We're delighted to present an extract from the new edition of Irish Birds by David Cabot (published by Harper Collins) - this easy-to-use, full-colour guide describes and illustrates 178 of the most commonly spotted birds in Ireland.

General Notes on Bird Identification

Many beginners feel intimidated by the apparent difficulties of identifying so many different kinds of birds. The biggest problem is getting close enough to a bird to see it properly. There are two ways of overcoming this. Set up a simple bird table in your garden, close to a window, where you can watch many different birds coming and going. This is how I started off when, at an early age, I became curious about birds.

Bullfinch

The other way is to visit wildfowl or other bird collections where birds are tame and allow close approach. A few good places to start off from will be St. Stephen's Green, Dublin; The Lough, Cork; Dublin Zoo, Phoenix Park; The North Slob Wildfowl Reserve, Co. Wexford; Castle Espie Wildfowl Collection; Comber, Co. Down; and Fota Wildlife Park, Co. Cork.

If possible, try and visit a bird observatory, such as on Cape Clear Island, Co. Cork, or the Copeland Islands, Co. Down. After you have acquired the basic rudiments of bird identification, the next – and most enjoyable – way to increase your knowledge is to join a field outing of a bird club or organisation, or better still, tag along with a friend who is more experienced than you.

Red-breasted merganser

It is amazing how quickly you will learn to identify, not only by plumage but also by the songs and the way birds move or fly, a greater number of birds. The only piece of equipment needed is a pair of reasonably priced binoculars (magnification of 8x30 is best to start with), plus a notebook to record what you see.

There are seven basic categories of information that will aid you on your path to successful bird identification:

(1) SIZE: Is it larger or smaller than, or the same size as, a bird familiar to you (such as the robin or the blackbird)?

(2) SHAPE: What kind of shape is the body (round, plump, thin); head (big, small); neck (long, short, bent); bill (long, short, thick, thin, upturned, or downturned); wings (long, short, pointed, rounded, forming fingers); legs (long, short); tail (long, short, forked, square, rounded), and so on?

Shoulder patch - chaffinch

(3) BEHAVIOUR: How does it move? Does it bob or wag its tail? Does it do anything unusual? How does it feed? How does it behave in water (sitting, diving, taking off, landing)? Does it wade? Does it dive into the water from the sky? Does it run along the tideline?

(4) FLIGHT: Does it fly slow or fast, high or low; what about the wingbeats? Does it soar in lines in a "V" formation? Does it fly in a straight line, or in undulations?

(5) PLUMAGE MARKS: Are there any distinguishing plumage details? Does it have a head stripe above, through, or below the eye? Are there any significant colours, streaking, or spotting? What colour are the rump and tail feathers? Are there any wing bars or patterns on the upper sides of the wings?

Wing bar - tufted duck

(6) CALL AND SONG: What kind of call note does it make for a normal contact or flight call, and when it is disturbed or threatened? How does the song sound? Does the bird sing on the wing, from a perch, or at night?

(7) HABITAT: In what kind of environment does it occur, and at what time of the year?

Irish Birds by David Cabot (published by Harper Collins) is out now.