Before getting into this topic, I want to note that many of us have been seeing more than the usual number of orioles, grosbeaks and some other species recently. I think the unfavorable winds for migration have resulted in these species piling into our area without an opportunity for continuing on.
Some species that rarely use feeders are using them now too, probably because insect populations are down due to the cool temperatures and delayed leafing-out. Finally, some friends in Nevis and Akeley observed good numbers of migrating warblers of various species on May 20. They missed my Park Rapids property, but we should all be on the lookout for them through the remainder of May.
Now to today's topic. This is the best time of year to learn to identify birds because they're here in abundance; they're in full breeding plumage, and they're as vocal as they will be all year. Now is when birds will most resemble the pictures in the field guides. Plumage variation at other times of the year can be very confusing for the beginning birder - so begin your learning experience in the spring and early summer.
I recommend focusing on a few of the species you see nearly every day at your feeders or elsewhere in your yard. Some of these are the black-capped chickadee, white- and red-breasted nuthatches, blue jays, song and chipping sparrows, and the downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers. These species are easy to master because males and females are similar in size and in coloration.
Other common but trickier species are goldfinches, Baltimore orioles, rose-breasted grosbeaks and purple finches. In the latter two, males are easily identified by their bright colors, but females are streaked brown and white, like many sparrows. The sexes of orioles and goldfinches are not as dramatically different, but the females seen alone may be perplexing at first.
Using your field guide, study the plumage patterns of these common birds and others, noting particularly the presence or absence of key field marks. Where are the colors (if any)? Are there streaks on the breast, bars on the wings, stripes on the head, a ring around the eye? These are some of the important features that enable you to quickly narrow down the list of candidates for a species with which you are unfamiliar. Learn to look for these automatically.
But don't stop with plumage. Look at the size and shape of the bill (long and narrow or fat and conical - see the huge conical bill in the grosbeak), the size and shape of the body (slim or chunky), and the shape of the tail (long or short, the tip straight across or notched). These features are often key to identification when other field marks may not be diagnostic. Once you have mastered the art of "rapid assessment" of field marks, your job of finding the mystery bird in the field guide will be so much easier. Practice now and be rewarded.