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Getting your 'big year' underway

Now that spring has finally arrived in Maryland, humans aren't the only creatures emerging from their habitats. Many native Maryland birds have begun migrating north for the warmer weather. They are ready to spread their wings and enjoy the now-abundant array of insects and berries. Spring is also the season during which many species of birds build their nests and begin to breed.

In fact, many birds come back after spending months in the south and build their nests in almost exactly the same spot as they did the year before. So, if you have spotted a family of bluebirds frolicking in your backyard, it could possibly be the same mother and father you enjoyed feeding and watching the year before.

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With all of these different species of birds making their way back home, this time of year provides a wonderful opportunity to add to your "big year" list, or to work on your bird identification skills. According to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, there are around 436 bird species that have been documented in Maryland with over 222 of these species breeding in the state. With these many types of birds roaming our skies, the task of identifying them can seem daunting. Luckily, there are many great resources to assist the birding novice in narrowing down the species you have been lucky enough to spot.

A good first step to bird identification is a nice pair of binoculars. Many species are distinguishable only by small details in their shape or coloring. Without getting a close-up view of the bird, it may be nearly impossible to identify its type. The next step would be to purchase a good bird guide. There are many choices to pick from, and a guide can be easily ordered online; but I felt that going to my local bookstore and browsing through them was integral in finding the right guide for me. This way, I could look at a variety of different bird guides and choose the one that had the content and flow that worked best for me. If you plan to keep your birding in this region, "The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America" or "Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Eastern and Central North America" are good references, with brightly-colored illustrations and easy-to-follow identification guides.

The Peterson Field Guide helped me when I first started identifying birds in my backyard and at the park. The first thing I look for is the general shape of the bird; for example, if it is plump or slender and large or small in stature. Birds in the book are categorized by size in inches. The next thing I look for is the shape of its wings.

You can tell a lot about a bird depending on whether the wings are rounded, pointed or notched. The shape of the bird's beak can also help identify what species it is. If the beak is short and stout, it may be a bird that eats seeds and uses its beak for cracking. If the beak is hooked, it could be a bird of prey. Some birds also have dagger-shaped beaks.

A bird's tail shape can also be a helpful identifying factor and is easy to determine in plain sight. The tail can be rounded, notched, pointed or squared. The color of the bird is integral to identification, but you may have to look at the field markers on the bird to differentiate between species. Field markers could be spots or stripes or other unique coloring on the breast of the bird, or white tips or stripes on the tail. The stripes near the eye and patterns on the wing are also specific field markers for birds.

In addition to identifying what the bird looks like, you can learn a lot from its behavior and habitat. Watching the bird's activities — such as how it is sitting, which way its tail is facing, or if it is darting around or staying very still — can be helpful in narrowing down its species. If the bird climbs a tree, it is good to note how it does this, especially if it circles the tree or climbs down headfirst.

If you are able to see the bird in flight, observing its flight pattern can help narrow down your search for its identity as well. Noting whether the bird soars, hovers, glides or does a variation of these patterns is beneficial to your search.

Listening to your bird may be just as important as looking at it. The sound the bird makes can be extremely useful in determining its species.

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First, you can listen to see if the bird sings in a single, double or triple note. Try to determine whether the sound is sharp or dull, low-pitched or high-pitched, a whistle, a croak or a squawk. When identifying the sound of a bird, your smartphone can be a useful tool. There are many birding apps that play bird sounds for your comparison.

Once you have identified the distinguishable features of the bird you have spotted, you can also use the maps section of your birding guide to search for the specific bird depending on what region you are in. This is especially helpful if you think you have determined the species and are looking to confirm your findings. If your region has a prevalence of that particular species, you may be able to further substantiate your evaluation.

With these helpful resources and identification tips, the only thing left to do is start your search. I have been blown away by the beautiful and intriguing birds I have already spotted this year. I cannot imagine what new, wonderful wildlife the spring season will bring my way.

Kelly Scible is a Reisterstown Resident and can be reached via email at kellyscible@gmail.com.

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