The ideal habitat for a great egret is near any form of water: lakes, freshwater and saltwater marshes, mudflats, ponds, streams, tidal flats and wooded swamps. ©Bob Leggett

One of the many things I like about birds is that they are wildlife that is easily accessible no matter where you live. While you may not be able to see bears, wolves or other charismatic animals on a daily basis—especially if you live in a city—birds live right alongside you, no matter if you’re a rural or urban dweller.

In recent articles, you and I have talked about identifying birds by color pattern and by size and shape. But there’s another way to get to know the birds you frequently see, and it’s one we’re especially fond of here at Natural Habitat Adventures: by their natural habitats

Little blue herons, such as this immature one, usually forage in water that is two to six inches deep. In wintertime, they make frequent use of lagoons, mangroves, mudflats and salt ponds. ©Bob Leggett

Asking twice

Bird habitats can be broken down into four general categories:

1. Forested or woodland habitats, which can be either coniferous or deciduous;

2. Water or aquatic habitats, which include lakes, marshes, open oceans, ponds, shorelines and swamps;

3. Scrub shrub habitats, which can be recognized by short, woody plants and bushes; and

4. Open habitats, such as agricultural fields, grasslands and tundra.

Elusive and mostly solitary, limpkins are easy to overlook as they stalk about in marshes and swamps looking for snails. ©Bob Leggett

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, it’s helpful to think of the four keys to bird identification—habitat, behavior, overall color pattern, and size and shape—as ordered steps that help us accurately distinguish birds. But unlike the other three strategies, habitat is something that we should consider twice when we’re out birding. It should be the first and last questions we ask ourselves: first, what kind of habitat am I exploring, and what types of birds are likely to be found here? And, finally: what are the chances that this bird can be seen in this habitat?

Complicating this process is that birds do migrate, and this can influence the types of habitats we find them in. So, we also need to consider the time of year in our first and final questions. For example, could a limpkin be found in this habitat now?

Green herons nest along lakes, marshes, ponds, impoundments, swamps and other wet habitats with trees and shrubs that provide seclusion. ©Bob Leggett

Saving half

Unfortunately, worldwide, birds are losing their natural habitats. Along with climate change, poor management of bird habitats and habitat loss are occurring on a sweeping scale.

In fact, in an August 2016 study from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, researchers from three continents reported that habitat destruction still far outstrips habitat protection across many parts of the planet. Published in the international journal Conservation Letters, it revealed that more than half of the planet could now be classified as completely converted to human-dominated land use. What’s more, an area of 1.7 million square miles—or about two-thirds the size of Australia—has been transformed in the past two decades alone.

To conduct that study, researchers assessed rates of habitat conversion versus protection at a 0.6-mile resolution across the world’s 825 terrestrial ecoregions (areas that contain unique animal and plant communities) since 1992. As a consequence of past and recent habitat loss, almost half of the world’s ecoregions now must be classified as at very high risk, as 25 times more land has been converted than protected.

In the marshes of the southeastern U.S. lives one of the most vividly colored birds in North America: the purple gallinule. These long-toed birds step gingerly across water lilies as they hunt frogs and invertebrates or pick at tubers. ©Bob Leggett

While there had been considerable gains in global efforts to increase the size of protected areas, alarming levels of habitat loss persisted. The study team identified 41 ecoregions across 45 nations that are in a “crisis state,” where humans have converted more than 10 percent of the little remaining habitat in the past 20 years. These crisis and at-risk ecoregions, say the study’s authors, are clearly the places where conservation interventions need to be prioritized.

But this means rethinking how nations do their conservation planning. Placing protected areas in remote locations where nobody else is vying to convert the land doesn’t help save threatened biodiversity. We must urgently start strategically placing new protected areas in zones that will be destroyed without conservation action.

You may spot tricolored herons near canals, coastal estuaries, ditches, lagoons, lake edges, mangroves, freshwater marshes and saltwater marshes. ©Bob Leggett

Celebrating two

Watch the two videos on bird habitats below. In the first, from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, you’ll hear about how you can learn to identify birds by the habitats you see them in. Living in an aquatic habitat is as much about being a heron, say the video’s hosts, as living in a field is to being a meadowlark. In the second, titled Birds in Their Natural Habitat by SR Productions, you’ll enjoy watching these wildlife ambassadors going about their businesses in their natural homes. See how many of the birds you can identify by where they live.

Another of the things that I love about birds is how great they look in photographs. I’m particularly lucky, in this respect. I’ve had the pleasure of working with several world-class bird photographers over the years, and I’d have to say that my good friend Bob Leggett is one of them. Some of his terrific shots of birds in their natural habitats are exhibited throughout this article.

Migratory sandhill cranes breed in the northern U.S., Canada and Siberia. Each winter, they undertake long journeys to wintering grounds in California, Florida, Texas, Utah and Mexico. ©Bob Leggett

Two bird anniversaries are coming up. May 4 is recognized as Bird Day. And, the International Migratory Bird Day and World Migratory Bird Day are observed on the second Saturday in May, which this year falls on May 11. Bird Day is the oldest of the days set aside to recognize birds. According to the U.S. Library of Congress, the very first Bird Day was on May 4, 1894. It was started by Charles Almanzo Babcock, superintendent of schools in Oil City, Pennsylvania. By 1910, Bird Day was widely celebrated, often in conjunction with Arbor Day.

Since 1993, International Migratory Bird Day celebrates the incredible journey that migratory birds take each year. Some travel for thousands of miles between breeding grounds in North America and their winter homes in Central and South America.

So, in the next two weeks, I hope you’ll get outside and spend some time with the feathered friends and wild, winged ones that share your corner of the world.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,