One of the great things about Cape May are the indoor workshops. When your cheeks are wind-burned from standing on the Hawk Watch tower, when too much sun and surf has chapped your lips, when your legs are tired of hiking through the pumpkin patch at the Beanery, or when the rain drives you indoors, you can sit in a warm, dry spot and learn things to help you become a better birder. I attended three such workshops: an excellent review on raptors by one of the young interns from the Cape May Bird Observatory, a super study of sparrows by Michael O'Brien (geek-alert!), and a talk on intermediate birding by Vince Elia, which was chock-full of valuable information.
Vince started out by saying he added this topic because every other birding event he attended had lots of beginning birder sessions and several advanced birder programs, but nothing specifically geared towards those of us in-betweeners. Personally, I loved this concept. I feel I am no longer a beginning birder, but I have a long, LONG way to go before I call myself "advanced." This talk seemed to be aimed right at me.
I really can't remember everything Vince said, to be honest, despite taking notes. The room was hot and I was tired, and I kinda drifted off a bit towards the end of his 2 hour lecture. There were three things I remember him saying that we should focus on to advance our birding skills: Better optics (Buy the best you can afford), weather and how it affects bird movements, and the subject of this post, bird topography.
His opening remarks grabbed me and made me sit up. He asked if anyone in the room had a field guide. Everyone pulled out their favorite guide(s) from their back pack, birding bag, or coat pocket and waved them in the air. He selected one at random and opened it up. "Remember that diagram in the front of your field guide that you skipped over, saying 'I'll get to it later'? Well, guess what - It's later now."
I cackled silently. If only he knew. He had just spoken directly to me.
When I came home, I opened the front of my 4th edition (1980) Peterson's field guide. There it was. A "bird map."
My 2003 Sibley guide had it, too.
I'll be darned! Even the new book I bought at the CMBO bookstore, Sparrows of the United States and Canada, by David Beadle and James Rising, had a similar drawing.
And with sparrows, you talk a lot about the various stripes on their heads, so you have that much more to look for and learn.
Why spend so much time learning weird words like nape, vent, median coverts, and supercilium? Is it necessary to enjoy birds? Absolutely not. I have enjoyed birds and birdwatching for years without knowing what an auricular patch was. If this post makes your eyes cross and your brain go numb, don't worry. You don't have to deal with this stuff if you don't want to. But, if you want to describe a bird to an expert, it's nice not to fumble around saying "It was little and mostly yellow," or if an advanced birder is helping you sort out a grasshopper sparrow from a Henslow's sparrow, it helps if you know where to look when they mention the median crown stripe.
You don't have to memorize all these strange words in one day. Pick a part of the bird and study just that area, like the head or the tail, then use those words to describe birds you already know. Take Song Sparrow, for instance, my most common sparrow, which I recognize by the thick brown streaks on its breast and sides, and a strong central breast spot. If I look at the head, I see an eyeline behind the eye only (post-ocular stripe) and a wide, dark malar stripe. At the other end, I observe a long rounded tail. When I compare it to Savannah Sparrow, a bird I often confuse with Song Sparrow because it too has brown streaks and may show a central breast spot, I learn that the Savannah has yellowish lores (the spot between the eye and bill) and a short, notched tail. One feature on the head and one on the tail can help me sort out these two birds in the field.
So, open those field guides, and start looking at the diagrams in the front of the book. Remember, "It's later now."