Willow warbler perched in a bare larch tree, Co. Durham

Bird identification tips and tricks

Here are some tips to help you identify the birds you see. Remember, the more birds you look at, the better you will get at identifying them.

Practice makes perfect!

The more birds you look at, the better you will get at identifying them. There's no need to make life difficult for yourself - visit somewhere where you can see birds easily. Many RSPB reserves provide excellent opportunities to watch birds at close range and to get advice from staff, volunteers and other birdwatchers. 

Also, the vast majority of birdwatchers enjoy sharing their sightings and their knowledge with others. You can learn a lot from talking to people you meet at reserves or other locations. Better still, find someone experienced who you can go birdwatching with and learn from.

If you can’t identify it, don't fret about it - put it down to experience. There are always birds that 'get away' - sometimes, they just don't hang around for long enough to enable you to identify them. It's better to view this as a learning experience than as a failure.

Birds don’t always look like they do in the books!

When using a bird book to help identify something you've seen, bear in mind that real birds do not often look exactly like the pictures. Every bird is slightly different. Most books illustrate birds at one or two times of year, but birds replace their feathers at regular intervals and so are often in an 'intermediate' stage not illustrated. Dull or very bright light can also make birds look different. 

Fluffy birds

Bear in mind that in cold weather, birds can 'fluff out' their feathers and appear much fatter and more rounded (they also do this to make themselves look bigger to a rival). Birds with long necks, such as herons, can coil them up next to their bodies and look quite different, and a bird alerted to the presence of a predator might stretch its neck out in order to see it properly.

Grey heron, wading

Use your ears

The noises that birds make are a great help to birdwatchers. Some species would be very hard to detect if they didn't call or sing. Tawny owls are secretive during the day but can be very vocal after dark. Nightingales are famous for their loud, beautiful song, but like to sing from deep inside thickets and dense bushes. Chiffchaffs and willow warblers look very similar, but fortunately their songs are poles apart. 

Chiffchaff Phylloscopus collybita, perched in the leaves of a tree, Co. Durham

Watch out for fugitives on the run

Many different species of birds are kept in captivity, including a vast number of species of duck and goose. Sometimes these escape and join wild birds in parks and on lakes. So, if you see something very exotic-looking, it might not be wild! 

Another pitfall to beware is that escaped domestic ducks and geese can interbreed with each other and with wild birds, producing funny-looking offspring.

Ruddy duck