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Novice birders quickly learn the concept of habitat preferences. It’s a pretty simple idea: each species seeks out a place with a particular set of conditions and spends its time there. This is useful for identification at a very basic level, and as we gain experience we continue to refine our knowledge of bird preferences (and our ability to distinguish subtle differences in habitat).
For a beginner, it is useful to know that you should look for sandpipers in the mudflats and sparrows in the hedges, and never the other way around. More experienced birders learn that each species of sandpiper likes different types of mudflats and that sparrows tend to cluster around the hedgerow.
As we learn this, it helps us not only to identify the birds we find in these places, but also to find them in the first place. Finding a certain type of habitat will trigger the idea that “this seems like a good place for species x”, which will lead us to search for that species. Any bird using this habitat niche will attract our attention.
Much of this happens on a subconscious level, creating expectations for certain species. In our mind, these species become the best candidates and we identify them more quickly, knowing that they are likely to be present. At the same time, we need to understand the inherent uncertainty. The habitat itself is not a reliable mark, but it plays an important role in every identification we make. This ambiguity can be difficult to understand, but a successful birder will be able to use the habitat as a clue and quickly put it aside if necessary.
This most often occurs during migration, when physical stress and an unfamiliar environment can cause birds to break their own habitat rules. Some migrants find themselves in a situation where habitat options are limited and must fend for themselves. In other cases, the need for food attracts birds to environments they would normally avoid. You still can’t find a sandpiper in a hedge, but sparrows can finish on mudflats. Common Yellowthroat and White-throated Sparrow (usually found in dense, low undergrowth) may forage high in the crowns of flowering oaks, while warblers and tanagers (which are normally found in treetops) may hop on lawns or beaches.
When it comes to bird identification, it’s important to be prepared for this kind of abnormal behavior. Recognizing it and understanding what is happening gives us insight into the birds’ epic journeys.
A version of this article originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of BirdWatching magazine.