Five Easy Species, the early years
Besides ubiquitous American Robins, House Sparrows and European Starlings, there are five easy species that will delight eyes and ears, birds that you will be glad you experienced and a bird you are proud that you were able to find. They may make you day.
Accomplishment in one’s ability to find and identify is part of the pleasure of birding and if birding is pleasurable, it seems easy. Individual experiences and abilities will determine just how easy those five species are for those in the early years as birders.
As we all recognize, what is easy in one part of the country may not be in another region. Breeding ranges of birds are not spread across the continent like butter on bread. Certain species will be common, for example west of the Rocky Mountains, others will be numerous and easy to find, say on the Atlantic coast or maybe the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest. Whether in the eastwoods or somewhere out west, there are birds to find. To make it easy, let’s divide the country, starting with five easy species east of the Rocky Mountains. For early birders living elsewhere, there will another list of five easy species so not to leave any resident birder birdless.
Interior, East of the Great Plains, excluding Florida
Not surprisingly, the avifauna in the eastern interior differs from some of the birds found on the coast. Boat-tailed Grackles and Neotropic Cormorants are not the usual suspects of a birding day away from the sea breezes of the Atlantic or Gulf Coasts. So, what are the five easy species of anywhere interior USA location east of the Rockies? Keep in mind that whatever is listed is an oversimplification and someone else may disagree, but here goes:
American Black Duck-this tipping duck breeds in eastern Canada and winters southward. Males might at first appear similar to a female Mallard, but are mostly blackish-brown. An easy birder will not see a spectacular iridescent plumaged bird, but will have the satisfaction of knowing they can identify a Black Duck from other species and that provides a nice feeling. Well-being is feeling at ease.
Broad-winged Hawk-this migrant woodland bird doesn’t get to the plains. A smallish hawk (it’s about 16 inches long compared to the 24 inch ubiquitous Red-taled Hawk). The broad wings are whitish underneath.
White-eyed Vireo-this is a summer resident breeding over most of the eastern Unites States. It’s song is loud and persistent. Their two white eyes are striking. Stare back.
Wood Thrush-Carolina Wren, also a brown bird, was my other choice here, but it just seemed too easy. After all, who ever heard of five too easy species? Wood Thrushes are easy to find, by looking in the woods, especially the deciduous variety, pretty much anywhere east of the plains. Their range is large, so the chances of making an easy acquaintance should not be difficult. Wood Thrushes are reminiscent of a smallish robin but with a rusty brown back and a white breast peppered with black spots.
Scarlet Tanager-There are other red birds out there, but if you see a mostly red bird the black wings, you have an easy bird. If it’s red and lacks black wings and a pale bill, you have a Summer Tanager. The breeding range of Scarlet Tanagers is more typically eastern whereas the range of Summers spills over in the Southwest. Females of the two species are relatively easy to identify, the smaller billed Scarlets being more olive above.
Not to pick on a particular state, but after all Florida is a peninsula and its unique avifauna is worth singling out. That is because apparently some species just prefer being almost surrounded by water. Some of these species may be a little less easy than some of other region’s easy species.
Reddish Egret-Look for a large and usually darkish heron in the coastal shallows. If it seems to be staggering or looks to be dodging mosquitoes, the strange dark bird is most likely is not possessed by some mental malady. The quirky bird is probably a Reddish Egret. While staggering to and fro, birds often raise their wing, then suddenly close them, as if trying to keep their balance. What they are doing is hunting small fish, tadpoles and other fast moving delectable. Should you see a large white bird, with a black-tipped bill, also acting like a drunken fool, you are ogling a white-morph of Reddish Egret. If you miss Reddish Egrets in Florida, or just want a good laugh again, try the Gulf Coast.
Wood Stork-The black flight feathers stuck on the wings spanning around five feet make this white and – bird an easy identification. Although not strictly confined to Florida, Wood Storks are easiest to find in the peninsula’s swamps.
Limpkin-Florida hasn’t been drained yet and another water-loving bird is one just about impossible to see anywhere but Florida. More than likely an easy birder will hear a Limpkins before seeing these large brownish and streaked birds. Park at night at the edge of a swamp. Try the Tamiami Trail. Their eerie cry is impossible to forget.
Sooty Tern-These dark terns are easy birds, but it does require an effortless cruise to the Dry Tortugas. After all, easy does not necessarily mean birding in a rut. The Sooty Tern situation is the reverse of the ballpark in the corn field; the terns built a breeding colony and birders will come. In spring, it’s possible also to see some easy Neotropical migrants, maybe a Scarlet Tanager or Wood Thrush.
Florida Scrub-Jay-As might be expected, look for these crestless jays in the scrub. As with most species, Florida Scrub-jays will most likely be heard before seen. Check locally for the easiest spots to find them and hurry, the populations of the Florida endemic are rapidly declining.
East and Gulf Coasts
Clapper Rail-If you can find a salt marsh, which in many regions is no longer easy, you may likely discover a Clapper Rail or two. These brownish gray birds even haunt coastal marshes. Because rails are prone to skulk in vegetation, more than likely you’ll hear a Clapper Rail before ever laying eyes on one. Be patient. Individuals sometimes venture out of the marsh to forage in the open. Seeing and hearing them from a car makes them one of the five easy marsh species for coastal birders.
American Oystercatcher-This easy species is large, forages often in the open and is very vocal. The black-headed adults, with red bill and red around a yellow eye appear strikingly clownish. Even the less flamboyant juveniles black and white pattern makes them easy species.
Laughing Gull-At first blush, the Laughing Gull might be too easy, but after all, we are talking gulls here. Almost every member of the gull family, which includes terns and skimmers, has more plumages than an easy birder might care to know. Laughing Gulls in their breeding plumage, with their black hood, looks like some of its other black hooded gulls, including Franklin’s, Sabine’s, Black-headed Gulls, but, luckily, Laughing Gulls are the ones with the reddish bill AND black legs and feet. Is the Laughing Gull one of the five easy species of winter birds? Absolutely not. In fact, could any gull be easy in nonbreeding plumage? Some are, but some, well, are not even close to being easy.
Sandwich Tern-I always say, one good sandwich should not be left unturned. This bird’s black bill, with a yellow tip distinguish it from the other red or black billed terns. It breeds on both the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, wintering only on the Florida and Texas shores. Terns frequently sit on shores loafing together in twos or threes or more commonly in flocks. Their behavior makes it easy for birders to look them over. As with many birds and especially nervous terns, if possible don’t let the birds see you. Remember, your vehicle is a great blind.
Boat-tailed Grackle-The trailing keel-shaped tail of the all black bird has a coastal residency excluding all but the far north Atlantic states and the southern Texas. Unlike all black blackbirds, excluding the stubby cowbirds, the eye color of Boat-tailed Grackles is dull, not yellow.
For those high plains drifters, birds mostly confined to the prairie are sometimes easy to see. The pesky trees and bushes are gone, but sometimes obscuring grasses are pretty great. Remember, birds are usually more active in morning and seeing birds past high noon may decrease your chances of easy birding.
Mountain Plover-This is definitely a high plains species, with a declining population that should be looked for before they are no longer. The best places and times to see these big shorebirds may require some research and checking with local high plains drifters. Once found, Mountain Plovers are easy on the eyes.
Marbled Godwit-Another shorebird and another bird for high plains drifting. To see this tawny bird, with its long upcurved bill, look for water in the northern states and southern Canada. After breeding, Marbled Godwits might be anywhere, even the West Coast.
Lark Bunting-A common grassland bird, male Lark Buntings are strikingly black and white. Females are generally similar to many sparrows, which the bunting is akin. They like a little of the pesky non-grass plants such as sagebrush, but I’ve seen them where the highest thing around is the laces of my boots.
Chestnut-collared Longspur-This isn’t the easiest bird to find, but once you are in the right spot, Chestnut-collared Longspurs are usually easy to see. The male’s black belly, with its creamy face and chestnut collar flitting up from the usually dense grasses is, along with Lark Buntings, one of the easier plains birds to see.
There are other plains species, birds of the grasslands, such as Baird’s Sparrow and McCown’s Longspur, but many are hard find and most are declining in number.
West of the Rockies
Many species west of the Continental Divide do not breed throughout the west. Unlike the east, individual western habitats are irregular and broken as is the landscape. Here are five species that could easily be found in most of the region west of the Rockies:
Cinnamon Teal-Aptly named, the Cinnamon Teal is found easily over most of the west, with some ducking over the Rockies.
Rock Wren-Look for Rock Wrens, well, in rocky habitat and listen. They like to rock. Don’t confuse the sound of other western wrens that might be around such as the slightly smaller Canyon Wren. If you happen to be in the Southwest or western Texas, one might hear the much larger Cactus Wren. Cactus Wrens rough bury song of cha cha cha cha cha is a familiar sound in many western movies and sometimes even is dubbed in flicks with locations frequently miles outside Cactus Wren country. As for the Canyon Wren, they have a sweet liquid song. Our Rock Wren is kind of buzzy but persistent enough to help locate one or two with relative ease.
Mountain Bluebird-As its name imparts, Mountain Bluebirds are found in the mountains except during winter when it may descend to less montane environs. The species lack the chestnut of more familiar Eastern and Western Bluebirds.
Lazuli Bunting-Another blue bird, this small finch, a western relative of the all blue Indigo Bunting, has a cinnamon upper breast. Lazuli Buntings breed over most of the west except coastal Oregon and Washington and they don’t like the hot deserts of the southern Southwest.
Spotted Towhee-Black, white and chestnut, the Spotted Towhee, which some of us older farts slip and proclaim them Rufous-sided Towhees, are similar to Eastern Towhees. They love brushy lowlands, sing usually on high perches and spish easily.
The great state of Alaska has special birds to see, but finding many of them will not necessarily be easy physically or financially. Some of the easier breeding species also nest in less accessible regions of northern Canada. The five easy species listed for Alaska include birds that an easy drive between Fairbanks and Anchorage might produce. Stopping at easy pullouts is, of course, required.
Willow Ptarmigan-Not an easy bird to see in winter, Willow Ptarmigan replace all those white feathers in spring and summer with an array of reddish-brown camouflaging mottles. This chicken-like bird’s range does dip down into northern British Columbia, but north to Alaska is the place to go.
Whimbrel-Scores of shorebirds breed in Alaska, with many in less accessible places than along the highway in the interior. Whimbrel is one of the easy birds to see around Fairbanks. Most shorebird watchers have seen them as nonbreeding individuals along coasts, especially the Pacific.
Red-necked Phalarope-Another breeding shorebird, that does migrate southward but where it then may not be that easy to find. Its neck, a distinct chestnut only during breeding makes this one of the five easy species for Alaska.
Long-tailed Jaeger-Of the three species of jaegers, Long-tailed Jaegers are probably the easiest one to see within reasonable creature comforts. The other easy jaegers, the stubbier tailed Pomarine and Parasitic, are off highway birds.
Northern Wheatear-A plain looking thrush until it flies, usually sticks to the cold north. Nonbreeding wheatears rarely occur in the warmer 48, but in Alaska they are fairly common, a welcome status for easy birding.
No special place
Naturally, there are some species with breeding ranges almost across the continent. A traveling birder might effortlessly run across the following five easy species:
Spotted Sandpiper-Its call and constant teetering movements might suggest the Nervous Sandpiper. A white breast is spotted with black dot during summer. A proposed subspecies was once characterized by the density of those spots, but the density does not vary geographically. I know because I counted the spots of most of the summer specimens at Smithsonian. This sandpiper frequents shores of lakes to streams.
House Wren-A little brown bird and a lively singer may be familiar to most, but some birders taking it too easy have misidentified Winter and Pacific Wrens as House Wrens.
Common Yellowthroat-This black-masked warbler is usually easier to hear than to see. Listen for the “thimk.” It usually stays low, but readily responds to spishing. Marshy areas are good places to find this easy species.
Chipping Sparrow-Of all the little brown birds, the breeding plumaged Chipping Sparrow is easy to identify. Winter is not so easy; they winter south of the border.
Brown-headed Cowbird-This unfortunately easy species is the only brown headed blackbird. The drab females sneak into other species nests, lay their eggs and party the rest of the season.
Of course, there are many more easy species waiting to find and identify. And, naturally, the regions so far mentioned are just a few of the places for some easy birding. For example, Colima Warbler and Kirtland’s Warblers are easy if you go to where they nest. Colima’s are less easy, physically, but the birds and the view make up for the hike. There are several easy species to watch in southeastern Arizona. In fact there are five easy species of hummingbirds you could see at one of the many well-known feeders. Once you travel to Arizona, take a seat and wait for the show. That’s definitely easy birding.