For beginning birders, just identifying what they spot can be challenging enough. But once your eye becomes accustomed to what it sees, silhouette birding can be a lot of fun. It’s easier than it seems to spot and identify certain birds by characteristics that they have and no other bird has.
Take, for example, the belted kingfisher. Many birders can spot this 12-inch bird a half-mile away. How is that possible? It’s the shape of the feathers on the head, which is called a crest. The feathers stick up distinctively. When it’s windy the feathers go awry. Often birders will joke about the kingfisher’s bad hair day — he really needs his hair dresser.
The pileated woodpecker also has a beautiful peaked crest. However, this huge bird is much larger than a kingfisher. It’s usually found excavating trees, not sitting on a wire or tip of a limb fishing for breakfast.
Several other crested birds we commonly see here are Northern cardinals, tufted titmice, blue jays and great crested flycatchers. The size of each bird and the shape of its crest is different, making it easy (with a little practice) to identify them by silhouette.
Noticing the size and shape of heads and beaks and tail feathers is very important. This is often the key to identifying a bird in flight or in the dim light of dawn and dusk. An example will be the swallow-tailed kite. This is one of the easiest birds to identify on the wing, as the shape of this beautiful bird’s tail is quite distinct.
The swallow-tailed kite has a very deeply forked tail, and the tail feathers are long and slender. It also has a contrasting black and white pattern unlike another bird, and its 4-foot wingspan prevents misidentifying it as its namesake. We see this elegant bird here in Florida mostly in spring and summer during the breeding season. They winter in South America.
Another bird that is easy to identify by its silhouette is the magnificent frigatebird. Because of its solid dark color, a non-birder might think it is just a vulture. But look again: Like the kites, they also have long forked tails. They also have a uniquely shaped beak — long, but with a sharp down-curved hook at the end. Frigatebirds are quite large, reaching to 40 inches in length. They’re more common here in summer but may be seen any time of year.
I agree with the name — they are magnificent to see. But not all encounters are equally wonderful. While I was on a birding trip in San Blas, Mexico, one anointed my head with — well, let’s just call it well-used fish. Hundreds of frigatebirds were flying around, and it was inevitable someone would get bombed. Looking back, it seems rather humorous. Since we were in a small boat, it was easy to grab some water, do a quick rinse, and move on to see more birds.
Want to try one? Flying across the dusky sky, you see a large bird with a thick long beak and its neck bent in an S-curve. This bird is about 4 feet in length but looks bigger with the long legs stretched behind the short tail. Care to guess? It’s a great blue heron. If it were a sandhill crane, the neck would be straight and the beak would be less impressive.
An easy bird to ID in silhouette is the ibis. The very long beak is curved downward. Once again, we see the legs straight out behind a short tail. There is little difference in the outlines of glossy and white ibis, except that the white ibis is slightly larger. This would not be noticeable in flight unless there were a glossy ibis right next to a white ibis.
New birders frequently became confused by the anhinga and the double-crested cormorant. When the anhinga is flying, it looks prehistoric with its long neck and shape. It is often referred to as the snake bird. The Anhinga’s beak is long and sharp and can spear a fish. The cormorant has a much shorter neck and the beak ends in a hook. The anhinga’s tail is also usually fanned out wider than a cormorant’s.
We have a wonderfully easy bird to identify in silhouette: The roseate spoonbill. No other bird here has that distinct beak, which is flattened out on the end like a big wooden mixing spoon. When we see this huge bird flying across the sky and can see its beak, there’s no question as to what it is.
Of course we do not want to get confused with the numerous raptors soaring on the wind drafts and circling above. In this area of the country, we have mostly black vultures and a few turkey vultures. Up north, the numbers are reversed and they see mostly turkey vultures.
In flight, vultures look like the headless horseman. One can barely see the head of the bird. Just remember that for your identification. Black vultures have a short tail and straight wings. A turkey vulture’s fan tail is longer and it holds its wings up in a shallow V-shape. Turkey vultures are also larger.
Quite often you will see ospreys and even bald eagles flying with vultures. When I spot a group of vultures, I scan them with my binoculars to see if I can sight an eagle. The white head and tail are easy to see unless it’s an immature eagle. It also has a distinct thick curved beak and large fanned tail. An eagle is also larger than even the biggest turkey vulture, so it’s easy to spot flying with the group.
Silhouette birding can be fun and rewarding when you instantly spot that unique bird. So keep your eyes peeled at all times to the sky … except when you’re at the wheel. Don’t bird and drive!
Abbie Banks is a member of the Venice Area Birding Association, a group of folks who want to enjoy the environment and nature without the cumbersome politics of an organized group. For more info on VABA or to be notified of upcoming birding trips, visit AbbiesWorld.org/references.html or email her at Amberina@aol.com.