Posted on 2 Comments

How to Be a Better Birder: Learning Bird Calls

“When a bird sings, it’s telling you what it is and where it is. Learn bird calls and open a new window on your birding.”
All About Birds website, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

It all started last year with our visit to Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology…a desire to be a better birder. I have known that my listening skills are not as sharp as they could be and I made it a goal to learn more of my local bird’s songs and calls, one bird at a time.

We have been at it for about ten months and I have found that just paging through The Backyard Birdsong Guideand listening to the songs has greatly helped me learn to distinguish between a House sparrow and a House finch, a Titmous and a Nuthatch. I think it is like learning a whole new language and as you work on it your ears get accustomed to hearing subtle differences.

This page on All About Birds has some wonderful tips for learning to recognize bird songs: Songs and Calls. I highly recommend it for anyone who is trying to learn this skill. My boys pick up on it faster than I do so don’t hesitate to share the tips with your children.

Last summer I was able to identify a Hermit thrush during our Oregon camping trip by listening and repeating in my head the song he cried out in the forest. I followed the advice to put the bird song into words that I could remember. I now can immediately identify it with no question.

The Steller’s jay that has moved into my neighborhood in the last few months can be heard easily and distinguished from the Western scrub jay with ease.

The titmouse, the Spotted towhee, the Cedar waxwing…all are easily identified now by their sound.

It feels good. You can do it too by taking one bird at a time and making your own memory or aid to remembering.

During my recent trip to Florida, I used my camera video to capture some bird calls for later identifying.

Do I think it is worth the effort to learn the various bird songs of my neighborhood birds? Yes! It has given our family so much more enjoyment in our birding and has helped us to be more skilled at listening. You can use the ideas in last week’s challenge to help you get started: Birding by Ear.

Do you know any of your local bird’s songs? Widgets

Posted on 2 Comments

Outdoor Hour Challenge – Birding By Ear

Outdoor Hour Challenge:
This will be a great week to get outside and look and listen for birds. Hopefully you have started a list of your feeder birds and now you can take a few minutes to look up on the All About Birds website what your local birds sound like.You can do this by typing in your bird in the search box and then clicking the “sounds” tab a little ways down on the page. Birding by ear is such a great skill for little ones since they many times will hear a bird before they see it. What a great way to work on our listening skills together…outside in the fresh air and exploring our own yards and neighborhoods

Split your Outdoor Hour Challenge time this week between preparing for identifying birds by their call using the All about Birds website and then putting your skills to work. The additional activities this week will give you some more information about just how birds sing. The second video is for all the adults to be inspired by as we endeavor to share the many bird’s songs with our children…be encouraged!

Additional Activity: Videos, a Quiz, and Inspiration

The Language of Birds

Test your knowledge of your local bird calls: eNature Birdcall Quiz (online listening).

Now something special….the power of nature and being outdoors! Want to be inspired? Watch this video Birding by Ear (Blind birdwatchers in Texas!)

Getting Started Suggestion:
If you already own the Getting Started ebook, complete Outdoor Hour Challenge #2. This is one of my favorite challenges….to listen and then use simple words to describe your outdoor time. Use the ideas in this challenge to help your child listen carefully during your time outdoors…even if it is just for a few minutes. Record your words in your nature journal or on the notebook page in the ebook. 


Posted on 2 Comments

Barn Owl Study – Using All About Birds

Barn Owl at Arizona Sonora Desert Museum – Tucson, Arizona

This week’s challenge was to learn more about our local owls: Owl Study. In past owl studies we focused on the Great Horned Owl, the Western Screech Owl, and the Spotted Owl. This time we decided to learn more about the Barn Owl.

We started off listening to the sounds of the Barn Owl and I have to admit if I ever heard this sound at night I would be terrified. It is such a scary sound and not at all one I want to hear too often. It sounds more like a scream than a bird sound. This owl does not make the typical hooting sound we have come to associate with owls of all kinds.

Here is the link: Barn Owl Sounds.

We read the information on the All About Birds website which includes this interesting information on where you might see a Barn Owl:

“Many people’s first sighting of a Barn Owl is while driving through open country at night—a flash of pale wings in the headlights is usually this species. Barn Owls also often live up to their name, inhabiting barns and other old, abandoned buildings, so keep an eye out for them there. Barn Owls don’t hoot the way most other owls do; you can listen for their harsh screeches at night.”

We finished up with a notebook page for our nature journal. It is all in preparation for the time in the future when we may see or possibly hear this bird. You may want to do your own research on the Barn Owl…it is the most widely distributed owl worldwide (see map at the bottom of this website: Common Barn Owl).

Here is what the Peterson Field Guide says about the Barn Owl:

“A long-legged, knock-kneed, pale, monkey-faced owl. White heart-shaped face and dark eyes, no ear tufts. Distinguished in flight as an owl by the large head and mothlike flight..”

I may just have to put that in my nature journal. 🙂

Have you started your owl study yet? 

OHC Blog Carnival

Don’t forget to share with the Outdoor Hour Challenge Blog Carnival!

Posted on 6 Comments

Backyard Birds – Hawks and Their Calls

Bird watching year after year, you begin to have favorite birds that visit your feeders. You know the comings and goings of the common feeder birds as they stop by to eat each day; sparrows early in the day, scrub jays perched on top, the titmouse speeding in and out.

But sometimes you have birds that bless you with a rare visit…not even to the feeder but still close to your yard and within binocular range of your front window. We have had several hawk visitors over the years that we have observed in this way. This week there was a bird on the telephone wire across the street from our house. I spotted it from the window and then grabbed my binoculars. I grabbed my “big” camera with the really good zoom lens and stepped outside and across the street to see if I could capture him in an image.

It was as if he was posing for me. The look on his face was cautiously curious. I snapped away and here are a couple of frames that really give you a feel for this beautiful hawk.

I think he is a Red-shouldered hawk, both from the description in my field guide, looking at AllAboutBirds, and listening to him as he later soared up in the sky.

Isn’t this a magnificent bird? Look at all those colorful feathers and the patterns are amazing. All hawks are beauties but this one is especially beautiful…I am in awe.

Here is what says about the call of the Red-shouldered hawk:

“A Red-shouldered Hawk’s most common call is a plaintive, rising whistle that sounds like kee-ahh. The call tends to be repeated 5–12 times, with each note lasting about half a second. Hawks use it to claim their territory and when alarmed.”

So now that I can listen for the two syllable call (kee-aah) of the Red-shouldered hawk, I will easily be able to identify it when I hear it while on hikes. There are several other hawks I hear from time to time and they are much different:
Sharp-shinned hawk – which says kik-kik-kik.
Red-tailed hawk – which says keee-eeeek-aar (like a scream)
Cooper’s hawk – which says cak-cak-cak-cak-cak

Do you have hawks in your neighborhood? Can you identify them by their call?

According to the Cornell website, many hawks are now stalking backyard birdfeeders and finding a meal of smaller birds to be much easier than hunting in the wild. I thought that was interesting.

Posted on 7 Comments

2011 Spring Series – Spring Bird Observations

“The springtime belongs to the birds and me…..The birds and I get acquainted all over again every spring. They have seen strange lands in the winter, and all the brooks and woods have been covered with snow. So we run and romp together, and find all the nooks and crannies which we had half forgotten since October.”
Liberty Hyde Bailey. The Birds and I, 1898

There has been a definite change in our yard’s bird population since our bird count in February and our winter observations of birds. Our feeders are not so crowded and I hear different birds in the early morning hours. This is a time for spring birds like robins and geese flying overhead, making their return to our part of the world. I sincerely hope that this bird challenge encourages your family to spend a little time outside this week to look for some birds in your world. It will be a great excuse to get outside and have a reason to look around for some feathered friends.

For this week’s challenge we will be making our Spring 2011 Bird Observations – Click over to read more about the spring bird challenge. The focus can be on bird song or any other aspect of birds that your family is interested in learning about. Check the Handbook of Nature Study for more information.

Don’t miss this website!
Songs, Calls, Bird Identification

Here are specific challenges from the Handbook of Nature Study for different bird topics if you are interested in learning more:

Follow up your outdoor bird observing with some looking at field guides and perhaps a nature journal or notebook page. The notebook page is included in the Spring Series ebook.

You may also be interested in my Spring Nature Study Ebooks!

Spring Series Cover

Posted on 5 Comments

Time for Listening

Scrub Jay in the Sweet Gum - Blue
Sometimes it is just nice to listen.

There is a time for listening to the quiet sounds of nature, letting it wash over us, clearing our heads. The little voices of thought can be heard without the constant hum of inside life.

Then after we have bathed ourselves in the sounds of the outdoors we somehow bring that back with us and share it with others, having refreshed our own spirits.

I found a few moments this morning in between sprinkles of rain to watch a few birds, take a few photos, and have a quiet time away from the busy morning routine.

Enjoy a few images from my listening time….

Scrub Jay in the Sweet Gum Tree
Western scrub jays are frequent visitors to our feeders and this week they have been chasing the smaller birds away so they can gobble up all the sunflower seeds.These birds are not even afraid of the squirrels that are competing with them for food. The birds will squawk and the squirrels will chatter and it is quite the scene.

Finches in the Sweet Gum
The goldfinches don’t mess with the jays and they hang out in the sweet gum tree, hanging upside down to snatch the seeds from the sticker balls.

Goldfinch in the Sweet Gum Tree
Here you can see the goldfinch’s color as he reaches over to his snack.

Winter is a good time for listening.

Posted on 5 Comments

Raptors of the Night-Owls: Summer Series #5

As much as we tried over the past few months to observe an owl up close, we just were not able to make it happen this time around. We are hoping to at least hear some owls when we go on our next camping trip to Yosemite National Park in a few weeks. We heard Western screech owls last year. Don’t you think they sound like bouncing rubber balls?

We listened to Western Screech Owls, Great Horned Owls, and Spotted Owls online as part of this challenge. We rarely see owls but we do hear them frequently in our part of the world.

We took the challenge to dissect an owl pellet. One of my sons was eager and the other one was not so eager to complete this activity. The mood changed once we got started and they each ended up learning quite a bit about owls from this activity.

Owl Pellet Dissection
(Maybe we should have found some smaller gloves.)

We each had our own pellet to dissect and I decided I am not very good at this sort of thing. I am not a “detail” sort of person so this was a frustrating activity. In the end, I let the boys finish my pellet. The boys on the other hand were awesome at this activity. I was amazed at the minute bones they were able to extract from the mass of fur.

Tiny Skulls
We all think we had mole and mouse bones in our pellets and we each found skulls and jaws with teeth.

Jaw with Teeth
Now that was interesting to me! Little tiny jaws with tiny little teeth!

Bone Chart and Bones
There were amazing amounts of bones in each little pellet.

Bone Chart and Bones 2
Although this was not a challenge where we were able to see the owls in person or even hear them in the night, we learned so much from our reading, online research, and the dissection. We are all looking forward to being on the lookout for both hearing the owls and seeing owl pellets during nature walks.

“Owls and hawks are predators that have an ecological relationship with each other. This means that whereas owls hunt predominantly at night, hawks fill their niche during the day. Both birds hunt similar prey species.”
Discover Nature at Sundown, page 49.

Just one interesting thing we have been thinking about: There is a cycle of raptor activity-owls at night and other raptors like hawks and falcons during the day. There is always some sort of raptor activity going on in the woods. Fascinating.

Whose-Awake-Me-Too…..hopefully we hear a little of that call on our camping trip this time.

Posted on 11 Comments

Bird Songs: Our New Area of Interest

Photo by my son Mr. A of Cedar waxwings in our front yard.

This is our blog entry for the Spring Series of Outdoor Hour Challenge-Bird Study #3.

I have discovered that learning about birds comes in layers.

  • You start noticing the birds in your yard or neighborhood.
  • You discover that you indeed have birds in your yard and then develop a desire to know their name.
  • Start to notice the colors, beaks, sizes, etc so you can identify the bird using your field guide.
  • Find yourself reading the field guide just for fun.
  • Start noticing birds as you drive around town for your daily activities. Begin to see birds everywhere and wonder what their story is. The story becomes part of the fun of birding. Does this bird live in your neighborhood or is it a visitor? What does the bird eat? How does it makes its nest? How does it fit into the habitat of your neighborhood?
  • Now you want to take a few special day trips to places you might see new birds. You notice a pond and you look for water birds. You visit a park with a wooded area and you go on the hunt for some new birds, perhaps a woodpecker.
  • You pack a compact pair of binoculars in your purse just in case you might need them.
  • You get a second copy of the field guide to carry in the car.
  • Now you want to keep track of your birds, listing those you have seen and identified.
  • You dream of seeing certain birds you have only studied in the field guide. It is like a treasure hunt only with birds.

Now in our family, we are at the point where we can hear lots of unidentified birds and we want to know who they are. As we hike along, many times the birds are high up in the trees and they are well hidden from sight but we can hear them loud and clear.

This is where this challenge has really challenged our family.

Red tailed hawk A
We chose three birds to learn the calls for this week, keeping them in mind as we go outdoors. We picked the Red-tailed hawk, the American robin, and the Oak titmouse.

We decided that the hawk we hear many times each week is not the Red-tailed hawk but the Red-shouldered hawk. We are now going to take our good binoculars with us to see if we can get a good visual of the hawk the next time we see him soaring overhead. Now that we have armed ourselves with some good visual descriptions, we feel that we can tell the two hawks apart.

The boys surprised me when they said they didn’t know the song of the robin so they now know what to listen for in our yard. I hear the robin’s song early in the morning and I will point it out to them next time I hear it. The titmouse is one that I hear before I actually see him. His flight is so fast that it is easy to miss him but if we can listen for him in the trees, we will know he is there.

We have already picked out our next three birds to learn the songs for and it will fun as the weeks go by to increase our skill at identifying birds by their calls.

I purchased these two items last year and I have not used them as much as I would like to.

The IFlyer Wand and ScanBook: I saved up for this gadget and purchased it to help us identify birds by their calls. The wand reads the bar code of the bird in the book and it plays the bird call for you to listen to. You can also purchase stickers with the bar codes to put into your own bird field guide and scan those instead of the ScanBook that comes with the wand. This gadget isn’t as easy to use as I would like and I’m not sure at this point if it was worth the money. It is definitely fun to use but very expensive.

Someone told me that you can buy an app for your iPhone that does the same thing: iBird. They thought it was a great app but since I don’t have an iPhone, I haven’t checked it out personally.

Western Birding By Ear: This set of CDs helps you systematically work through bird calls. There are three CDs to listen to and a booklet to go along with the CDs. I think in the long run these CDs will be very beneficial and make the learning of bird calls much easier.

My boys have learned to use the iFlyer after going through this challenge. The CDs are now in our car and we will be listening to them as we do our weekly driving.

I look forward to hearing about your bird studies!


Posted on 12 Comments

OHC Spring Series #3: Spring Bird Study

This is one of my favorite bird studies of all time! I am very interested in learning to identify birds by their call since many times I do not actually see the bird but hear it up in the trees. My boys are really helpful in recalling bird calls and they are actually better at this skill than I am. We have made our list and I will share with you our results in another post.

Outdoor Hour Challenge
Spring Series #3
Spring Bird Study

Inside Preparation Work:

  • As part of our spring nature study this week, we will prepare by learning about some familiar bird songs. Read about the “Songs of Birds” in the Handbook of Nature Study on pages 42 and 43.
  • Here is a link to a page that will help you learn about to listen to and then identify birds by their calls:

Songs and Calls

  • Brainstorm a list of birds you know that live in your area. Pick two or three to research on the All About Birds website. Look up each bird and listen to their bird songs. Challenge your children to imitate the bird song and to listen for it when they go outside.

Outdoor Hour Time:

  • Spend your 10-15 minutes of outdoor time this week looking and listening for birds. You might try going out several times during the week at different times of day to listen and observe.
  • This will be a week you can work on a few minutes of quiet time while you are in your backyard or local park. Remind your children that if they are quiet even for one minute they might hear a bird or other animal. One minute can see like a lifetime for young ones so use your good judgment on this activity.

Follow-Up Activity:

  • Take a few minutes to follow-up on any interest that came from your outdoor time even if your children were interested in something other than birds. Review the bird songs you learned and practiced during your preparation work. If you saw an unfamiliar bird, try to identify it using a field guide. Learn more about identifying birds here on this page: Bird Identification Skills.
  • If you do not have a field guide, you can try this online bird site to help identify birds: WhatBird? And this website for additional information as well: AllAboutBirds.
  • Don’t forget to look up any birds you identify in the Handbook of Nature Study and see how Anna Botsford Comstock suggests you learn more about that particular bird by reading the narrative and the accompanying lesson.
  • Allow time for a nature journal entry using the accompanying Spring Bird notebook page from the ebook or your own nature journal.

If you are really interested in learning more about birds, you can work through my bird series of Outdoor Hour Challenges that are found on the Bird Page here on my blog. .

If you would like all the Spring Series Challenges in one book, I have an ebook gathered for you to purchase for your convenience. The ebook also contains art and music appreciation plans for the winter months as well. Please see this entry for more details:
Spring Series Cover
Spring Nature Study with Art and Music Appreciation

Ultimate Ebook Library @handbookofnaturestudy