I do most of my bird spotting at zoos. It's easy because the birds are in full view and there are signs telling you who they are. We also have gone on some wonderful tours where guides directed our attention to wildlife, including birds. Despite these great experiences, I can still be pretty inept at deciding what's in our own backyard.
All this summer, a tiny little grayish bird has been singing away every morning when I go out to water, harvest, or weed in the backyard. He flits around, landing in various places where I get relatively good looks at him. He's been so close that I did not bothered bring out the binoculars. Identifying him should have been easy, but I was having a hard time. I kept looking in Birds of Illinois by Sheryl DeVore, Steven D. Bailey, and Gregory Kennedy. I thought he looked a bit like a Tennessee warbler, but this was not the warbler's breeding range and the song description was all wrong. I thought the veery had the right beak and general look, but it was too brown and way too big. I kept scanning the pages of the guide without luck.
Bonnie suggested I retry some of the possibles by using the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, which has audios of bird calls. The result was I became certain that none of the species I tried were correct.
We have an iPad at the library that we are testing as an ebook reader and to see if it has other good library applications. I loaded iBird Yard from the iTunes store onto the device for a small fee. This app with a search function focuses just on birds that one might commonly find in an American yard. I chose "very small" in the size box and "Illinois" in the common location box, and iBird Yard showed me nine possible species. Of those nine, only the house wren looked possible. It seemed browner and had stripes on the wings and tails that I did not remember, but it seemed closer than the other birds.
I returned to the Cornell website and searched for the house wren. There I saw pictures of the house wren that were inconclusive in my case. Then I played the bird call. The song was right on.
I took my binoculars out back and looked at the bird very closely. Through these field glasses I could see striping on the wings and tail that I did not see otherwise. These marks were not as pronounced as in any of the guides.
I went back to Birds of Illinois by DeVore, Bailey, and Kennedy to see how it described the house wren. The habitat and behavior sounded perfect, but the picture made the bird look so brown and textured. I would never link the image with our backyard friend.
I then checked The Sibley Guide to Birds by David Allen Sibley. He shows six variations on the house wren, some grayer and some browner, a couple looking pretty close to our backyard bird. His comments about the song descending matches.
Having used books, the Internet, and an app on an iPad, I am going out on a limb and say with 95 percent certainty that we have a bird that is as common as dirt - a house wren.