Look Up! And Meet Your Feathered Friends (Part 2 of 3)

NCOAE Headquarters

June 24, 2020

One of the best parts of an outdoor educator instructor course is when the group of participants comes together — either spontaneously throughout the day, or at the end of a solid day of training — and we all benefit from the unorganized sharing of one’s individual talents and skills.

These experiential-based skill-sharing sessions — which can range from eco-sensitive and safe ways of starting a fire, to hacks for successfully facilitating dialogue among youth participating in a 12-mile trek — bring a helpful spirit to the group. In addition, they enable everyone participating in the course to see the wilderness experience in a different light, with a new set of eyes and appreciation.

Here at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE), we expect our staff to go into the backcountry with a rock-solid set of technical outdoor skills. But it’s also our objective to hire instructors who have developed skills and knowledge that sets them apart from others and deepens the backcountry experience for those they educate and guide.

Photo shoutout and credit to McGill Library (sourced from Unsplash)

We talked about instructors who become fluent in the constellations and stars in the first post in this three-part series. Bird identification is another of those teachable skills and is the second of our series’ topics.

Just a walk through a forest as someone points up and tells you the name of the bird perched on a low-hanging branch can be a surprising and eye-opening experience. Learning the identities of the birds in your area can help you connect with the local environment, offering you a teaching skill that can bring a new community of people to enjoy the outdoors and participate in what is essentially a free hobby — birding (aka birdwatching).

Here’s pretty much all you need to get started:

  • A bird ID book or folded pocket guide for your region
  • Keen observation skills
  • A pair of binoculars
  • A journal for sketches and recording sighting

Below are four easy steps to get started, and if you use these tips — in tandem with a guide book — we believe you’ll be setting yourself up for success and distancing yourself from outdoor educators who know little to nothing about birding.

Size and Shape

Birds sing beautiful songs, are multicolored, and behave in amazing ways. With all that in mind, remember, the most powerful assessment towards identifying a bird is the size and shape. Examine the silhouette when the bird flies, sits on a branch or bounces around on the ground. Each of these is a clue to the type of bird you’re seeing and its role in the ecosystem you’re surrounded by.

Color and Patterns

Look at the overall color and pattern of the bird you’re observing. Start with the big picture. Then look for distinguishing patterns or markings that may separate them for a closer observation. Think of this as if you’re concentrating on a haircut. Everybody’s hair looks different, right? Look at the coloration of the feathers and the patterns. What is unique? What’s different?


Bird behaviors can sometimes provide clues that narrow the field and quickly lead to an identification. For example, a woodpecker’s flight pattern is distinguished by a few strong wing-powered thrusts, following by a long glide with the wings tucked into its side. So now that you’ve identified it as a woodpecker, go deeper to find out what type of woodpecker it might be.


Where do the birds live? Are you seeing them in forest grasslands, on a stretch of desert sand, in a large meadow? Are they near water? And is it fresh water, salt water? Maybe brackish water? Habitat is also useful when you spot birds perched high in the branches or on the ground or underbrush. See if you can tell where the bird is looking for food and how they hunt in the habitat for that food.

Journaling and Notetaking

Almost as important as binoculars in birdwatching is possessing a binder, notebook, or journal. Simply outline the shape or silhouette of your feathered subject, then add patterns and color, notes on behavior and finally, the habitat where you witnessed the creature. This visual description becomes something you can easily share with others in a dynamic way.

And you don’t have to be a skilled artist to do this. Many of the most moving journals are the ones that outdoor educators put together with little or no art “schooling” or recognized talent. These pages of art, narratives, fact, and fiction are the simple canvas that can be presented to others or used by you to note the observations you intend on sharing with others.

When someone on a nature hike pulls out a journal that has a specific focus, you know you’re in for something special. Shared moments like these bring groups together and inspire others to document their sightings in a similarly meaningful way.

So why not just take a photo of the bird and put in on social media? A journal is much more personal and interesting than the typical online “post, like, and follow.” Besides, you can’t exactly share what you’ve seen with your friends when you’re on the trail in a “no service” area.

So, whether you’re perfectly content to look up and enjoy the birds, or you may want to pursue a more technical approach to watching our feathered friends, the decision is yours. Just keep in mind that as a lover of the outdoors or a leader in the profession, each skill you carry with you into the backcountry broadens the experience for the people you’re teaching and guiding. 

And when your students return to the front country with even a morsel-sized connection to the wildlife, flora and fauna they experienced, they are more likely to become stewards of all we find beautiful and inspiring. That’s why we here at NCOAE whole-heartedly believe “Adventure first & Education always” facilitates positive Impacts both in the backcountry and the world surrounding it.

Editor’s Note: In the final installment of this three-part series, we will explore cloud identification and what these fabulous formations are telling us.

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