Tucson Bird ID Tips

Want to see photos, hear sounds and read helpful guides for Tucson area birds? Visit the Bird Species Guide.
Want to take part in the bird count but not sure of your skill level? Take the self test.

Are you interested in what birds are coming into your yard? That is great! Trying to figure out which species are using the great habitat that you have provided for them and then keeping track of new species over time is part of the fun. Getting your kids, family and neighbors involved helps bring the beauty of birds and nature into all of our lives. Consider investing in a field guide to the birds of Arizona to help you identify the birds that are sharing your yard with you or use any of the great online resources listed below. Also, our species guide will start with the most common yard birds which should be very helpful to you.
Tucson Birds [check mark = common]

TBC Volunteer Bird Counters

Those who volunteer as bird counters for the TBC should already be able to identify all of the common birds of Tucson by sight and sound and be able to quickly determine the identity of a less-common bird using a field guide.

Here are some tips for those preparing for a TBC counting route or park

Use checklists, pictures, and recorded sounds to remind yourself of the ID clues local birds give you. Even pros should spend a morning birding in different parts of town to become re-acquainted with various local species.

Pay Attention to Habitat and Behavior

Clues from habitat and behavior can quickly suggest species to key in on as you make an ID. But don't rely on habitat alone — birds often turn up in unexpected places.

Use Your Ears

The TBC occurs during a time of year when many birds are singing like crazy. Use these clues to help detect and ID birds that aren't visible. Learning the calls/songs of even a few common species (Gila woodpecker, Cactus wren...) can help. Check the species guide because some resources (eg. Cornell Lab of Ornithology) have recordings of bird sounds.

Beware Vocal Mimics

Northern mockingbirds, Lesser goldfinches, European starlings, and others often imitate other species' vocalizations. In my neighborhood, Starlings "do" Gambel's quail, Killdeer, and Flickers more often than those species themselves. If you're relying on sound alone, be sure you're familiar with these mimics!

Park Monitoring Instructions

Welcome to the Tucson Bird Count's Park Monitoring Program. The Park Monitoring Program monitors birds in particular parks, washes, or other areas of interest. Because the goal is monitoring a particular area, sites will be spaced more closely than in TBC "Routes", and more effort should be spent birding in-between sites. Park monitoring may also involve larger groups of people. In surveying a park, your group will do two main things:
  1. Conduct a series of point counts and/or transects at set locations.The number of counts will vary, depending on the size of the park. Point Counts and Transects are standardized and can be compared easily from year to year.
  2. Bird the area, recording all species seen or heard. These Supplemental Observations will result in a more complete list of the species present in a park and their estimated abundances.

Point Counts and Transects

Which to do: Point Count or Transect

Point Counts and Transects are two standard techniques for counting birds, and are useful for different situations.

In the TBC, a Point Count involves standing in one spot for 5 minutes, counting all birds seen or heard at any distance. Point Counts are useful when many of the species observed are vocalizing (e.g., during breeding season), or when moving through an area isn't possible (e.g., thick vegetation without a path). Point Counts are also more easily compared to the 700+ other Point Counts conducted in the TBC's Route Program every Spring.

A Transect involves walking a fixed distance (in the TBC, 200m) in a fixed amount of time (10 min), recording all birds seen or heard. Transects are useful when visibility is limited (for example, along a path through dense vegetation). They are also appropriate for situations where more birds are seen than heard (shorebirds & water birds any time of year, most other birds outside of the breeding season), or when birds aren't observed unless flushed by your movement (grassy areas).

Selecting Sites

If the park has been surveyed in previous TBC's, use the same sites. If not, you'll choose the sites for Point Counts, and start and end points for Transects. Find a map of the park which includes as many details as possible, including the park boundaries and such things as trails, ponds, washes, and buildings. This map should have a scale; it's important that you not place the sites too close to eachother. Aerial photos are ideal for this purpose (ask us...chances are we can provide you with one).

Place Point Counts and/or Transects throughout the area. Use your knowledge of the area, and the above description of the two methods, to decide which is most appropriate for each part of the area. Future counts will take place at the exact same sites, allowing comparisons over time. Try to cover as much of the area as possible while still placing sites in accessible areas of interest. If the entire area can't be surveyed, give priority to those habitats which are scarce in the Tucson area or are important for birds. At the same time, you want to minimize your chances of counting the same bird twice.

Maintain about 250m between Point Counts. You might think of each site as the center of a 250-m wide circle, and don't allow circles to overlap. In some areas it can be difficult to keep Transects this far apart. Thus, the endpoints of transects can be closer, but don't allow them to overlap or cross.

Conducting Point Counts

Only one person should count birds for a particular point count. If possible, individual Point Counts should be conducted by the same person during each survey. Note that this allows different individuals to conduct different point counts within a park, which may be useful for larger parks.

Point Counts should be done from a stationary point outside of a car. Count every bird seen or heard by during a 5-minute period. Birds any distance from the observer should be counted. However, do not count birds that are known or strongly suspected to have been counted at a previous site. For large groups of birds, estimate the number. Do not exceed 5 minutes because you are sure a certain "good bird" is there and not calling — valid negative data are as important as positive in this survey. If you observe, but do not identify, a bird during a point count, it's OK to spend time after the point count working on the ID. Record such birds as being in the point count. Birds observed outside the 5-minute period should be recorded as Supplemental Observations (see below). Don't use any method of coaxing birds ("spishing", tape playbacks). It's important that all point counts be done consistently to produce reliable results.

Conducting Transects

From the start point, walk the 200m Transect at a pace that will get you to the end point in 10 minutes. As you walk, stop as necessary to identify birds, scan, or listen. Record birds as you would for a Point Count, taking care not to count birds you've already counted.

Supplemental Observations

Spend time birding areas in-between, or not otherwise covered by, point counts. Record individuals of all species seen or heard in the "Supp." column for the site or transect that is physically closest. If you later observe a "Supp." when conducting a nearby Point Count or Transect, erase it from the "Supp." column and place it in the appropriate Point Count or Transect column. Anyone in your group can report supplemental observations. If beginners or less-experienced birders are in your group, have all observations/data verified by more experienced birders (e.g., those conducting point counts) to ensure the accuracy of results.