BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: Introduction
How hard can it be? What could be easier than identifying birds? That pair of Common Loons nesting by your cabin on the lake, an adult Bald Eagle soaring overhead, that hummingbird hovering at your feeder, a tail-wagging and singing Eastern Phoebe, the male Scarlet Tanager in spring... Even if you didn't know what they were, just get out the Golden Guide or your copy of Peterson and look it up. Right?
Perhaps. But was that dull-looking loon on Mille Lacs last fall a Common, or could it have been a Pacific Loon? And is that large, dark raptor really a Golden Eagle or just an immature Bald Eagle? Also, since there's only one kind of hummingbird in Minnesota, was that just a late Ruby-throated in my yard last November? And that flycatcher sort of looks like a phoebe, but why does it appear to have wingbars like a pewee? Is that female tanager a Scarlet, or could it be a Summer Tanager? Now what do your books have to say?
Unfortunately, while some of the time bird identification is pretty straightforward, much of the time it is not. We have actually chosen a most difficult hobby to master, since there are so many species and plumages that vary with season, age, geography, molt, sex, and other variables. So complex is the identification of many species that it is simply impossible to fit all the answers into a portable field guide; in fact, many solutions to identification problems have not yet been figured out by the experts – and some may never be.
(In a way, it is nothing short of human arrogance to assume that ornithologists should be able to resolve all the complexities of bird identification; after all, the last time I checked, entomologists and botanists are nowhere near identifying all the species they work with. Life forms go on and do just fine, thank you, and they couldn't care less whether or not humans know what they are.)
This column will hopefully become a regular feature in this journal, as it attempts to assist birders with some specific identification problems, especially those not covered adequately or accurately in the popular field guides. Because of space limitations, these pieces are not intended to be scholarly treatises on complex identification problems; those I leave to the real experts who write comprehensive articles about Iceland vs. Thayer's gulls, Empidonax flycatchers, and the like.
Instead, it makes better sense here to discuss more manageable subjects that would be helpful to the average birder – and more easily understood by them: e.g., female ducks, Red-tailed Hawk plumages, gallinaceous birds, immature and female swallows, crow vs. raven identification, thrushes, shrikes, blackbirds, winter finch calls, etc. Questions from readers and suggestions for topics would also be more than welcome.
Until the next column, which will address a specific topic, and by way of introduction to the identification process, some suggested dos and don'ts to consider in the meantime:
• Don't depend entirely on your field guide, especially the Golden and Peterson guides, which too many birders have become used to and depend on. These guides are fine as far as they go, covering the basics, but they simply do not deal adequately with most difficult identification problems. (Even the more comprehensive and recommended Geographic field guide is far from perfect.)
• Do consult other resources for help, especially other birders. As with every other skill in life, there is no substitute for experience, and birding with more knowledgeable birders is the best way for you to gain experience. There are also several books and articles to recommend on specific groups or species, sources which are able to cover a subject in depth more than the field guides. These are obviously too numerous to list here; perhaps they could be the subject of a future column.
• Don't merely look at colors and plumage patterns, matching what you see to a picture in the book. Experienced birders also consider other factors, which in many cases are more useful than a bird's visual field marks: range, season, and relative abundance (i.e. which species are likely at the place and time involved); family characteristics (before identifying a bird to the species level, be sure to simply consider, at least subconsciously, whether it's a duck, hawk, gull, flycatcher, swallow, etc.); habitat; songs and call notes (see below); size, shape, and posture; and behavior (e.g., phoebes are easier to tell when tail-wagging).
• Do try to learn songs and call notes. Although mastering this skill is difficult, time-consuming, and often frustrating, there is simply nothing else more helpful when identifying birds – or just finding them in the first place – than knowing their vocalizations.
• Don't look at only one or two marks when identifying a bird. Most species, especially the difficult or unusual ones, are safely identified only by considering a combination of several field marks. Misidentifications often result from paying too much attention to one feature on a bird and not adequately considering others.
• Do say, "I don't know" from time to time. Not every bird can be (or needs to be) identified, and identifying something only because it's "the closest thing in the book" often results in a mistake.
• Don't bird in a vacuum. It's essential to bird and communicate with other birders. If you go out accompanied only by your field guide, it's easy to be misled into mistakes and misconceptions that never get corrected.
• Do be prepared to make mistakes. Without exception, every birder does. (Remember: there aren't really any bad birders, just bad bird books.) And the last thing to do when corrected is to be defensive or even upset. If you can learn from your mistakes, having your misidentification corrected is something to appreciate, not dread.
• Don't pay too much attention to a bird's name; seldom is it synonymous with a useful field mark. More than one beginner has been at a loss when looking for two crests on a cormorant or an immature Red-tailed Hawk's red tail, when seeing a Winter Wren in summer, or a Field Sparrow in an oak tree.
• Finally, and above all, do have fun! Birding is meant to be an enjoyable pastime, not a headache. You're not required to confront the challenges of identifying distant shorebirds, immature gulls, a silent Empidonax, "confusing" fall warblers, and the rest. There's nothing wrong with just looking at unidentified birds, appreciating their presence, and leaving it at that.