a bird into the air.

The study of "positive and negative" space is particularly valuable for bird compositions. Many successful drawings make a bird and its environment of roughly equal importance. Symmetry is the most pervasive attribute of life. Your drawing will be closer to nature when you come to terms with symmetry, rather than deny it as many artists do. Try to draw things from the bird's point of view, not yours.

To give your compositions strength, study oriental compositions, where absolutely nothing is drawn except essential elements. Inflate the essence of each fundamental element of your drawing in turn, so each takes over an entire sheet, as abstract design. Then superpose detail, layer by layer, or feather by feather, so that the underlying form remains visible.

To spot essentials of form, take photos, then study them upside down, sideways, or in mirror image. Light doesn't just bounce off milkweed pods or feathers, it comes through them as well. We tend not to notice such things until our recognition of everyday forms is upset. My son Michael found new ways to see form in the art style of the Haida of Canada's west coast.

An important technique, unavailable to all except the luckiest of photographers, is to juxtapose two elements in a composition, with a strong relationship (tension) between them that brings out the character of each.

With your technical skills in hand, decide what to say with your drawings. Birds are strong, mysterious, elegant ... Drawing offers unlimited choices, more than any one of us can make use of.

There are millions of lessons waiting to be learned while drawing from nature. To learn them, you have to make mistakes. Get out in the field, and start making them!

Recording Bird Song

Just as a photographer must compose a view of nature, a sound recorder must compose a soundscape. Your composition tool is a directional microphone.

The more directional the microphone, the more uneven its response is to different frequencies, and the more difficult it is to use, but the cleaner the possible composition. Most directional microphones use sound wave diffraction and cancellation methods, because these can be made to cover a wide range of frequencies. Even though professionals use extremely directional (and expensive) "shotgun" mikes, you can obtain interesting results in quiet locations with an inexpensive cardioid mike.

Most bird songs have no low frequencies at all, so bird recorders can also use a parabolic reflector. This reflects sound into a microphone, so the mike must face backwards, into the parabola. It should be small (about 1 cm diameter for a 60 cm parabola), and mildly directional to avoid receiving sound directly from the bird. The gain of a parabola increases sharply with frequency, typically from 2x at the 300 Hz of a great horned owl to 100x at the 10 kHz of a blackpoll warbler. So, a frequency correcting network must be used for birds like a cowbird (see "The Glory of Song"). You will find one heavy, awkward in the bush, and difficult to aim without making extraneous noise. But, they are cheaper and more directional than a shotgun mike.

An inexpensive cassette recorder, cardioid mike and handkerchief windscreen can produce results good enough to get you "hooked". Since a chance recording of three Siberian tits in 1972 with such equipment, Monty Brigham has gone on to record 255 Canadian species, and to produce several discs. Such professional results, however, require a higher tape speed and better recording level control than inexpensive systems allow. With any machine, stick to one brand of tape (60 minute if cassette), and have the machine's bias and equalization specifically set for it. Bird song is much more demanding of a recorder than is speech or rock music. Earphones must be light, with foam cushions so you can hear birds outside the field of your microphone. Best results also require flexible electronic filters, to get rid of sounds outside the range of frequencies of the species you are recording.

Just as a slide show is improved by a commentary, so your nature recording will be best with a continuous background "take", with selected focus recordings dubbed on top. The background masks the inevitable differences in ambient sounds of the individual "cuts". Such a recording also needs a well thought out plan, as precise as that for a movie, and at least a four-track overdubbing tape recorder (plus the field machine) to implement it. But, the result can be the aural experience of Monty's The Songs of the Seasons.

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