BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Fourth Look at the Internet
A fourth look? Aren't these Hindsight articles supposed to be subtitled "A Second Look"? True, but the so-called second look at the internet – i.e., the first time it was addressed in this column – was five years ago. Then another installment about postings on the MOU's listserve followed, and this second article was naturally subtitled "A Third Look." So, if you're still counting and not too hopelessly confused, that brings us up to what we'll call the fourth look (even though it's the third article), and this time around there's another listserve worth bringing into the discussion.
Frontiers of Field Identification
There are only two listservs I subscribe to. Besides MOU-net, I've long read the postings on Frontiers of Field Identification, which discuss difficult bird ID challenges and other related issues. Or, more accurately, I try to read the postings. Most of the topics have little relevance to birding in Minnesota, and they can easily advance well beyond my levels of ability and attention span. Too often these discussions never reach any conclusion, especially when they drone on about gulls with anomalous plumage features. There are also a few individuals (and you've probably never heard of them) who feel a need to participate in almost every discussion, even as some of them admit they have no expertise in the subject.
Still, there's lots to learn in Frontiers, and it's worth scanning through their archives of previous postings () where you'll eventually run across some ID topics of interest.
A couple recent threads of discussion on Frontiers caught my eye since they addressed ID issues raised in the two most recent Birding by Hindsight installments on flycatchers and blackbirds. Wood-pewees in Illinois and Louisiana were found and suspected to be Westerns, and the observers were looking for comments on their identities. Predictably, given the difficulties involved and discussed two Hindsight articles ago, no one had much to say about them, and I'd have to assume they're still unidentified. (See Frontiers archives, October 2009 / week 1.)
And remember the last Hindsight's prediction that birders might be confounded by juvenile Yellow-headed Blackbirds, given the discrepancies between the Sibley and Geographic field guide illustrations? Sure enough, a "mystery bird" appeared in Washington recently, and the experienced observer posted its photo looking for help. It proved to be a relatively obvious juvenile Yellow-headed. (August 2009 / week 4 archives)
Swallow Your Pride
What in the world is an Ashy Woodswallow? Apparently, it's something that lives in Asia, bears only a superficial resemblance to the swallows we're used to here, and has never occurred in North America. But some blurry photos from Alaska surfaced which caught the eye of a few acknowledged ID authorities who felt they were looking at a first continental record. After an exchange of a few Frontiers postings about the finer points of woodswallow ID, it was learned that better documentation was available to reveal the bird was likely just an odd-plumaged Violet-green Swallow. (August 2009 / week 5 and September 2009 / week 1 archives)
The real lesson here has nothing to do with woodswallows, unless, of course, you're planning a trip to Myanmar or Bangladesh. What struck me is how easy it is (even for the experts) to get carried away, get misled by the power of suggestion, and think more about the potential for sexy, exotic vagrants rather the more reasonable and boring local possibilities. In addition, it's important to keep in mind that the identification of birds in photos – especially marginal ones – can be a risky proposition.
Peeps vs. Stints
Actually, a more sobering cautionary tale closer to home than the woodswallow situation involved a recent shorebird sighting in the Midwest. I've always wondered about the possibility of so-called "stealth vagrants" appearing in Minnesota: i.e., birds not detected because of their close resemblance to other things. For all we know, for example, some of the Eurasian stints (especially Little or Red-necked) may well have already appeared here among a flock of peeps (like Semipalmateds) and were never picked out of the flock. So, when some experienced Ohio observers posted photos of a peep on Frontiers they felt sure had to be one of the stints, I was intrigued enough to pay attention. (August 2009 / weeks 3-4 archives)
My first reaction to the photos was to be impressed by the abilities of the observers who thought it to be a stint. After all, to my untrained eye, I would have just called it a brightly plumaged juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper and moved on. But an impressive list of well-known ID experts waded into the discussion, which focused in intricate detail on why it was a Red-necked rather than a Little Stint, or vice versa. At one point, one of them commented: "This bird has been studied carefully by observers who know Semipalmated Sandpiper and other North American peeps inside out, and they've already ruled out the Semi and our other regular species."
So, what was the eventual conclusion? After a week or two, conclusive evidence emerged showing that this was, after all, a brightly plumaged juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper! Surprisingly, none of these shorebird ID authorities had apparently ever noticed Semis with such bright, rusty feather edges before, even though such individuals appear here all the time. An early Hindsight article from 1996 () had even mentioned this: "Equally as troublesome is that many Semis....have rusty feathers on the head, back, scapulars and/or tertials." Don't get me wrong, though: I don't claim any prowess with peep ID. Far from it, since I and others used to routinely misidentify such rusty birds as Westerns in past decades, and I'd wager that some birders still make this same mistake now. (Unless, of course, they call them stints instead.)
About the same time as the Great Ohio Stint Affair, other postings on Frontiers about shorebirds have been appearing. In Virginia, a sand-plover was seen and photographed, and the discussion centered on whether it was a Lesser or Greater Sand-Plover. (And, yes, this time it really was a sand-plover, and not a Killdeer or something!) Authorities on both sides weighed in, but the last I looked no consensus was reached – which may be just as well considering their credibility with that Ohio bird. (September 2009 / weeks 1-2-3 archives)
Another possible stint was reported from Illinois, but it generated hardly any comments (August 2009, weeks 3 and 4 archives). And who can blame them from shying away from this one? And two other stealth vagrants were discussed: a bird which was either Common Ringed-Plover or Semipalmated Plover in Nova Scotia (September 2009 / week 5 and October 2009 week 1 archives); and a golden-plover in Quebec: was it an American, Pacific, or Eurasian? (September 2009 / weeks 3-4 and October 2009 / week 1 archives)
None of these discussions has concluded yet with anything solid, as far as I know, which is sometimes as it should be. If nothing else, keep in mind that many birds cannot be conclusively identified – again, even by the experts. And it's always preferable to make no decision rather than the wrong one.
Given a decent look, I always thought that telling a Philadelphia from a Warbling Vireo was pretty straightforward. If it had dark lores and yellow across the breast, then it was a Philadelphia. You just had to be aware that the yellow on some Philadelphias can be relatively faint, and that some Warblings have a yellowish wash on their sides, flanks, or under tail coverts, but not on the breast. I recently realized it isn't always that simple.
For the first time ever, it seemed, I found myself confronted last August with vireos I couldn't identify with any confidence. These birds clearly had dark gray lores plus some definite yellow on the sides and across the breast, though somewhat paler in the center. Dark lores + yellow breast = Philadelphia Vireo, but why was the yellow paler on the center of the breast than on the sides? My somewhat uneasy conclusion was that I was seeing bright, fresh-plumaged, juvenile Warbling Vireos with grayish lores, birds I apparently had never noticed before.
Not long after these embarrassing field encounters, in comes Frontiers of Field ID to the rescue with all the answers! Um, well, maybe I should say some of the answers....actually, it raised more questions than it answered. Observers posted photos of two vireos whose identities seemed in doubt: one was a wet, disheveled bird from California, and the other was a banded bird-in-the-hand here in Minnesota. (September 2009 / week 4 archives)
The California vireo was actually the only one that involved any serious ID challenges, considering that two celebrity field guide authors offered different opinions on what it was! Kenn Kaufman thought it was a "bright extreme" Warbling Vireo. David Sibley, however, felt its identity was "ambiguous", though he leaned more towards a "drab Philadelphia Vireo" since it "seems to show a yellowish throat".
As for the Minnesota bird, it's clearly a Philadelphia Vireo, with its dark lores and yellow throat/upper breast visible in the photo (see ). As Kenn Kaufman put it: "The Minnesota bird is a straightforward Philadelphia Vireo. In terms of underparts color, the key area to check would be the center of the lower throat and upper breast. This area can vary from bright yellow to very pale yellow, but in all Philadelphias it will be as bright as, or brighter than, the remainder of the underparts. Some Warblings in fall can be very bright yellow along the sides and flanks, but if yellow extends to the center of the lower throat, it will be much paler there. So this relative distribution of color is important."
The bander's primary ID uncertainty seemed to result from an obsolete banding manual with inaccurate information, and, accordingly, you can't help but wonder if other vireos here and at other banding stations might have been misidentified. Contrary to what you might think, it's important to keep in mind that banding station IDs are generally not nearly as solid as those coming from a museum's specimen trays. Banders undoubtedly make fewer mistakes than birders in the field, but they're still human. Actually, bird-in-the-hand IDs can even be more difficult than in the field, since behavior, vocalizations, and other important clues aren't available.
The director of the Migration Research Foundation also commented that the Minnesota vireo was "a definite Philadelphia", and his posting included references to some eye-opening Warbling Vireo photos on the Migration Research website (). For example, look at the first Warbling photo under the "hatch-year unknown" section (unknown here means the bird's sex, not its species ID): it's got lots of dark on the lores and yellow on the underparts, just like the ones I had seen in August which I eventually figured were Warblings. Even more disturbing is the second photo under "second-year unknown": this Warbling Vireo shows even blacker, Philadelphia-like lores.
After all this, it seems these two vireos can show definite overlap in how dark the lores can be, with only the darkest or palest lores useful as field marks. You need to rely more on the color on the throat and center of the upper breast: yellow deeper or just as deep as elsewhere on the underparts = Philadelphia; yellow absent or paler than on rest of underparts = Warbling.
Finally, there are a few other features to consider on vireos you're not quite sure of, although these are only average, overlapping differences and/or require direct comparison with other vireos. Compared to Warbling Vireos, Philadelphias tend to have: a darker, grayer cap which contrasts more with the back color; a bolder, more cleanly delineated white supercilium; darker primary coverts and folded wing tips; and a smaller bill/rounder head/shorter tail profile.
Turning to our own MOU listserve for ID inspiration, let's see what issues have been raised on MOU-net in recent months. Hmm, it seems it's been a slow year for postings: a Mallard ate a frog....Canada Goose photo is added to someone's website....67 chickens are delivered to a farm....baby House Finch seen in bird bath....a poem about Palm Warblers....
Wait, here's a thread that generated lots of postings. Though not about bird ID, maybe there's something worthwhile to consider: A birder reports he possibly saw a first state record, assumes (for reasons unknown) that birders will judge him and his record negatively, and so he doesn't report it. Perceptions are reported (without specifics) that Minnesota birders are "often not friendly", that there's elitism, an "old boys club", that only "name" birders get records accepted. Someone adds (no evidence given) that "posting unusual birds was a very risky proposition"; others mention "they've only posted once and never would again". And there's even this: "I was very tempted to post my sightings from Iraq but didn't have the courage. I will gladly go back to a combat zone if needed but have sworn that I will never post on the MOU website again." (And yet they still say "War is Hell"?)
Another claims he was "publicly humiliated" by the records committee – oh, by the way, this was in another state, so what does it have to do with us? Someone seems upset when his mid-April nighthawk report is questioned by eBird – as well they should have, but why complain to MOU-net rather than eBird? A self-described "lurker" reports he never contributes or participates in MOU, and only casually knows a few members – so how is he qualified to claim that "squabbling is an MOU tradition"?
These perceptions, the posts conclude, need to change. And the implication is that MOU-net subscribers are the ones who need to clean up their act. Maybe, if there were anything to clean up. After all, I see no evidence of discontent that's anything more than limited in extent, perhaps merely negligible. I read perceptions unsupported by any evidence, examples, or explanations; some perceptions with plain factual errors; some limited in credibility since they're posted anonymously. Here's a novel suggestion: has anyone ever considered that maybe, just maybe, it's those with these perceptions – not the MOU – who could use a change?
Another thread just frayed, wore thin, and unraveled. Shakespeare's not the only one who can create much ado about nothing.
A Blackpoll Poll
There actually was a worthwhile identification issue raised on MOU-net recently, and it involved that classic problem of separating Pine, Blackpoll, and Bay-breasted warblers in fall. A Twin Cities observer was unable to determine the identity of a warbler, managed to take five photos of it, and solicited help from the listserve. Later, postings soon followed from the observer with a running total of responses and how many "voted" for each species, which sort of amounted to the results of a bird poll. It was reported that "convincing opinions for each different bird" were received, though none of the reasonings behind anyone's vote was posted, and initial sentiment seemed to be leaning in favor of Pine Warbler.
So, who won? Probably Blackpoll, maybe Bay-breasted, definitely not Pine, and best considered Unidentified. If you look at the photos, you'll see they're too marginal in quality to clearly show much, and, as pointed out earlier in that woodswallow section, bird IDs based on photos alone can be pretty risky. It should also be pointed out that bird ID is not a popularity contest: taking a poll or adding up votes does not necessarily lead to a valid conclusion. Consider, for example, that Pine Warbler may have received its share of votes and "convincing opinions", but it's clear from two of the photos that the back is streaked, precluding Pine Warbler.
Given a decent look (or good photos), it's usually not too difficult to safely identify one of these nondescript fall migrants. One place to start is to first assume it's probably a Blackpoll or Bay-breasted and (contrary to the sentiment cited above) less likely to be a Pine, a species simply not seen all that often here in spring or fall warbler waves. Consider a recent mid-September day at Duluth's Park Point Recreation Area where a nice wave of 24 warbler species was concentrated. There are 26 warblers which regularly migrate through Duluth, rarities included, and the two missing species that day were entirely predictable: Black-throated Blue (always rare) and Pine.
An early Hindsight article about warbler ID had also mentioned this about Pine Warblers (): "Too many birders assume this warbler is just another species one would routinely encounter when out looking for migrants. In reality, the Pine is quite uncommon in Minnesota as a migrant, since it has a tendency to arrive on and depart from its breeding grounds without making many stops in Minnesota in transit. Many birders are also unaware how early the species migrates in spring and how late it moves in fall, and it is not likely to be seen in mid-May or in September during peak warbler-watching time."
I mentioned above the mystery warbler was probably a Blackpoll, based on what I think is visible on my computer screen: lemon yellow on the throat, streaks on the underparts, and white under tail coverts. But the more I stare at those five photos, the less confident I am the bird can be identified with certainty. After all, one experienced bander posted that he thought it was a Bay-breasted. (Interestingly, about the same time another bander posted photos elsewhere of a straightforward Bay-breasted and admitted "we weren't sure what it was.")
The next time you're confronted with one of these Blackpoll/Bay-breasteds, these are some features to consider:
• Trace of buff or chestnut on the flanks = Bay-breasted; no trace of color = either
species or Pine
• Back streaks (may be faint) = either species (and not Pine); unstreaked =
Bay-breasted or Pine
• Underparts streaking (may be faint) = Blackpoll or Pine; unstreaked =
Bay-breasted or Pine
• Buff under tail coverts (may be faint) = Bay-breasted; white = Blackpoll or Pine
• Pale legs and feet = Blackpoll; dark = either species or Pine
• Pale soles of feet = Blackpoll or Pine; dark = Bay-breasted or Pine
• Lemon yellow wash on throat = Blackpoll or Pine; no yellow = either species or
• Other more subtle, average differences between Blackpolls and Bay-breasteds
include: greener upperparts and sides of neck on Bay-breasted (grayer on
Blackpoll); thicker wing bars on Bay-breasted; and more distinct eye line on
And, finally, for even more information about all this, I recommend A Field Guide to Advanced Birding by Kaufman and A Field Guide to Warblers by Dunn and Garrett.
* * *
[Author's Note, August 2016 – The following section, included in the original version of this article, was not published in The Loon; there were objections to its criticism of the Minnesota breeding bird atlas project.]
You may be right about my confusing choice of words in these Hindsight subtitles. Either I need practice counting to 4 or to brush up on my vocabulary. It's probably the latter, especially after realizing that I apparently never learned the proper definitions of such familiar words as goal, fantastic, and great.
It's been disconcerting to read postings on MOU-net about a project whose stated goal was to find 13% of the volunteer help needed by the time 20% of the work was supposed to be done. (And that's just intending to work on it, not necessarily to do any work.) Later, when fewer than 7% of the needed volunteers were found, this was described as "fantastic!", and it was said to be a "great start" when the coverage reached 11%. Now, I may have trouble counting to 4, but something doesn't add up here. If 20% of a project is scheduled for completion, doesn't any number below 20 measuring its progress by that time imply it's neither fantastic nor great?
Silly me. I always thought that something could be fantastic (with or without the "!") or great if it was much better than average, not way behind schedule. That a goal, by definition, should involve optimism and ambition, not just settling for mediocrity. Sorry, but there's no time now to go into more detail about what's going on. I'm off to lead a birding trip this weekend. And I think my goal will be to correctly identify 13% of the birds we look at, but it will still be fantastic if we only get 7% of them right.