Birding tip: Look with your ears

(c) Greg Saulmon 2011

We often call it “bird watching,” but your ears are as important as your eyes when you’re out in the field.

I thought about this while photographing the downy woodpecker at right a few weeks ago — a bird I never would’ve seen if I hadn’t been listening.

For a long time, I’d resisted relying on my ears because I thought it meant trying to memorize hundreds or thousands of bird songs. That’s intimidating.

Some people excel at it, but I’m not one of them.

More recently, though, I started trying to remain aware of a simple idea: if I can hear a bird singing, there’s probably a bird nearby. That tells me to be on the lookout.

Of course, bird sounds won’t always be bird songs. When I’m out, I try to tune in to scrapings, scratchings, tappings, rustlings — all sorts of slightly irregular noises. The downy woodpecker wasn’t making any blatantly woodpecker-ish sounds; it was just flitting about in some dry branches when I first heard it. But it was that faint, vague sound that let me know where to look.

So, remember: the field of view of the human eye is limited. Your ears can see what your eyes can’t.

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