Our Patch: Tips for Identifying Wildlife

By on Tuesday, November 19, 2013

our_patch_sj_jarmanAlas, as winter approaches, the weather has been fairly grim over the last week, and apart from a few hours of early morning sunshine, my walks have had a resoundingly soggy edge to them. The few chances I have had the camera out, I had been trying to capture a Jay (unsuccessfully)!

These crows are so shy but can be seen gathering acorns and caching them in the autumn. With a friend I spotted one, and tried to train my lens on it, but I just couldn’t get the rascal to stay still.

whiston_outdoorsAfter I faffed for a few minutes, my friend asked if it was still there and how I had seen it in the first place. It made me think I’d share a few more tips we amateur naturalists can use to identify and locate wildlife.

I’ll start with birds, as I know them best, and talk about ‘jizz,’ the basic clues bird-watchers look for in identifying a bird. I have heard people describe it as GISS (General Impression Size and Shape) – useful as a description, but there is no evidence to suggest that this is the etymology of the word.

When an animal can fly and hide in the trees, an identification has to be made very quickly. It’s not always possible to see all the plumage at once, but there are other clues as to what you’ve found. We make a snap judgement based on size and shape, behaviour and habitat – for example, you can’t confuse a swan and a wren, or an eagle with a sparrow, so knowing a little about a few birds can help.

Whiston_WoodsSo this week I saw finch-like birds (think chaffinch or sparrow) in a group, flying with undulating (wavelike) flight, and once they were landed in the top of a tree, they hopped about and squawked at each other.

I had ruled out lots of birds (large birds, non gregarious birds, birds that aren’t found near woodland or farmland). This gives a shortlist of about 10 birds, so a little more information is needed.

The birds had flashes of white (it seemed to be around the bottom edges of the wings), and notches in their tails, and I got a hint of pinkish red from their undersides. This then gives a shortlist of just three birds: Linnet, Redpoll and Twite.

redpollAs I had a pram and a dog, I didn’t have my field guide, but could easily check when I got home, and confirmed the birds were Redpolls (pictured). It’s not essential to be able to recognise every single species, but to be able to make some general observations to allow an ID later.

We are fairly clued up on mammals as a rule – a rabbit is as different from a fox as a squirrel is from a deer – but many rodents can be difficult to differentiate from others, and again it’s down to observation.

Look at the tail: Is it long and bald or stumpy and furry? Does it have rings? Is the nose long and pointed? Does it have large or small ears? Brown or grey? Can you see the underneath, and is it white or buff? Making these observations will allow you to come home and at your leisure work out exactly what you have seen.

The internet has many excellent sites devoted to the natural world, there are many organisations who can help us to identify the wildlife sharing our space, but it is worth investing in some books. A field guide should have clear pictures (often drawings can be more useful than photographs), and easy-to-read text, with help on identifying and distinguishing similar species; it should be lightweight enough to be carried when out and about, and a waterproof covering can be a practical feature.

I hope you find these tips useful, and they will help you to enjoy and appreciate the wonderful wildlife our patch has to offer.


SJ, also known as Sarah and Sarah-Jane, held her dream job as a breastfeeding peer support worker until becoming a full-time mum of three. She still volunteers at Whiston Hospital.

In her spare time, SJ loves to read, and play cello with the Knowsley Youth Orchestra. She confesses to being a secret singer ever since hubby Trev bought her SingStar.

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