BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Third Look at the Internet
Mistakes? Me? Well, maybe, if you include things like a certain Minnesota bird-finding guide stating that the world-famous Underwood sewage ponds are a half mile west of County Road 35. (They're actually a half mile east – with mistakes like this, no wonder many birders I know affectionately call it "The Damn Book.")
OK, but what about bird identification mistakes? Well, I suppose, but I believe the statute of limitations has run out on that time in California decades ago when I misidentified a distant sleeping oystercatcher as a pigeon. (Don't ask!) And some have claimed that I made a mistake in early spring once along the Mississippi by saying a distant group of swimming pelicans was an ice floe – until they got up and flew. (I still say it was just an ice floe having a severe aerial reaction to global warming.)
Anything else? Well, it was also years ago when I had mistaken this woman's friendliness for something more, and, uh.... But enough about me. And besides, what does any of this have to do with the title of this article?
Unfortunately, there is a connection between birding and the internet as far as possible ID errors getting publicity in places like the MOU's listserve (MOU-net) and the seasonal report maps on MOU's website (). While both forums are monitored, neither is edited, so that birders are free to post both accurate sightings and those which raise questions. Of course, the vast majority of them are correct, but it's not always obvious which ones may not be.
It might be worth repeating here a paragraph from the Hindsight installment (), which was the so-called second look at the internet:
"Also consider those timely posts of rarities on mou-net which we all look forward to. I would think that most if not all subscribers assume these reports represent correct IDs and legitimate sightings. But are they? What if there is a posting, or series of postings, of a rarity that was the result of human error, an honest mistake, a misidentification? Whatever you wish to call it, we all make them, they're nothing to be ashamed of, and they do appear on mou-net. One unfortunate consequence is subscribers might then get an inaccurate impression of what a species' status really is or of what a season's birding highlights truly were. Another consequence is when a birder goes out to subsequently relocate a rarity that never really was, and makes the same ID error when assumptions and hopeful expectations cloud his or her perceptions."
The point is that something reported is not always the same as something actually seen. Consider the Weekly World News, for example – you know, one of those tabloids you see in the supermarket. A recent story was headlined "Alien Bible Translated: Extraterrestrials follow the teachings of Oprah Winfrey." While I certainly consider most newspapers and their articles to be credible, I kind of have my doubts about the existence of extraterrestrials and their alien bibles. (I've been assured, though, that Oprah really does exist.)
In a way, I sometimes wonder if this series of Hindsight articles has sort of been alien to some readers of this journal, in that these birders may consider the ID topics discussed as too hypothetical, operating in a vacuum, not applicable to them, foreign to their experience, not even worth reading. I've been reminded of this after looking over this spring's reports posted so far on the internet, with two previous articles especially coming to mind – articles which apparently failed to communicate with enough birders.
One was way back in 1995 ( – only the second installment in this long series), which discussed ID difficulties relating to birds being reported out-of-season. The other article was much more recent, in the Spring 2007 issue (79:44-50), about the most common misidentified species. To refresh your memory, one or both of these articles discussed Broad-winged Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, peep-type shorebirds, Common Tern, Common Nighthawk, Eastern Wood-Pewee, House Wren, thrushes, Chipping Sparrow, and meadowlarks. It's disappointing, then, to see these same birds appearing yet again on the internet recently as possible misidentifications.
But before getting into the specifics of these real live reports, to ensure birders understand these articles are meant to be constructive rather than critical, it's worth repeating the reminder which concluded the Spring 2007 Hindsight installment:
"Let's keep in mind that this essay is not intended to be critical of those who make these common mistakes. The intent here is to help birders of all abilities to be aware of and thus avoid – or at least understand – those difficulties others often have."
So, following are the reported sightings that especially caught my eye. All are just from this spring season: March through the time of this writing in late April. (I could have included here some reports from last winter: an unprecedented December report of a Broad-winged Hawk, an alleged January sighting of a first-ever Spruce Grouse in the Sax-Zim Bog, and where did that anonymous Swallow-tailed Kite claim in January come from?! But I had to draw the time line somewhere.) All were posted on the MOU-net listserve or the MOU website's seasonal report maps, and, unless stated otherwise, the reports are apparently undocumented.
Note they fall into four categories (two of which are even good to be in), but you'll see the largest group involves earlier-than-normal migrants. The source for the median earliest dates over the past 20 years appears on MOU's website (). Please note this is the only current and accurate compilation of early and late migration dates.
Initially Doubtful, Later Credible
• Hooded Warbler. A female reported on 20 April in Hennepin County certainly raised some skeptical eyebrows, mine included, especially since the earliest date for this rarity is normally not until 10 May. Incredibly, though, a report came in later of an obvious male photographed in Nicollet County a day earlier, thus lending credence to that sighting on the 20th.
Corrected by Observer
• Snowy Egret. The reported count of over 50 Snowies on 17 April in Ramsey County would certainly have been unprecedented. To the observer's credit, though, she later admitted this report was a typo, and she meant to say Great Egrets. It is indeed refreshing when birders acknowledge their mistakes, rather than bristle with indignation, when errors are called to their attention.
• Swainson's Thrush. Here's another observer who deserves similar credit for admitting a mistake and not defensively dismissing those who suggested that an error might have occurred. After reporting a Swainson's on 13 April in Hennepin County (normal earliest 26 April), he graciously allowed that he probably saw a Hermit Thrush, the default thrush in Minnesota through mid-April.
Unusually Early Dates
• Broad-winged Hawk on 19 March (normal earliest North 9 April). A Cooper's or Red-shouldered hawk would be far more likely in March, and, because of their banded tails, both have been mistaken for Broad-winged Hawks at this time of year.
• Swainson's Hawk on 19 March (normal earliest North 18 April). In this case, I'd have to guess this may have been a Red-tailed, many of which have dark throats/sides of neck and are often misidentified as Swainson's.
• Semipalmated Plovers on 30 March (normal earliest South 22 April) and 3 April (normal earliest North 6 May). Perhaps these observers simply couldn't see a second breast band and were unaware a Semi then would have been a month early? Indeed, one of the observers (a casual birder) mentioned on his non-birding blog that the bird in question was noisy and calling continuously – a Killdeer characteristic, of course. (Ah, yes, blogs! My only comment is there was this cartoon in The New Yorker with one dog saying to another: "I used to have my own blog for a while, but I decided to go back to just pointless, incessant barking.")
• Whimbrel on 27 March (normal earliest 19 May). Although an improbably early record, the experienced observer knew the date was wrong, and his documentation is very convincing. I have seen even experienced birders, though, sometimes puzzle over the identity of a large shorebird, wondering if it's a Whimbrel or Long-billed Curlew. And the latter species, with some records here in April, would seem more likely in late March.
• Common Tern on 16 April (normal earliest 25 April). At most places in Minnesota, like the small wetland involved in this sighting, the Forster's (which other birders were seeing here at the time) is always the default species of tern – especially this early in spring. If a birder is unaware of this and relies too much on a species' name, an erroneous Common Tern report is the natural result.
• Common Nighthawk on 15 April (normal earliest 29 April). If it was actually seen, and not just heard, then it's hard to imagine what else this bird might have been. But if this was heard-only, note that both "peenting" woodcocks and courting male goldeneyes give a nighthawk-like buzzing call and are much more likely this early in April.
• Eastern Wood-Pewees on 20 April and 22 April (normal earliest 4 May). The default flycatcher this early in spring is always the Eastern Phoebe. I never understood why field guides insist on portraying this species without wing bars: in reality, many phoebes have obvious wing bars and thus have a long history of being mistaken for wood-pewees.
• House Wren on 6 April (normal earliest 18 April). Any wren in early April is most likely to be a Winter Wren. Since the plumage differences between this and the House Wren are subtle, it's easy to see why ID errors can result.
• Blue-gray Gnatcatcher on 16 April (normal earliest North 7 May). Indeed, I concede this ID may well have been correct: after all, what else looks like a gnatcatcher? A poorly seen junco (with white outer tail feathers) or Ruby-crowned Kinglet (with white eye ring)? Or was it something only heard and not seen, like an off-key chickadee? Some brief documentation would certainly clear this up.
• Veery on 9 April (normal earliest North 8 May). Any thrush other than a Hermit in early April is always unexpected and calls for more information. Thrushes typically lurk in the shadows in heavy cover, making their subtle field marks and identities hard to determine. Frequent thrush ID errors are the understandable result.
• Wood Thrushes on 6 April and 13 April (normal earliest South 1 May), and 19 April (normal earliest North 8 May). Again, like the Veery report above, these three thrushes were similarly and almost certainly Hermits.
• Chipping Sparrow on 2 March (normal earliest 26 March). To his credit, the observer knew the date was unusual and provided documentation, but no fewer than 20 individuals were reported, and the ID seemed to rely heavily on the sparrows' lack of a breast spot. This mark on American Tree Sparrow, though, is often just an indistinct gray smudge rather than the clean-cut black spot shown in the field guides, and it can disappear entirely if the sparrow fluffs up its breast feathers. (Conversely, beware of Swamp Sparrows which often show a tree sparrow-like breast spot!) Unfortunately, Chippings have such a long history of erroneous winter reports that all out-of-season sightings seem suspicious.
• Nelson's Sparrow on 16 April (normal earliest 13 May). Even within its breeding range, this sparrow is not easily found and seen, so a report of a highly visible bird in mid-April in the Twin Cities (where that Common Tern was claimed) is thus especially newsworthy – and documentation-worthy. So far, the only plumage description given mentions a gray crown and nothing else, and the observer heard it give an undescribed song.
• Rose-breasted Grosbeak on 14 April (normal earliest North 3 May). If this was a male, then I don't really know what else you'd confuse it with. Or was it a female Purple Finch, which I have sometimes seen birders mistake for a female grosbeak? Here's yet another sighting which would be clarified with just a little description.
• Bobolink on 20 April (normal earliest North 6 May). So, what else looks like a Bobolink and is more likely in April? I have seen birders confuse females with Le Conte's Sparrows (which often show up in late April), so maybe the mistake in reverse is possible? Or was it a partial albino blackbird, about the only other reasonable black-and-white alternative in April which might resemble a male Bobolink? Or was it really a Bobolink?
Rarities on Any Date
• White-winged Scoter in Mower County. Yes, this scoter (and the other two) can occur away from Lake Superior, Mille Lacs, and other big lakes, but I've seen other dark ducks with white wing patches (e.g., female Common Goldeneye) mislead less experienced birders. A simple description of the bird could easily erase any doubts about it.
• Prairie Falcon in Lac Qui Parle County. This rarity is barely a regular Minnesota species, and without documentation it's fair to wonder if the observer might have seen a tundrius Peregrine or a richardonsoni Merlin instead. As shown in your field guide, both have head patterns remarkably similar to a Prairie Falcon's.
• Mew Gull in Blue Earth County. With only three previous state records of this accidental species, this report of a first-winter bird will hopefully be supported by some additional documentation. The initial descriptions actually sounded pretty good, but it didn't help to learn of two other optimistic observers with high expectations mistaking a Ring-billed for a Mew Gull the next day at the same lake.
• Mountain Bluebird in Meeker County. This ID was probably correct, especially if it was a male, but this regular species is still rare enough that at least some documentation would be reassuring.
• Eastern Meadowlark in Swift, Chippewa, and Lac Qui Parle counties. Since the default meadowlark in these counties would be the Western, without documentation you have to wonder how these IDs were made. Even if a distinctive Eastern song was heard, keep in mind that hybrid meadowlarks do occur, and they can sing an atypical song – or even alternate between both songs.
* * *
So, is it possible that some of the birds listed above were correctly identified and truly seen? Of course: again, note that improbable female Hooded Warbler was apparently a correct ID after all. But it's also a good possibility that some observers here simply made mistakes – and, whether or not they did this spring, other birders before them made the same ones. And, when there were identification errors, should the observers feel guilty, embarrassed, defensive, or even angry about them? Definitely not. They need only be reminded that they are human, that all of us can make mistakes in everything we do (birding included!), and that one of the best ways to learn is from making mistakes.
And, besides, if such errors are made, none of them could be as bad as that time decades ago when a certain beginner mistook a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls for Common Goldeneyes. (Again, don't ask!)