Birding 101 with Local Expert Sarah Rupert

Spring migration is now underway at Point Pelee National Park and across the county. While all in-park programming has been cancelled, birders can still enjoy this leisure activity right in their own backyards.

PPNP has fantastic online resources. These include an active Facebook page where visitors can find bird identification tips, interesting facts and amazing images featuring many of the spring migrants that you might catch a glimpse of in your own yard, from your balcony, or around your neighbourhood.

The Ontario Field Ornithologists (OFO) are also hosting their second annual OFO Birding at Home Challenge. This online event runs throughout the month of May.  Participants will have a chance to win great weekly prizes and two grand prizes, awarded in honour of World Migratory Bird Day on May 8th and at the end of the challenge on May 31st.

Another great option for internet-savvy birdwatchers is the line-up of  virtual lunch and learns being hosted by PPNP Promotions Officer, Sarah Rupert and her colleague Emma Burbidge.

As an area resident, Sarah has decades of experience under her belt that she is sharing in four online sessions, available in English and French. You can watch the first of this series, Birding 101, by clicking on this link.

Sarah Rupert

Today, the Kingsville Times spoke with Sarah about her experience as a seasoned birder. She gave us some great tips about the basics of bird identification, key tools that any birder needs on hand and some secrets to successful birding.

Kingsville Times:
Tell us about your personal experience with birding. How long have you been a birder?

Sarah Rupert:
I’ve been birding my entire life. Both of my parents were naturalists and my Dad was one of the most skilled birders in the province. I spent my childhood learning about nature and have loved birds since a very young age.

I grew up in Sarnia, but we spent at least a week at Point Pelee every spring to experience spring migration. We missed a week of school, but learned so much because of it. With the exception of last year, I haven’t missed a spring birding in Point Pelee.

My Dad believed in sharing his vast knowledge of the natural world with others, which led me to my career with Parks Canada.

Black and White Warbler ©Jim Flynn

How would you describe a typical birder?

If you look at the studies on outdoor recreation, the typical birder is a white female over the age of 50 with higher than average income and education. This is the average, but the beauty of birding is that anyone, from any background or area can be a birder.

There are birds everywhere and the love and fascination of birds can bring people from diverse backgrounds together.

What are the basic tools that today’s birder needs to get started?

What you need most to start birding is an interest in birds, your eyes or your ears. There are other tools that will make your observations easier and help you to identify what you are seeing.

Yellow Warbler ©Jim Flynn


Binoculars are an excellent tool to help you get closer views of the birds you are seeing. If you are thinking about getting a pair of binoculars here are a few tips:

1. Set a budget. Decide what you want to spend and try out different models in that price range. Pick the ones that work best with your eyes.

2. Choose the right size. When you look at binoculars, you’ll see them labelled with two numbers. For example, an 8×42 pair of binoculars will give you 8 times magnification and a field of view of 42mm.

The larger the field of view, the more you can see and the brighter the binoculars are, but they become less stable the higher you go. A 7×42 or 8×42 are perfect for birding in the woods or around your home.

3. Look for added features like waterproof, click-up eye cups, and grooves for your thumbs to sit in. All these features will enhance your binocular experience.

Field guides are a great way to start identifying birds. There are two types of guides: photographic and illustrative. I prefer an illustrative guide, but there are good features for both guides. Before investing in a guide, you can always try checking a couple of different ones out from the library and see which one you prefer.

A few guides that I would recommend are the Sibley Guide to Birds, National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America and Peterson Field Guide to Eastern Birds. Many of these are also available in app form, so you can carry multiple guides on your smart phone.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

I’m often asked about apps for bird identification, and there are few good ones out there.

For beginners, I really like the Merlin App by Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. It uses observation data from experiences birders, as well as a system designed to help you look at birds in a meaningful way and learn as you go.

Song Sleuth is another app designed to identify bird calls. This app is good, but it can be challenging to get IDs on similar sounding birds. To learn bird song, Larkwire is a great option (available as a web-based program or an ISO app).

Finally, I recommend starting a field notebook. When you take notes about what you are seeing, it helps make connections in your brain and you will remember features and behaviours better. If you like to draw or sketch, this is also an effective way to record your observations.

Taking notes makes you slow down and really see the features of a bird in a different way and you will be a better birder for it.

What steps does a birder need to take to successfully identify a bird?

Pulling out a field guide and trying to identify a bird can be a daunting task. Especially when the birds are in an order that might not make sense to you yet, knowing where to start can be difficult.

Black-throated Green Warbler ©Jim Flynn

The first thing to determine (which you probably already have subconsciously) is whether it is a water bird or a land bird. Water birds are at the front of the guide and land birds are in the second half. Already that eliminates a lot of choices. After that, you can figure out the subgroup it belongs to and with water birds there are three: Swimming, Wading or Flying.

On the land bird side, there are four categories: Game Bird, Raptor, Aerial Insectivore or Songbird.

Once you’ve figured out which group it belongs in, you have a much smaller section of species to review. At this point, you’ll want to focus on the relative size and shape of the bird, the size and shape of the bill/beak, colouration and field marks and behaviour.

You may not get to the exact answer right away, but you’ll likely get to the right family which is a huge first step.

It seems that many birders are very interested in songbirds at this time of year. Do you have any tips that will help to identify these birds?

This is the perfect time to get out there, look and listen to songbirds. Some things to look for are the size and shape of the bill — the bill tells us a lot about what a bird might eat.

Does it have a slender delicate bill, which might suggest a warbler, or a thicker slightly hooked bill like a vireo? Is the bird singing? What is it doing? Does it have an interesting behaviour like wagging its tail?

And of course, we can’t forget to look at the colours. These birds are in their bright breeding plumage right now, so their colours can be a  key to their identity as well.

Carolina Wren ©Jim Flynn

My parting advice is to try the following:

– Really see the bird

– Take notes

– Use your eyes and ears

– Describe behaviour, colour and anything else that you find interesting

– Have fun!

To participate in upcoming lunch and learns, be sure to follow Point Pelee National Park on Facebook. Here is the line up of lunch and learns to come::

Songbirds (Available in English and French)
Sarah Rupert and Emma Burbidge
Saturday, May 8
Noon – 1 p.m.

Warbler ID (Available in English and French)
Sarah Rupert and Emma Burbidge
Tuesday, May 11
7 – 8 p.m.

Sparrow ID (Available in English and French)
Sarah Rupert
Sunday, May 16
11 a.m. – 12 p.m. and 1 p.m. – 2 p.m.

Pine Warbler ©Jim Flynn

Some additional resources to check out:

– Share your observations and explore others with eBird.ca

AllAboutBirds.org is the definitive and most reliable website for information on birds in North America

To read more about Sarah Rupert and her background in STEM, please click here.

About Point Pelee National Park:

Point Pelee National Park was established in 1918, the first national park protected for environmental reasons.  Today this tiny park  protects more Species at Risk than any other in the country and continues to provide visitors with a safe space to connect with nature, get outside and enjoy some fresh air.

For more information about Point Pelee National Park, please contact the park at 519-322-2365 ext 0, or email pc.pelee.info.pc@canada.ca

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Point Pelee National Park

Point Pelee NP

Parc national de la Pointe-Pelée/ Point Pelee National Park

All photos supplied by Parks Canada


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