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Up Your Game and Be a Better Birder

March 31, 2020

“I will see you, and I’ll seize you, and I’ll squeeze you til you squirt.”

“What’s that,” you say? That’s a Warbling Vireo talking to the insects it’s about to eat for breakfast. Learn this mnemonic and a host of other skills in The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online Bird Academy series of courses. Now is a perfect time to jumpstart your birding skills.  Then, just walk out your door, look, listen, and be present in nature to boost your immune system and elevate your mood.  

Warbling_Vireo_#2 0800vv

Warbling Vireo (Western) by V.J. Anderson – Own work

Did you Know: Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined from the plague.

With these courses, you can start at your level, go at your own pace, and access them whenever you want. In addition to courses for a fee, they offer free videos, learning games, and open lectures. The courses include videos of behavior, photos, easy-to-remember tips, bird song recordings, and much more. If you are an educator or professional and need to earn Continuing Education Units, you can purchase a CEU Add-on for each qualifying course.Need more convincing? Watch this video from the intro to “How to Identify Birdsongs.”

It’s easy to scan through a course overview before signing up to make sure it is right for you. For example, the “How to Identify Bird Songs” course uses a unique approach to teach you how to listen to bird songs in their natural soundscapes. You can even try a free sample lesson before enrolling. Once you learn the fundamentals, you can supplement what you’ve learned by using Cornell’s free Merlin app on your smart phone when you are in the field.  You step through Merlin’s filters to narrow down the possible birds by date, location, size, color, and behavior to get a short list of the most likely candidates. Pick a bird, and then click on the “Sounds” icon to hear a selection of songs and calls.

Merlin icon

The “Warbler Identification”  course includes 12 lessons that cover all 51 warblers across the U.S. and Canada. They can be tricky to identify because they flit by in a flash of color, but you’ll find the help you’ve been looking for in this class. In addition to a step-by-step process for identification, the photos and audio recordings are a great help. Many of the pictures were taken from angles that are the way you actually spot the birds in the field, but are seldom seen in the field guides. There are pictures of their vents and bottoms of tails taken from directly below. Warblers have adorable little bums. 

Redstart vent

American Redstart. Photo Tom Warren/Audubon Photography Awards

To get a speed-learning preview of this bottom-up trick for ID’ing warblers, check out Nicholas Lund’s Audubon article “Birdist Rule #59: Learn to Identify Warblers From Below.”

eBird icon

The “eBird Essentials” course is free. Now, that’s a bargain. The eBird app, which is also free, will help you discover tools to find birds wherever you go, and gain confidence in submitting your sightings. You’ll get expert tips for using eBird and joining the global community of birders.


There is even a course on “Nature Journaling and Field Sketching.” The enticing course description says, “Whether you’re looking for a creative spark for your artistic expression, a way to develop your observational skills, or an immersive and mindful journey through nature, this course will guide you with friendly art instruction and engaging practice sessions that will help you make the most out of your journaling.”

Bird identification is a challenge, which makes it a great hobby for a lifetime. There is always something new to learn. But there are tips and tricks that will make it easier. As Cornell’s Kevin McGowan says, “All male dabbling ducks can be distinguished by the arrangement of their white patches alone.” Did you know that?


Bufflehead by Liron Gertsman | Macaulay Library


Common Goldeneye

Common Goldeneye by Greg Schneider

To put this info on waterfowl right at your fingertips, the Lab of Ornithology has teamed up with Waterford Press to publish “Where’s the White?” This series of three laminated foldout pocket guides focuses on picking out patterns of white and dark. You can order here for $7.95 each. 

Cornell Waterfowl “The Basics” foldout

Now, you’re sold on taking a course, right? Then jump right in! Be sure to get out in the field right away and start using what you learned to keep it from slipping away. Even with parks and beaches closed temporarily, look for new discoveries right in you own neighborhood patch. 

[Jane Beseda]



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