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Godwit Days Starts Flapping 

Bird identification for beginners

click to enlarge The northern pintail is "considered by many to be the most elegant of all our ducks" (Burton and Anderson).

Photo by Mark Larson

The northern pintail is "considered by many to be the most elegant of all our ducks" (Burton and Anderson).

My first introduction to bird watching on Humboldt Bay came on a guided April walk years ago offered by the Godwit Days Spring Migration Bird Festival. We paused at a viewpoint at the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary and, to my amazement, looked out at tens of thousands of migratory shorebirds feeding on the exposed tidal flats at low tide.

Another Godwit Days is coming up April 16 through 18 but, for the second year in a row due to the pandemic, the entire festival is being offered in a free, virtual format via Zoom webinar. (To register and see the schedule, go to

As for advice for watching wild birds in person, be aware they have remarkable eyesight and are wary of humans. They often physically distance themselves from you (typical of my birdwatching experiences at Hookton Slough Wildlife Refuge, for example). To get a good close-up look at many birds, I recommend borrowing or buying a good quality pair of binoculars or spotting scope with a monopod or tripod.

We are very lucky locally, however, with opportunities to see wildlife up close at the Arcata Marsh & Wildlife Sanctuary, with its more than 5 miles of accessible trails and incredible avian diversity. (More than 330 species have been sighted within its boundaries.) It's a great location for anyone just starting out bird watching because many of the wild bird species along the marsh trails or in the ponds are habituated to humans. You can see or photograph them more easily at relatively close distances. And don't forget to look up at the power-line towers where hawks like to perch.

My wife and I frequently walk at the marsh throughout the year and this week we enjoyed seeing tiny marsh wrens staking out their territories along the trails, a large murmuration of godwits and other shorebirds, as well as the usual mix of snowy and great egrets.

As for the challenge of identifying what bird species you're looking at while birding at the marsh, local bird watching experts and photographers Ken Burton and Leslie Scopes Anderson have published an excellent photo field guide, Common Birds of Northwest California. But I recommend learning how to enjoy bird identification without feeling unwanted pressure.

My father introduced me to watching wildlife at an early age and he encouraged me not to worry about the species name of the bird I was seeing, but rather to stop, observe and remember its behavior and what it looked like. I just read similar advice from Kenn Kaufman, field editor at Audubon magazine, who recommends the "four L's:" "Look and listen a little longer."

He recommends learning bird identifications by spending time looking at how a bird moves, its tail and wing shapes and its plumage colors and markings, and listening to its distinctive call. Kaufman says, "People sometimes tell me they don't want to spend time on a common bird because they might miss some rare species as a result. But experts have a better chance of finding rarities precisely because they know the common birds so well. Think about it: Most of the birds we see and hear are the common ones, aren't they? So you can increase your skill at identifying most birds by increasing your familiarity with common species."

I look forward to seeing you in a Godwit Days' virtual Zoom session at the Arcata Marsh or the bird song or call identification workshop. And when you're out at the marsh looking at birds, remember to also watch for river otters and other wildlife. And please join me wearing a mask while walking the marsh and physically distance with others.

Mark Larson (he/him) is a retired Humboldt State University journalism professor and active freelance photographer who likes to walk.

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