My approach to identifying Brazilian birds

When I was growing up in the UK, my dad was my default bird identifier and his general knowledge about natural history, wildlife and birdlife was something else. So I don’t remember often searching for information about birds since Dad taught us to recognise most local birds from an early age and those I didn’t know he would identify for me.

I’ve mentioned some of the challenges of finding information about wildlife and birdlife in Brazil here, so I thought I would outline how I actually go about trying to identify the Brazilian birds I see since I don’t have anybody to ask.

In some cases I am able to immediately and confidently identify the bird at first sight because it is a bird I have seen numerous times in photo form on AvesBrazil Instagram account. This has happened with very distinctive birds like Saí-azul (Blue Dacnis), Viuvinha (Long-tailed Tyrant) and Saí-andorinha (Swallow Tanager).

Saí-andorinha (Swallow Tanager) near the playground

For birds who are unfamiliar, my approach has tended to be a Google search with what I hope are keywords. I use Ecosia as a search engine normally, since they are committed to tree-planting initiatives, but for wildlife identification I find that Google is better.

Recent searches include ‘passarinho amarelo máscara preta’ (small yellow bird black mask), which I had to expand to ‘passarinho amarelo cara preta’ (small yellow bird black face). Or ‘passarinho marrom ferrugem listra preta’ (small bird brown rust black stripe) in cases where I can be more specific and know that an eye stripe would be mentioned in any description of the bird. Then I find the results section for images and look through until I find a closer approximation to the bird I have in mind.

Regardless of the site where I find the image, I will then most often copy the bird’s name (in Portuguese, English or its scientific name depending on which is listed with the photo) and search that name on WikiAves website. Bird names are searchable by scientific name, or Portuguese, Spanish and English name and, although the text for each bird remains in Portuguese, readers of other languages would be able to use an online translation tool such as Google Translator.

Even if the photo of the bird is only similar to the bird I’m looking for, searching in Wikiaves will sometimes point me in the right direction with a note such as ‘Bird A often confused with Bird B’ so it is worth reading the descriptions.

Sometimes I think I’ve found the bird I’m looking for only to discover it does not live in Brazil. But there might be another family member living in Brazil (there seem to be huge numbers of tanagers, for example) so sometimes this is not the dead end it seems.

There are times where I don’t manage to identify a bird. On around ten different occasions I have seen a bird which I think may be either an Alegrinho (White-crested Tyrannulet) or a Risadinha (Southern Beardless-Tyrannulet) or perhaps something else entirely – Guaracava-de-barriga-amarela (Yellow-bellied Elaenia) maybe, but I am not able to identify it.

I have seen birds of prey (with and without binoculars) that I haven’t managed to identify using photos of them in flight even though at the time their shape seemed unlike any I had seen before. I have seen birds in flight that I am certain are ducks because they fly like the ducks I have seen in the UK, but which I have never seen close up.

All of these birds (shapes, impressions, behaviours) get stored in my memory and I hope later on to be able to retrieve them to help me identify other birds.

I have watched little orange birds hopping about the marsh, taken blurry photos of them with great expectation of quickly identifying them and my search has come to nothing. Months later at the river I saw a small rusty coloured bird creeping through the vegetation and making a great racket, recorded the song on video, and was able to finally identify my friend from the marsh as an Arredio-do-rio (Rusty-backed Spinetail).

Where I am not able to see the bird itself but the bird song or call is unfamiliar I make a video recording and attempt to find out using the bird song samples on Wikiaves.

I’ve even managed to identify a bird I have never seen in this way. While out with my little one for an evening walk, I heard an unfamiliar birdcall, made a video in the dark and when I got home set myself the challenge of discovering who made it. I used the search birds by municipality function on Wikiaves and went through the list of owls, almost all of whom it turns out make quite high pitched shrieking sounds rather than the hoots I was expecting. I carried on through the list of nightjars and eventually found the Corucão (Nacunda Nighthawk), which was a perfect match. I would love to see this spectacular bird during the daytime, but just knowing that it was somewhere nearby was a thrill.

I have heard wonderful things about the free Merlin Bird ID app as a tool for identifying birds by song and description and I would love to try it out. Unfortunately the bird pack for my region is around a gigabyte and I don’t have that space on my phone. Maybe one day, when I manage to correctly identify all the bird videos on my phone and store them elsewhere, I will be able to download it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! Do you have any tips or suggestions for identifying birds in your area?

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