Biodiversity and ecology in the Australian bush

Identifying Vertebrates

Compared to invertebrates and plants, identification of vertebrates is straightforward. The real challenge with some vertebrates is in making and recording your observations.


It is safe to assume that any bird we sight in Australia will have been described (scientifically), assigned an accepted ‘common name’, well-studied, documented, and photographed. Contrast this with the situation for invertebrates!

Of course, bird identification still takes practice and careful observation, particularly with shorebirds, seabirds, and the famous ‘LBBs’ (little brown birds)! And birds tend to move - quickly.

Observations and data



Digital photography has been a boon for birdwatchers. We take loads of photos, even when we know they won’t be great shots. It is sometimes the least promising looking photo, showing just the right feathers or beak angle, which can absolutely nail the species identification.

Observing behaviours

The more familiar we become with the behaviours and general movements of a bird species, the easier it is to recognise. For example, when we first moved to live here in the forest, we struggled to distinguish a Brown Thornbill from a Striated Thornbill. Up close the differences are obvious, but when they’re bouncing about in the foliage it is more difficult. Yet now we rarely confuse them, even without reaching for binoculars. They each have a highly distinctive ‘GISS’ (or jizz) – literally, the ‘General Impression, Size and Shape’. For birds, ‘general impression’ equates to movement, stance and behaviours.

Bird calls

Of course, bird calls can be invaluable in recognising species. Most surveys of forest birds are actually based on bird calls rather than direct observations. This takes a lot of experience, of course, yet already we can confidently identify many of our local birds based on their calls alone.


Tip 1 – Look, listen, look again ... and take whatever photos you can

To get to know birds, nothing beats spending time bird watching. If you can also grab some photos, even dodgy ones, this helps too. Back at the computer you can then zoom in to your images and compare them to the information in field guides.

And consider recording a bird's call for the same reason. Most phones can record sounds simply by taking a video. Then, when well away from the birds, play back the sound and compare it to recordings (in audio field guides) of various bird calls.

Note: using bird call playback when in the field is definitely not good practice. Even a short burst of playback can be significantly disruptive to the local birds, and using playback to attract the attention of a bird is considered very 'poor form'. 

References: examples 


Birdlife Australia. (2012). Shorebirds Identification Booklet. Birdlife Australia, Carlton. 

Debus, S. (2012). Birds of Prey of Australia - A field guide. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

Dolby, T. & Clarke, R. (2014). Finding Australian Birds - A field guide to birding locations. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood. 

Although, strictly speaking, this is not a species guide, it has played that role for us on many occasions. We used it throughout our three month birding trip in 2015. We would go to a location with knowledge of the species we were likely to see ... and this helps immensely, particularly when you are looking at a LBB!

Menkhorst, P., Rogers, D., Clarke, R., Davies, J., Marsack, P., & Franklin, K. (2017). The Australian Bird Guide. CSIRO Publishing, Clayton South. 

The Michael Morecombe eGuide to the Birds of Australia. 

As with most eGuides, one of the real advantages of this app - apart from its portability on a phone - is that it includes sound recordings of bird calls.

Pizza, G. & Knight, F. (2012). The Field Guide to Birds of Australia. 9th Edition (Pizzey, S.). Harper Collins Publishers, Sydney.


Tip 2 – Keep a field guide handy

This is an indispensable bit of equipment. In our early days as bird watchers, we favoured guides with photographs. Experience has helped us to fully appreciate the power of good drawings. Only a drawing can accurately depict the key identifying features of a species. 


Again, a relatively easy group, particularly for our home lists. There are not that many different species listed for our region. The small, nocturnal mammals are perhaps the most difficult, and there are only about a dozen species ... not counting the 18 bats(!). And, beyond marvelling at their dusk and evening aerial antics, actually making observations of our local bat species is something we have yet to even attempt.

Observations and data


The large and iconic animals, such as wallabies, wombats and possums, are simple. And we have yet to get serious about surveying the small, nocturnal animals – the entries on our species lists have come mostly from chance or occasional observations. For example: 

- Night-vision video footage, using a motion-sensitive trail camera. The infrared images are often good enough for identification, especially for larger mammals.

- Very occasional spot-lighting, usually looking for the larger gliders and possums we hear calling. As spot-lighting will inevitably disrupt the animals' (and birds') normal behaviours, we strictly limit our nocturnal exploration of our home forest to just a few nights each year. And we sometimes take advantage of a full-moon for some natural spot-lighting!

- The chance discovery of a dead animal. We have found a couple of dead bats. But very little else. Anything that dies in the forest is quickly recycled, particularly in Summer when the goannas are on the prowl.



Triggs, B. (2004). Tracks, Scats and Other Traces - A field guide to Australian mammals. Oxford University Press, South Melbourne.

Van Dyck, S., Gynther, I. & Baker, A. (ed's.)(2013). Field Companion to The Mammals of Australia. New Holland Publishers, Sydney.

A comprehensive guide with excellent distribution information and identification keys for each State.


Tip 3 – Make a regional short-list

For most mammal groups, the list of species found in a particular region will be quite short. Combine this with some knowledge of each species' particular behaviours and habitat preferences.


This is another reasonably straightforward group, provided we can get good photographs. And, as with mammals, the list of possible species in any one location is likely to be quite a short one. Although it gets a little trickier in some desert regions.

Observations and data



For small skinks, good photographs are essential. Even though there are only 13 species of skink in this area, the differences between them can be quite modest: the width of stripes, the relative length of toes, and the pattern of scales around the head.

And the same is true for snakes. For example, the photos in field guides would suggest that an Eastern Brown Snake and a Tiger Snake are very different in appearance. They can be, but are not always. In our region, Tiger Snakes often lack stripes and can be VERY similar in appearance to Brown Snakes. To distinguish the species, we have used the pattern of scales around the nostrils and the colour of the iris… features that really do depend on a good photograph.



Swan, G., Shea, G. & Sadlier, R. (2004). A Field Guide to Reptiles of New South Wales. Reed New Holland, Sydney.

MacDonald, S. & Zozaya, S. Snakes of Australia eGuide.


Tip 4 – Make a regional short-list

Field guides usually make this simple. They will either include distribution information or they will be specific to a given region. It is also worth doing a web search for reptiles by region, as there are numerous web sites and special interest groups targeting just this group of vertebrates. And look for regional citizen-science projects - we discuss citizen-science and the Atlas of Living Australia in detail under 'Identifying invertebrates'.


We see frogs only occasionally. Many of our local species are tree frogs - they spend most of their adult lives among the vegetation and, for some species, high up in the trees. Several species breed in the small pond we created, but they don’t spend a lot of time there. But the pond does mean we hear their calls, and calls can be particularly useful.

Observations and data



When we do see a frog, we are keen to photograph it. A range of features are helpful, including: size; colour and pattern on back; colour of belly and inside ‘thighs’; eye shape.


As for bird calls, the video function on a phone is a handy tool for recording frog calls. And frog calls, in combination with a list of species in our area, makes identification quite straightforward.


We have taken advantage of the frog pond we built to make some up-close observations of developing tadpoles. In addition to our intrinsic interest in their embryonic and larval development, tadpole morphology can help with species identification. Alone it is rarely enough, but it can be helpful when combined with observations of the adults.



Hoskins, C., Grigg, G., Stewart, D. & MacDonald, S. Frogs of Australia eGuide.

Tyler, M.J. & Knight, F. (2011). Field Guide to the Frogs of Australia. (CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood).


Tip 5 – Make a regional short list AND consider the habitat type

In addition to checking what species occur in your area, check the type of habitat each species is likely to be found in. This can vary from sclerophyll forest, to creekside vegetation or even open grassland. 

Tip 6 – Become familiar with their calls

Once you know the candidate species in an area, use an eGuide or website to get to know each species' particular call. They are surprisingly distinctive!