Having found your new interest in birds, you have probably started noticing more of them around, and specifically more different ones. They have always been around, but I have noticed that non birders filter them into the background of their daily lives, and only notice the blatantly obvious ones. They will notice the Hadeda that wakes them at 5 am every day, or that colourful Lilac-breasted Roller driving through a reserve.
The good news about birding is that they are all around and you can practice your skills right there in your own garden. This is also one of the best places to start birding as the species are diverse enough for you to start distinguishing between the different families.
Before you try and identify each bird, you have to learn to identify the family that it belongs too. Now, we are not talking about brothers, sisters, cousins and aunts, we referring to whether the bird is a dove, thrush, sparrow, hawk etc. Each Family has different characteristics, shapes and sizes and often when we refer to the jizz of a bird this pretty much refers to the family it belongs to. This is the first indication of where you need to look for the bird in your guide.
Watching the birds in an average South African garden will soon teach you a few of the families, with the most common being the doves, sparrows, barbets, thrushes, weavers and Ibis. I have seen with many new birders that one of the fastest ways to learn the difference between families is to page through your guide as often as you can. Going page by page you will move from one family to the next and so pick up the slight variances that will help you to recognize the one that you want to identify. A good trick to learn is to use a few common birds as reference. Most SA gardens have Hadeda and all have cape sparrows. Make this your measuring yard. When seeing a new bird, compare this to the size of a Hadeda and sparrow as reference. For reasons unknown to me most bird guides generally work from the larger birds to the smallest. Thus a general rule of thumb is that most birds that are of a similar size or smaller are in the back quarter of the book, those that are larger than a Hadeda in the first quarter, and all those in-between are in the middle half. There are exceptions to this rule, but this will roughly eliminate large portions of the book to work through. Similarly in most books the first third covers a lot of water and water associated birds, and of these some like crakes could be quite small, being an exception on the first size rule above.
Practice identifying the families in your garden and get to know the 50 odd species that you would find in most gardens so well that these becomes your comparison base for other birds when venturing out.
Also start with the birds that have more distinct features first and hone your skills on them. Gardens species such as Black Collared Barbet, African Hoepoe and Hadeda are perfect examples as their colouring or bill shape makes them fairly easy to identify. This teaches you to start looking at the next set of obvious features in identifications i.e bill shape, distinctive colouring or other shapes such as a long tail.
These form the basis of birding, as you become more experienced, identifying the family will come without thought, the key distinctions will be seen at a glance, and now you will start progressing into the finer details of identification – seeing the small detail. These would include eyebrows (Supercilium’s), various colour patches on the head, throat, rump or any other part, feet shape etc.
At this point I am not going into the deeper details of identification. As a new birder, you will probably now want to find out more on what equipment you need.