Northern harrier [Fiep de Bie]

What bird is that?

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There are some fantastic books around on bird identification. Yet though I love books, I’ve never been particularly adept at leafing through field guides. Most of my learning has come from people teaching me things.  That personal touch has been more difficult to find during these COVID times, but it is important. I vividly remember people teaching me what to look for, how to see things better.

It often starts with breaking things down, looking for easy ways to sort information. How large is it—chickadee size, robin size, crow size? What shape is it? Is it long and slender, or short and round? Is it perched in a tree or on the ground? Are the colours bold and striking or is it camouflaged? These observations help paint a general picture of what the bird is, and what it is not.

Habitat is also quite helpful. When I see a Northern harrier, the hawk pictured above, it is generally flying low over fields, looking for rodents to eat. While they will take small birds, amphibians and insects, rodents such as voles and mice make up a large portion of their diet. These birds slowly work their way across a field or open area, wings stretched out and often tipping from side to side, getting a bearing on the prey below.

I would not expect to find one in a forest. The long, relatively thin wings would be a detriment when flying through a wooded area. This is where understanding habitat can really help. When I see a hawk flying through the forest, if it is blue jay size, it most likely is a sharp-shinned hawk. If it is crow size, then it will generally be a Northern goshawk or a red-tailed hawk.

When I started birding many years ago, I was not very observant. I was so excited to see something, especially a species that I didn’t know, that I didn’t take the time to look for clues to identification. When I see a bird these days, one of the first things I do is look at the beak. The size and shape of the beak tells you so many things. When I talk with people about woodpeckers, the analogy that springs to mind is that they have chisels on the front of their face, in order to peck at wood.

The beak tells me so much. The Northern harrier has a big, strong, curved beak that is made for tearing apart meat. It is not a woodpecker (that’s not a chisel!). And it certainly isn’t a big seed or fruit eater. Birds don’t have knives and forks. They are reliant on their beaks for eating.

When I see a similar beak on our small saw whet owl, I know again that it is a meat eater. These migratory owls nest in holes in trees. But their beaks are curved for ripping meat and totally unsuitable for drilling holes in wood. They often rely on holes made by some of our larger woodpeckers—hairy, Northern flicker or pileated—after they are abandoned.

Besides beaks, start looking at how long the tail is, if there are any wing bars (stripes on the wings), does it have a ring around its eye or a stripe there, does it have strong talons for grasping prey or webbed feet for paddling.

Learning more about birds, including identification, can help bring you closer to our natural environment. In time, you become a part of nature, not just an observer.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI