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Birding Basics

Get ready for your Lake Erie, Ohio birding adventure by reviewing these birding basics. Over time, and with practice, you will feel comfortable with your identification and birding technique.

Taking to the Field

Learning Ohio’s birds can be a daunting task for greenhorns. Well over 400 species have been recorded thus far, and that’s a lot of birds! But most birds are easily identified and new birders quickly master recognition of most birds that they see. Arriving at a correct identification is largely a process of elimination that involves placing the mystery bird into increasingly smaller groups, thus narrowing the possibilities. After all, it’s pretty easy to tell that an American Wigeon is not a songbird and that eliminates nearly half of all possible species. Even the newest birder will quickly be able to place the wigeon amongst the waterfowl and from there it should be a simple matter to determine its specific identity.

And so it goes for nearly all of our birds. There are exceptions. Gulls, for example, can be very tricky to identify and some individuals can leave even the experts baffled. Distant raptors in flight and sandpipers are always regular sources of confusion for less experienced birders. For the relatively few groups of birds that are problematic to identify, there is no substitute for field experience. Good bird guides aid considerably in understanding their identification, but confidence in their recognition will come primarily with direct experience.

Familiarity with a species’ typical occurrence is very helpful. Probably not a winter passes without someone reporting a Broad-winged Hawk. A quick check of an Ohio reference book should reveal that this species is highly migratory and there are no winter records. Such information can help direct the observer to investigate more likely candidates. We have provided a comprehensive checklist of all known species that have been recorded along the Lake Erie Birding Trail, along with seasonal occurrence statuses and annotated notes for each. This information cannot only help with fine-tuning identifications, but is also a tool for knowing when to look for targeted species.

The best birders are those who not only can recognize a bird visually, but also know their vocalizations. Most people are visual learners and have a much harder time learning sounds. Birders who know songs and calls will find WAY more birds, though. Treetop singers such as Cerulean Warblers rarely reveal themselves, but if one knows their song and can thus pinpoint the singer, it is much easier to track it down for a look. That’s also true of many marsh birds. An early morning marsh can be a cacophony of strange sounds: Common Gallinules, Pied-billed Grebes, Marsh Wrens, Swamp Sparrows, Sora, Virginia Rail, and perhaps a bittern or two. Knowing their various calls brings order to the acoustic chaos and makes one’s understanding and appreciation of wetlands much greater.

Tread Lightly

Help us protect what we all treasure. Consider these guidelines for visiting Lake Erie birding spots without harming their futures. Thank you, and enjoy your exploration.

  • For your protection, as well as for the protection of the environment, always follow designated trials and paths.
  • Please respect private property that is adjacent to public lands.
  • While driving a car or golf cart along island roads, be careful to avoid reptiles and amphibians which frequently cross the road.
  • Leave flowers, shells, nuts, and animals for others to enjoy. Sometimes even touching a fragile plant is enough for its demise.
  • Birds and animals sense disturbances to their nesting sites and may abandon their young if a threat is perceived. Please stay a considerable distance from nests and dens.
  • Use binoculars or zoom lenses to get up close and personal. Never knowingly disturb wildlife by getting too close, moving abruptly, or speaking loudly.
  • Avoid chasing or repeatedly flushing birds.
  • Obey state and federal regulations. You will be prosecuted for venturing beyond signs posted “Endangered Species Nesting Area – Trespassing Unlawful.”
  • Migratory birds need peaceful areas to rest and refuel before continuing their journeys. Keep disturbances to a minimum. An international treaty, as well as state and federal laws, protects migratory birds.
  • Be careful not to point optics toward people or houses. Keep voices low and vehicle noise to a minimum before 9 a.m.
  • Look, but never touch. Lake Erie water snakes may be fascinating and non-venomous, but they are quick to bite curious hands.
  • Express gratitude to individuals and businesses that go out of their way to accommodate your interest and needs in the natural world.
  • Wear binoculars and carry your field identification guides everywhere! It’s the best way to share the economic importance of our resources.
  • Divide large groups of people into smaller groups. Smaller groups are less disturbing to wildlife.
  • Use bird calls, tape recordings of calls, or other devices sparingly. They can disturb breeding and drive birds from territories.
  • Some of the areas cherished by birders are also cherished by waterfowl hunters. It is important to share the field with these outdoor enthusiasts during Ohio's hunting seasons.