jamesrmorrisbullocks-orioleBeing observant takes practice. It takes mental effort, thought and mindfulness of your environment and surroundings. What does this topic have to do with wild birds? It has everything to do with the hobby of bird watching and identifying wild birds.

Perhaps we get so familiar with the birds that we see regularly that we stop being observant. Perhaps we get casual or complacent in our observation skills and in our identifying skills. Maybe we just don’t pay attention to the birds in our yards. Maybe we grow so accustomed to the birds we see in our yards that when a new bird shows up, perhaps we are not even aware that we have a “new” species in the yard.

I had an experience this past week that drove home and reinforced the necessity of always being observant when bird watching.

Last week I was in the little town of Nauvoo, on the banks of the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. Our family visited here three summers ago and we thoroughly enjoyed our time in this small community. It was great to see again some of the common birds found in the Midwest-catbirds, brown thrasher, blue jay, northern cardinals, common grackles, red-headed woodpeckers. We don’t usually see these birds here in Prescott.

When traveling in the United States, there are “universal” species that you are pretty much going to see no matter what part of the country you visit. Most of these species were not originally native to North America, but now are found from coast to coast, such as Eurasian collared dove, European starling, house sparrow and house finch, which initially was found only west of the Rockies.

But it was another introduced species that I missed the last time I visited Nauvoo that caught my eye this time. It was a new bird for my life-list, a species that I should have seen three years ago but didn’t. Not because this species wasn’t there, but because I was too casual in my birding approach and assumed that I was seeing just “more of the same.”

On this trip, I saw, for the first time in my life, a sparrow species called a Eurasian tree sparrow. It is similar in many respects to the abundant house sparrow, yet there are many distinguishing, identifiable field marks if one actually takes the time to put his binoculars on the bird and really look at it.

But, when you assume that what you are seeing is just another house sparrow, why would you even take the time to put your binoculars on a species you have seen thousands of times in every city and town you have ever been in? Lesson learned, be more observant!

One thing I find interesting when I am back East is that there are bird species in the East that have close “relatives” in the West. For example, when I saw red-bellied woodpeckers, they reminded me of Gila woodpeckers. Seeing Baltimore orioles made me think of our Bullock’s orioles, and tufted titmice reminded me of our juniper titmice.

Interestingly, I didn’t see a single hummingbird on our 3,686-mile trip! That is a far cry from what is going on in my yard right now. I have eight hummingbird feeders out, and our yard is a virtual aerial battle zone with rufous, Anna’s and black-chinned hummingbirds fighting for access to the feeders.