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What's Your Style? (Flight)

Photo Group
Ring-Billed Gull

One of the things I love about watching birds is the different flight styles of the many different species of birds. If you watch, study and learn, flight styles can assist you greatly in identifying birds. Even those that are a great distance away.

Let’s travel out to the dam at Smithville Lake in our minds. There are loads of birds out there in late winter and it is often the slow, lazy soaring gulls that grab your attention. Note how they only flap their wings occasionally but often “teeter” side to side. Compare their flight to that of the ducks that are coming in and leaving constantly. Most ducks’ wing beats are very stiff and very fast and they primarily fly in straight lines.

Now a very large dark bird catches your eye as it slowly glides high over the water. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Birds of prey are masters of using updrafts of wind to carry them along at a pace that requires very infrequent wing beats. Their large broad wings have large surface area to maximize lift. Note how it circles when it is gaining altitude and looses it when it flies in a straight.

Scattered out on the lake are larger geese and various smaller waterfowl. One larger dark bird tries to take off but has to virtually run along the water flapping its wings for several yards before it can start to gain altitude. This is a classic take off pattern for loons and cormorants. In fact, loons have been known to get trapped on small bodies of water that don’t provide a long enough “runway” for them to take off.

Just off the lake you notice a smaller bird hovering over some grass on one of the peninsulas. Hovering is a very “energy expensive” flight style and only a few of our birds do it well. Since this bird is over land, you can assume it is an American Kestrel. The same hovering done over the water by a similar sized bird is almost certainly a Belted Kingfisher.

Suddenly you notice the slowest moving bird you have ever seen crossing the lake. As it gets closer, you notice the crooked neck and long legs trailing behind. It can only be a Great Blue Heron.

Flight styles are all about the life and body shape of the bird and especially its wings. Birds with large heavy bodies generally need large surfaced wings to carry them any reasonable distance. Quail don’t need large wings because they only fly short distances; swans on the other hand migrate hundreds of miles. Birds with smaller surfaced wings like a Barn Swallow rely on speed moving across their wing surface to keep them up in the air.

You can also study the birds of your back yard and pick out flight patterns. Woodpeckers can be spotted a long way off with their undulating flight. Chickadees look like they are swimming along dragging their tails from one perch to another. It is really a fun study to undertake. Give it a try and come by and lets talk birds.

By Mark McKellar