BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Ego, Id, and ID
Id: the part of the psyche that is the source of instinctive energy. Its impulses are modified by the ego. — The Random House College Dictionary
There is this experienced Minnesota birder – to protect his privacy, let’s call him Burt Durr and let’s say he lives in Duluth – who has been birding intensively and extensively for over 35 years, who keeps in tune to all the latest identification information found in those specialized bird ID references (he has even authored some of them), and who shares his expertise while leading birding tours. Burt sounds like quite the expert, doesn’t he? But Burt has this terrible secret. There are some birds he has trouble identifying, even things that other birders with less experience seem to handle with less difficulty.
It’s not that Mr. Durr impulsively proceeds to misidentify them, though. (His id is apparently kept in check by his ego.) He is well aware why they can be difficult and surely knows how to correctly make their IDs, but he sometimes ends up taking longer than he thinks he should when deciding what they are. Or Burt just lets them go as unidentified, which is always better than misidentifying them, of course, though it’s tough to avoid a bird’s identity when you’re on tour with 20 people behind you asking what it is. It’s also tough on the ego.
Those familiar with this Hindsight series of articles know that misidentifications tend to result from less experienced or less cautious birders who are unaware of what to really look for, who rely too much on general field guides which inadequately illustrate or discuss those more complicated identifications. The following article will mention some of those species discussed in previous Hindsight articles, but some of it will include other birds you might never have thought of before: species that are covered in the ID references about as well as they can be. Birds you perhaps never thought an experienced birder like Burt could ever have trouble with. Or at least admit it.
The point here is to be aware that beginners aren’t the only ones who have ID difficulties, and if an experienced birder sometimes has trouble with certain species then those with less experience would be advised to take a second look before deciding to identify them. So, what birds until now was Burt Durr too embarrassed to admit sometime frustrate his abilities?
Now that this reintroduced species has been declared established in Minnesota and on the Regular list, how do you tell it from a Tundra Swan? Don’t ask Burt. He’s still wondering how “established” this swan can be when the releases just began in the 1980s, and when there are still neck-banded Trumpeters out there accepting handouts. There are subtle bill, forehead, and crown shape differences between Tundras (which don’t all have yellow lores) and Trumpeters (which don’t all have neck bands), but these are hard to discern at typical swan-viewing distances. Unless it’s summertime or winter, when all the Tundras should be elsewhere, Burt can’t help but wonder how many swans in Minnesota are being misidentified.
From midsummer into early fall, when adult males are in eclipse plumage, all puddle ducks look like females. This is not necessarily a problem, since the females of most species are readily separable by some visible field mark. But so many of the ducks swimming around in Minnesota at that time of year are Blue-winged Teal, and these look quite nondescript, practically devoid of field marks. Sure, when their spread wings are visible it’s easy, but Burt is often surprised by how often he assumes he’s looking at Blue-winged Teal until they fly and turn into Green-wingeds.
Just look at their head shapes and wing stripes. Even Burt knows that. While he sees obvious Lesser Scaup all the time with that slight indentation in the back of their slightly peaked heads, he too often sees actively diving scaup with apparently perfectly rounded heads that aren’t necessarily Greaters. It seems that diving can alter a duck’s head shape, making a Lesser appear more round-headed than it really is. As for wing stripe length, sure, Burt can often see the difference, but too many times he has difficulty determining this feature on a rapidly flapping wing and wonders how so many birders routinely are able to see this.
Western and Clark’s Grebes
When these two grebes were split a few years back, it seemed simple enough: check out the bill color and whether it’s black or white around the eye. Burt, however, often has trouble seeing exactly what the facial pattern is on many of these grebes and wonders how so many birders rely on this as the primary field mark. He finds their bill colors easier to see. Burt also sees grebes that defy his best efforts to identify them: many have intermediate facial patterns, while a few others have Western-like facial patterns and orange Clark’s-like bills. Still other grebes he has seen looked entirely like typical Westerns when viewed from one side, but when they turned 180 degrees they looked just like Clark’s in every respect! Burt’s advice: consult the Fall 1989 issue of The Loon (61:99–108) for more grebe ID information.
No matter how much time Burt spends at Hawk Ridge with the counter, Frank Nicoletti, he can’t always claim to confidently see those subtle differences in shape and manner of flight that are second nature to Frank. Burt’s instinct, at least during migration, is to assume all small to mid-sized accipiters are Sharp-shinneds (which at Hawk Ridge is literally true about 99% of the time). But at other places at other times of year that assumption is not good enough. And guessing doesn’t work at all when a larger immature accipiter goes by – the numbers of goshawks and Cooper’s in Duluth most years are not that different. At least Burt is content to let several of these hawks go by as unidentified accipiters, but everyone else seems to be able to identify all of them. (Why do you seldom see the entry “Accipiter, sp.” on Christmas Bird Counts, for example?)
Immature Red-shouldered and Broad-winged Hawks
The next time you’re in the woods of central or southern Minnesota and come across a perched immature buteo, good luck trying to decide if it’s a Red-shouldered or Broad-winged. Without direct comparison, size won’t be of any help, and about the only advice Burt can find in one of those raptor guides is that the Red-shouldered has paler bands on the secondaries, and its light tail bands are thinner than the dark bands (unmarked secondaries and thicker dark tail bands on the Broad-winged). However, this same guide shows a Red-shouldered with its secondary bands obscured in shadow and very hard to see; it also shows some of these hawks with the light and dark tail bands of about equal width. Again, good luck.
Immature Swainson’s Hawk
Or, the next time you’re in the open country of western Minnesota and come across a perched, motley-looking immature buteo, don’t assume it has to be just another one of those ubiquitous immature Red-tailed Hawks. Juvenile and one-year-old Swainson’s Hawks are often pale-headed, just like many prairie Red-taileds, and they typically look every bit as blotchy and spotted on the back and folded wings as on a typical Red-tailed. More than once Burt has been ready to pass one of these off as just a Red-tailed, only to have it take flight and turn into a young Swainson’s once its distinctive underwing pattern became visible.
Black-bellied and Golden-Plovers
When in breeding or alternate plumage, it’s a cinch telling a Black-bellied Plover from an American Golden-Plover. And when in basic or winter plumage, they are almost as easy: Black-bellieds are gray above and golden-plovers are brown. But Burt often has a real problem with some juveniles in early fall and some adults in early spring. These Black-bellieds can look more brown than gray, while golden-plovers might appear more gray than brown. Though a golden-plover is smaller overall with a smaller bill and a more sharply defined supercilium, try determining those features without direct comparison. Of course, in flight these two plovers look quite different, but when just walking around these two shorebirds can easily fool you.
You may be quite aware of all the differences between Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs: overall size, call notes, bill size and shape, and their underparts markings in alternate plumage. If so, take a group of silent yellowlegs during fall migration, a group separate from any other birds which might provide direct size comparison, and tell Burt what they are. If you concentrate on their bills you are on the right track, but don’t be surprised if, like Burt, you see some bills whose length and thickness appear in-between and not very helpful. Or some otherwise typical Greaters with straight – rather than slightly upturned – bills. Burt is also embarrassed to admit he has often seen apparently taller yellowlegs he was sure were going to be Greaters until they walked over next to some Lessers and seemed to diminish in height.
The challenge here is similar to that described previously with the two plovers. On occasion, usually in spring, Burt has seen these relatively plain godwits which were sort of this non-descript brownish coloration overall. They were certainly not Hudsonians in alternate plumage, so by default he was assuming they would be Marbleds. Until they flew — revealing white rumps and wing stripes.
Burt has read and re-read http://mbwbirds.com/western-sandpiper.html, but there are times it doesn’t seem to help. Like yellowlegs, peeps are almost everywhere in migration, and, especially when seen in unfavorable light or at a distance, they often are left as unidentified. But what Burt wonders about the most is whether any of those distant backlit peeps might be Western Sandpipers. Minnesota has a grand total of only three documented records ever of this shorebird; meanwhile, birders in surrounding states are reporting Westerns on a regular basis. Are Minnesota birders overlooking this species, miscalling Westerns as something else, or are our neighbors in other states doing the opposite: misidentifying other peeps as Westerns?
As the trusty Geographic field guide shows, Short-billed Dowitchers come in three subspecies, with the one migrating regularly through Minnesota (hendersoni) pretty easy to tell from Long-billed when in alternate plumage. Burt, however, spends time away from Minnesota and loses all confidence when looking at alternate-plumaged Short-billeds of the other two races elsewhere. (And do we know for sure those other two races never occur here?) The Geographic guide goes on to explain how juvenile dowitchers are readily separable by their tertial feathers. What bothers Burt, though, is how to distinguish a juvenile molting into basic plumage (with its diagnostic tertial pattern) from an adult in similar molt (whose tertial pattern is of no help).
Burt used to fancy himself as somewhat of a gull expert. Not any more. Not in the last few years with the internet regularly featuring photos and lengthy descriptions of strange gulls which gulloholics discuss ad infinitum and without conclusion. Are they hybrids or merely birds with atypical features? Are they identifiable? Who knows – certainly not Burt. Years ago he liked to study Thayer’s and Iceland gull ID, decided (along with many other birders) they often were inseparable, and waited for them to be lumped. He’s still waiting.
Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers
No, Burt is not kidding about this problem. Sure, these two woodpeckers are routine daily fare no matter when and where you bird in Minnesota, but more than once Burt has witnessed birders disagreeing about whether it was a Hairy or Downy. At times he himself has had to take a second, longer look at a woodpecker to make sure of its ID. The problem arises, of course, when the woodpecker is a fair distance away and when there’s nothing around for size comparison. Generally, it seems, the bird in question turns out to be a Hairy with a shorter-than-normal bill, but it’s interesting how easy it is to puzzle over the identity of two such common birds.
A frequent misidentification takes place when birders are unaware that phoebes often have noticeable wing bars. The result: an erroneously reported pewee. Though Burt doesn’t have this difficulty, he has dealt with other ID problems involving the Eastern Wood-Pewee. This mostly occurs with migrant Olive-sided and Alder/Willow flycatchers when relative size is unclear. These other flycatchers are not usually thought of as similar to the pewee, but a pewee often looks dark-breasted enough to suggest an Olive-sided, and the only difference Burt can usually discern between an Alder or Willow flycatcher and a pewee is the pewee’s longer wings extending farther down the tail.
Songs and call notes, along with breeding ranges and habitats, remain the best things to consider when separating members of this genus. But Burt thought he was making some progress using eye rings and primary extensions to make some IDs. Allowing for some variation among individuals, he finds the boldest eye rings and shortest primary extensions on Yellow-bellieds and Leasts; Willows, Alders, and Acadians have long primary extensions and nonexistent to faint eye rings. However, the ID references specializing in this genus to some extent contradict each other’s – and Burt’s – conclusions.
Crows and Ravens
This ID difficulty is just as embarrassing for Burt as trying to tell a Hairy from a Downy. Even though ravens and crows differ in size, bill and tail shapes, manner of flight, and calls, it is disconcerting how hard it often is to confidently decide how big that lone, perched corvid really is. At least it’s only a small minority of birds that Burt struggles with, and these usually turn out to be ravens. And at least Burt avoids one of the more frequent misidentifications in southern Minnesota: miscalling a crow as a raven. The cause of this probably results when a crow is heard giving one of its alternate calls, which can be guttural and raven-like. Or when a crow in molt flies by showing an uneven, raven-like tail shape.
Yes, as any field guide can tell you, Winter Wrens do have shorter tails than House Wrens and heavily barred bellies. But try determining tail length as that wren vanishes into the undergrowth – it’s not likely you will even get a second glimpse, let alone a second look. And, guess what: House Wrens also have barred bellies. It’s also disconcerting how similar young Marsh and Sedge Wrens can look, especially when concealed in the thick marsh vegetation. But what bothers Burt even more are those rumors that the Marsh Wren may soon be split into two species, both of which probably occur in Minnesota. No one to his knowledge, however, has come forward with a clear explanation of the differences in their ranges, songs, and plumages.
There are certainly lots of sparrows out there which seem to confound lots of birders. But the only one which repeatedly causes Burt to take a second look may not be what you’d expect: the Savannah Sparrow in fall. While these familiar and widespread sparrows are normally easy to recognize, in fall many of them have white, rather than yellow, lores. They then look a lot like Song Sparrows except for their shorter tails and paler overall plumage, features which are not easily discerned without direct comparison.
Burt used to think Minnesota meadowlarks, even the silent ones in fall, were not much of a challenge given a decent view of their central tail feathers: wide dark areas along the shafts = Eastern; narrow cross-barring = Western. The newest edition of the Geographic guide even seems to reiterate the value of this field mark. The problem is what a relatively unfamiliar reference book by Peter Pyle, Identification Guide to North American Birds, has to say. This authoritative and thoroughly researched volume darkly states under Eastern Meadowlark: “From Western Meadowlark with caution; this is one of the most difficult in-hand species identification problems.”
As mentioned earlier, Burt long ago gave up any pretense of being a gull expert, as he still waits in vain for ornithologists to abandon the false distinction between Thayer’s and Iceland gulls. He’s been waiting even longer for them to lump the redpolls. Redpolls are a familiar sight in most winters, but with so many of them having “in-between” plumage features (see http://mbwbirds.com/redpolls.html), trying to categorize each of them as either a Common or Hoary is hopeless. Lumping the two redpolls into one would therefore seem the sensible thing to do, right? Hardly. The latest word is that they may split them into three species! [Author's Note, April 2018 – It now seems more likely that the redpolls will be lumped into one species.]
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A final reminder to the reader. If there are some IDs you struggle with, if occasionally a misidentification is made, you are not alone. You’re in good company – with Burt Durr, not only a decent birder but a heck of a nice guy as well. And I thank Burt for cooperating in this psychoanalysis of his id, ego and ID skills.