If you want to easily elevate your bird identification skills to a new level, I suggest that you download into your smart phone the free Merlin Bird ID app.  This app is designed by the Cornell University’s Laboratory of Ornithology to simplify bird identification.

       One of the best ways to learn to identify birds by sight and sound is to be fortunate enough to have a mentor that can guide you through what at first seems to be a complex and confusing process.  If you are like me, when you started out on this lifelong journey, you had to teach yourself the nuances of bird identification using nothing more than a Peterson field guide and a vinyl long-playing recording of bird calls.   Nowadays beginning and veteran birds alike can benefit from a variety of birding tools that make birding easier than ever before.  One of best of these tools I have stumbled across is the Merlin Bird ID app.  When you download Merlin into your iPhone, you are carrying an electronic mentor around in your pocket. 

       Merlin helps to visually identify birds in two ways.  For example, you can name a bird using a photograph. Simply take a picture of the bird and run it through the app’s photo processing feature, the picture will be compared to literally thousands of digital photographs in Cornell’s massive photo library.  In a matter of seconds, Merlin will make suggestions as the bird’s identity.

       If you don’t have a picture of a bird, you can determine the bird’s identity by answering three simple questions relating to its size, color and habitat. In a matter of seconds, Merlin processes your answers and generates a list (complete with photos) of possible matches.

      The feature that I am most fond of is the song/call identifier. If you hear a bird singing from a dense shrub or treetop and wonder what bird is producing the distinctive sounds, Merlin is ready to solve the mystery.  All you have to do to use this feature is hold out your phone and tap the record button. The device uses your iPhone’s microphone to detect the songs and calls filling the air all around you.   The app records these sounds and compares them to the bird songs housed in Cornell’s extensive audio library and develops a list of possible matches (complete with photos).  The matches pop up on your phone’s screen. Often you will be amazed at what the device detects.  Whereas you might have thought the calls and songs coming from the trees and shrubs around your house were made only by mockingbirds and cardinals, only to discover white-eyed vireos, pine warblers, and a wood thrush were also lurking nearby.  On more than one occasion, the app has identified up to ten species of birds vocalizing in my backyard on a spring morning.

       At the end of each recording session, you can compare the app’s identifications with the recordings of each species in question and decide whether or not Merlin was correct.

       Keep in mind these are tentative identification. However, based on my limited experience using the app, I have found the sound identification feature has been accurate over 90 percent of the time.

       The Merlin app also has a variety of other features that I did not describe. With that in mind, for more information regarding this powerful birding tool, go online and read about Merlin’s entire suite of features.

It is truly amazing that the app is packed with so much information.  Can you believe the app is free?

       If you give the app a try, let me know what you think of it.


      Now that we are on the doorstep to winter, activity around our bird feeders is going to increase.  In fact, during the winter our feeders will be visited by more birds than at any other time of the year.  When this occurs, we are always on the lookout for a rare bird.  Some rare visitors to our feeders, such as the yellow-headed blackbird, are easy to spot.  However, others such as hybrids are much more difficult to identify.  One such hybrid is a cross between a white-throated sparrow and a dark-eyed junco.

       The white-throated sparrow winters throughout Georgia.  On the other hand, the dark-eyed junco commonly winters across the entire state, with the exception of extreme southeast Georgia.  However, in New England and Canada portions of their individual breeding ranges overlap.

       For reasons that are not fully understood, these birds will occasionally interbreed and produce offspring.  The resulting hybrids will display traits of both parents.  Since the combinations of these plumage patterns vary widely from bird to bird, trying to figure out what you are looking at is often perplexing.  For example, in the case of dark-eyed junco/white-throated sparrow hybrids, observers have reported birds with the wing pattern of a white-throated sparrow and the head pattern of a dark-eyed junco. Other birds look much like white-throated sparrows but sport the white outer tail feathers of dark-eyed junco.

       In order to spot one of these hybrids, you must carefully study the flocks of sparrows that converge on your feeding area.  With a little luck, you will spot any bird that just does not seem to to look right. 

       If you see a bird that is a potential hybrid, take lots of pictures of it and share them with others (please include me on this list).  Sometimes it takes many people to reveal the true identify of a hybrid.  

       White-throated sparrow/dark-eyed junco crosses are more common than you might think.  Such birds have been seen in many states such as Minnesota, Arkansas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Connecticut, and even Georgia.  Who knows?  There is no reason why the next sighting of this fascinating bird may occur in your backyard.


        I have long been fascinated with trying to tell one individual bird of the same species from another.  When it comes to some species, the only way this is possible is when one bird has an unusual feather (e.g. color, feather, injury) that distinguishes it from others of its species.  In other cases, birds of the same species may exhibit slight variations in their basic color patterns.  For example, a few weeks ago I posted a blog that discussed a technique that allows an observer to identify one male rose-breasted grosbeak from another by the subtle differences in their red chevrons.  A similar technique allows you to tell one blue jay from another.

       The blue jay is undoubtedly one of our most easily recognized birds.  All blue jays seem to appear exactly alike.  However, if you take the time to study the black necklace-like pattern displayed across the bird’s throat, face, and nape, it becomes apparent that this pattern varies widely between blue jays.  In fact, once you begin focusing on this feature, you will wonder why you never noticed these differences throughout the many years that you have been watching the comings and goings of blue jays in your backyard.

       A quick way for you to appreciate this fact is to pull up a collection of blue jay photos on your computer.  If you do, in a matter of seconds, it becomes apparent that each blue jay has its own unique black necklace.

       If you photograph the blue jays visiting your birdbath and feeder, don’t be surprised if you discover you are hosting more blue jays than you ever realized.


   If you are looking for a great way for you and your family to become citizen scientists without leaving your home, take part in the 2019 edition of the Great Christmas Bird Count. All you have to do is record the birds you see in as little as 15 minutes at least once during the four-day count period.   This year the Great Backyard Bird Count begins Friday February 15 and runs through Tuesday February 19.

        The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, and Bird Studies Canada sponsor the count.

        The count enables biologists to monitor the status of bird populations in the United State and abroad. These data are also proving invaluable in assessing the impacts of weather and habitat change on bird populations.

        The scope of this survey has changed dramatically since its inception in 1998. What was initially a survey conducted in North America, the project has gone global. This past year 214,018 volunteers from more than 100 countries took part in the count.

        As you might expect, most of the checklists (108,921) submitted in 2018 were sent in from the United States. However checklists were turned in from countries such as Columbia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Costa Rica, and Mexico to name but a few.

        When to checklists were tallied it was determined 6,310 species of birds were seen. Remarkably, these birds represent more than half of the species of birds in the entire world.

        Here is the list of the ten species whose names appeared most often on checklists in 2018: northern cardinal (48,956), dark-eyed junco (43,742), mourning dove (43,412), American crow (40,959), blue jay (37,549), downy woodpecker (36,495), house finch (34,766), black-capped chickadee (21,942), and house sparrow (31,884), and European starling (28, 683).

        Interestingly, the most numerous species seen last year was the snow goose. Some 4,957,118 of the large white and black waterfowl were sighted.

        If you would like to participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count, the first thing you need to do is decide how many areas you want to survey. It is totally up to you where and how many areas you wish to conduct your count efforts. Most folks simply count the birds they see in their backyards. Others survey several areas. Next, go online and register for this year’s count. I should note the count is free.

        The only stipulation is you survey a spot for a minimum of 15 minutes. A count can be conducted at a location only once or every day during the four-day count period.

        After you complete a count, you simply submit your data online ( After I submit my data, I like to pull up the map that displays the data collected throughout the state in real-time.

        Since you only submit data for the birds you can identify, practically anybody can take part in the survey.

        For details concerning how to register and conduct your count(s) visit the Great Backyard Bird Count website.

        I sincerely hope you will take part in this year’s count. If you do, you will be birding with a purpose and have a lot of fun along the way.


       At some time or another, practically all of us have tried to photograph wildlife through the windows of our houses.  However, in far too many cases, when we pull up the images on our computer we are not happy with their quality.

       To say the least, photographing wildlife through windows is a difficult proposition.  Here are a few tips that just might help you take better pictures through your windows.

       It goes without saying that the best pictures are made through the highest quality window glass.  If your windows appear wavy, you are doomed to failure.

       If the window glass in your house shows little distortion, before taking any photographs thoroughly clean them.

       Then when a photo opportunity suddenly presents itself, shut off the lights in the room where you are standing.  This accomplishes two things.  First, it cuts down on reflections.  In addition, I have found that I can move about a darkened room more easily without frightening the wildlife I am trying to photograph.

       Even then, as you get into position to take a photo, move very slowly, and avoid any quick movements.

       If possible, try to take your pictures from a spot where the camera lens is parallel with the glass.

       Once you get into position, hold the camera lens as close to the glass as possible.

       If you are going to use a flash, place it close to the glass also.

       Refrain from taking pictures when the sun’s rays are streaming directly toward your window.

       These tips may help you take better backyard wildlife shots.  However, it has been my experience that I can consistently take better pictures when I raise the window just high enough to focus on my subject through this opening.  When I am able to do this, I know the odds of my taking a picture are much better.



   binoculars-4-feb-2016If you are looking for the perfect gift for a family member or friend that enjoys watching backyard wildlife, I can think of no better Christmas gift for them than a pair of binoculars.  Here are a few tips that will help you select a pair that will add immeasurably to their enjoyment of the butterflies, birds, mammals and other wildlife that inhabit their backyard.

        If they have never used a pair of quality binoculars, they are in for a real treat.  The crisp, clear images seen through a pair of binoculars that are matched to their personal needs are so superior they will be astounded.

        Selecting a pair of superior binoculars is not as difficult as it may seem.  Once you know what to look for, it is as easy as starting a lawn mower.

        When buying a pair of binoculars here are the features you need to keep in mind: cost, eye relief, field-of-view, brightness, weight, size, and focusing distance.

        One of the first things you will notice when you pick up a pair of binoculars is two numbers such as 8.5×50.  The first number indicates the magnification or power.  The second number refers to the size of the objective lenses.  The objective lenses are the two large lenses found at the front of the binoculars.  These lenses are measured in millimeters.  All things being equal, the larger the objective lens, the more light passes into the binoculars.  This is especially important when trying to view wildlife in subdued light.

        Some of the more common powers that you will find are 7.5, 8, and 10.  Keep in mind the higher the magnification the harder it is to hold the binoculars steady.  If the person you are buying the binoculars for does not have a steady hand, stay away from 10 power binoculars.

        Field-of-view (FOV) simply refers to how large an area you can see at 1,000 yards. For backyard wildlife viewing, binoculars with a narrower field of view are usually best.

        One of the most frequently overlooked properties of a pair of binoculars is eye relief.  Eye relief refers to the distance between the eyepiece and your cornea when you are looking through the pair of binoculars.  If your gift recipient wears glasses, buy a pair that has an eye relief of at least 15.  The higher the number, more eye relief is provided.  Consequently, binoculars with an eye relief of 22 offers more eye relief than a pair with 15.

        If person that will be using the binoculars likes to look at birds or butterflies through a pair of binoculars without an eye relief of at least 15, he or she will be constantly removing their glasses to get the best view.

        The key factor in determining the brightness of a pair of binoculars is the diameter of the exit pupil.  You can determine the relative brightness of a pair of binoculars by dividing the size of the objective lens by the power.  For example, if you are computing the brightness of a pair of 10×50 binoculars, when 50 is divided by 10 you end up with an exit pupil of 5mm.  All things being equal, binoculars with the largest exit pupils are bright than those with smaller exit pupils.

        Remember though, when the exit pupil exceeds the diameter of your eye pupil; there is no advantage in purchasing an instrument with a larger exit pupil.  You should also be aware that when most of us reach the age of 40, buying a pair of binoculars with an exit pupil above 5mm is simply a waste of money.

        I would also recommend that you purchase a closing focusing binocular.  This will enable you to look to focus on butterflies and other critters six feet or less away.  Some binoculars allow you to focus at objects only 4.5 feet away.  This is a must, especially if somebody wants to enjoy looking at all kinds of wildlife.

        Keep in mind, if you buy them a pair of close focusing binoculars, they will be able to look at butterflies, anoles, chipmunks, and birds with the same instrument.

        Binoculars with the finest optics range in price anywhere from $300 to $1,000 or more.  Many of these instruments come with lifetime warrantees.  However, if you do not want to spend that much money, good quality binoculars can be purchased for far less.  Shop around, go to a birding supply store or other establishments that deals in optics and look at several pairs; compare their size and weight.  If the clerk is knowledgeable, she or he can help you select just the right pair for your friend or relative.  You can also go online and see what is available.  Companies that deal in a number of brands will often give you unbiased evaluations of what are the best choices in your price range.  One such company is Eagle Optics.

        Wherever you buy a pair of binoculars, make sure that you can return them if they do not fit the needs of your relative or friend.  I know of some companies will you to do for 30 days.

        Once the person receiving your gift begins using a pair of quality binoculars, a whole new world will open up to them.  No longer will all butterflies appear the same.  They will be able to distinguish an American lady from a painted lady and an eastern phoebe from a titmouse.  They will begin spotting the tiny, colorful warblers that feed atop their oak trees in the springtime.

        Indeed, in short order, they will find their binoculars as indispensable as the nesting boxes, plants, water, cover, and feeders that attract wildlife to their backyard.  Your gift will truly keep on giving years to come.