Based on a discussion from today’s sightings, a couple points that are worth repeating every so often:
Check every bird
Walking around Hardy Pond today (after a 7:30 AM reverse-911 call warning of icy conditions), I watched a medium-sized hawk fly up and land on a pole. Almost certainly a Cooper’s, but I took a closer look. Hmm, Buteo. With a lot of streaking on the front. It flew into the yard across the road. Crows saw it and chased it off, but not before I got a good look at the tail, enough to say Red-shouldered. Waltham bird #190!
It wasn’t that nice out (raining a bit, although not icy, no idea what the call was for), so I easily could have said Coop and not taken a closer look.
Know the Common Birds
I’ll be honest and say that I did almost pass by the hawk (or at least wasn’t going to look until I was much closer, at which point it probably would have flown off). But something looked slightly off, so after a few steps I did stop and check it out. Without knowing Cooper’s and Red-tailed well, I wouldn’t have picked up the slightly different shape.
You don’t have to know every bird, but knowing the common ones means the less common ones stick out. For another example, see the Cerulean. Even though I didn’t recognize the song, I knew it wasn’t one of the common ones and chased it down. And of course, Harry is another example.
So, take a few minutes and check out the flock of House Sparrows at your feeders. They’re incredibly variable, spend some time comparing different individuals. Learn what they look like from every angle. There may not be a Chaffinch or other rarity (coincidentally posted today) there now, but one of these days there will and if you’re not careful it may slip right by.