BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at MBW (Part I)
So, what's the deal with abbreviations in these Hindsight titles? For example, the previous Hindsight () was subtitled "A Second Look at RQD", which I'm sure readers found to be a thoroughly absorbing and fascinating discussion about "Q" being mysteriously assigned as the letter representing the word "For".
And now we have MBW in this present title, but at least there's nothing illogical about these initials. If you don't know what they stand for, I suppose you could Google it, and on the first page you'll find http://www.mbw.com, which is the website of MBW, Inc., a compaction and concrete construction equipment company in Slinger, Wisconsin. No, for our purposes it's not that. Nor is it what a dyslexic driver might call his German luxury car.
Actually, here it stands for Minnesota Birding Weekends – or Weeks, when referring to longer trips out of state. These trips have been around for over 25 years (when originally named MOU Birding Weekends), with one of its goals to assist MOU members with both the basics and the more advanced challenges of bird identification. After a quarter of a century, I sometimes wonder if we're getting anywhere with improving our ID skills.
This Hindsight column has often addressed the ID difficulties involved in records reviewed by the MOU's Records Committee, the discussions on the Frontiers of Field Identification listserve, or the postings on our own mou-net listserve. After all, these represent actual problems encountered by birders in the field, rather than merely academic or hypothetical ID challenges.
What I've tended to overlook, however, is that my own MBWs also provide a rich source of ID confusion, tentative or dubious conclusions, and outright blunders to learn from. After taking a second look at what we encountered this year, in reverse chronological order, what follows are some of the problems MBW participants have dealt with. (OK, I admit it, at times I found myself wondering what some of those birds were.)
I admit as well that many of these ID issues have been addressed in previous Hindsight installments, so you may not learn anything new from some of our experiences. But as consolation – and as a public service – I introduce the following entries with some traditional MBW expressions we frequently use. That way, if you join us on a MBW, you can at least know what the heck we're talking about even if we sometimes don't know what the heck we're looking at.
• Flip Around: Rothsay MBW, October 2011
After announcing at one point during this weekend that we needed to make yet another U-turn (i.e., "flip around", as one MBW leader calls it), I was asked by one of the participants if we set the record for flipping around. Of course, birders are always missing a turn on some road or failing to stop in time for a bird, and on this trip it seemed we had done this more than usual.
But I digress. Flipping around had nothing to do with the main ID challenge faced during this weekend: i.e., that Purple Sandpiper in Swift Co. Though it wasn't an official part of our itinerary, several of us stopped to see it on the way to or from the MBW, and we all dutifully ticked it off as a Purple. The question remains, though, why wasn't it a Rock Sandpiper?
How do you tell the two apart when out of range? Has anyone ever actually ruled out Rock Sandpiper on Minnesota's four previous sight records (the first record in 1966 became a specimen), or were they all just assumed to be Purples? And what about all the other "Purple" Sandpiper records from the Great Lakes and Midwest: were their identities definitively determined or merely assumed?
Take a look at any of the shorebird references, and they all agree the two species can look essentially the same in fall and winter, with perhaps no solid field marks to consistently separate them. Accordingly, field identification of Purple vs. Rock sandpipers is difficult at best, and I submit it's a pretty shaky premise to assume a bird's identity if all the other previous records within a thousand miles had only been based on the same assumption.
• Junior Tour Leader Merit Badge: Nobles & Jackson Co's MBW, October 2011
Even though I frequently offer this honorary title and badge of recognition to MBW participants for finding something rare, or making a difficult ID, or taking the lead at the head of the car caravan, it's seldom they accept the honor. Too much responsibility, I guess. Or they're afraid they'll just end up like Craig, my frequent co-leader: fired! (See the Mower & Freeborn Co's MBW below.)
And there were several opportunities on this weekend to earn a JTLMB. The most curious instance was when some took the initiative to keep birding while most were taking a restroom break, and they had a brief and mostly obscured look at something they initially thought would be a Smith's Longspur. But when the rest of us arrived on the scene – after the bird had disappeared, of course – it became evident that their uncooperative bird with buffy-orange underparts and black markings on the face might have actually been a Black-headed Grosbeak.
As unlikely as this confusion seems at first, take look at any field guide and you'll see there are indeed some similarities in the two species. Of course, there are more differences than similarities, but these were mostly hidden from view. This brought to mind my first trip years ago up to Churchill, Manitoba where Smith's Longspurs breed. When the first Smith's of the trip flew by, I still remember my initial impression: Black-headed Grosbeak.
Some more typical ID issues also arose, and one of these involved a skulking juvenile Marsh Wren which was first thought to be a Sedge Wren until it emerged into clearer view. While adult Marsh Wrens sport an obvious white supercilium, this juvenile did not, and it wasn't until we could see its unstreaked crown that I could tell it wasn't a Sedge.
Earlier, along this same stretch of road, yet another juvenile bird had us fooled until it came out into the open. It was with Le Conte's Sparrows, and its buff underparts, white median crown stripe, lack of malar stripe, and no hint of gray on the face all suggested Grasshopper Sparrow. Finally, I had a decent look at its nape, and those alternating gray and maroon stripes which are characteristic of a Le Conte's became visible. While the ID of these two closely-related sparrows as adults is pretty straightforward, those juveniles are another matter.
Also somewhat confounding was an actual Grasshopper Sparrow later the same day. For some reason it was perched up on a limb in an open oak woodland, which is something Vesper Sparrows often do. Also quite Vesper-like was its obvious eye ring, a field mark we're not used to seeing on Grasshopper Sparrows in spring and summer. But in fresh plumage later in fall and in winter, when Grasshoppers are scarce to non-existent in Minnesota, they do have a bold eye ring that's hard to get used to.
There were still other sparrow issues during this MBW. When someone found our first Harris's Sparrows of the day, they were mistaken for Lapland Longspurs – and this can happen more than you might think, since, as shown in the field guides, both birds have a pink bill, buff tones on the face, and varying amounts of black on the breast.
Finally, a pink-billed Chipping Sparrow had some of us wondering for awhile why it wasn't a Field Sparrow. Careful: both Chippings and Clay-coloreds in fall (adults and juveniles) can have pinkish bills.
• Canadian Honkers: Duluth MBW, September-October 2011
Unless you want to sound like some big-city tourist from out East, you don't call them Canada Geese in Minnesota. They're just honkers. Or, if you want to sound all educated and scientific about it, I suppose it's OK to call them Canadian Honkers.
Of course, it's best not to call them that if they're actually Cackling Geese, but sometimes you can't really tell. In reality, there are several sizes of both of these "species", and no one knows for sure how to separate the smallest Canadian honkers (subspecies parvipes) from the largest Cacklings (subspecies taverneri) in the field. So you're sometime just guessing when confronted with one of those medium-sized geese – which is just what we did at times during the weekend.
At least there were a couple of ID issues actually worth dealing with this weekend (i.e., more important than whether or not something's a honker). One of these was a juvenile Dunlin which took me a few minutes to figure out. We rarely see this plumage here, and it's quite unlike that typical dull gray winter plumage normally seen on fall Dunlins.
Much more challenging was the distant juvenile jaeger we spotted far out on Lake Superior. Its manner of flight and overall size relative to the Ring-billed Gulls it attacked suggested a Pomarine, and the nice photos and much closer views by others later in the day certainly seemed to confirm our tentative ID. But remember, this was still a jaeger, and, though the strong consensus eventually settled on Pomarine, one experienced reviewer looked at the photos and called it a Parasitic without hesitation!
There was one other ID that day which confused at least one of the participants. Please be aware that the Geographic field guide's immature White-crowned Sparrow illustration bears no resemblance to the species in real life. They have reddish-brown crowns, and it's easy to end up calling them Field or Chipping or American Tree sparrows if you let Geographic – rather than your conscience – be your guide.
• Yellow Car Jokes: Northwestern Minn. MBW, September 2011
There's a long-standing rule on MBWs: No yellow car jokes after 12:00 noon. The participants are free to make fun of my yellow Toyota all they want during the morning, but by the afternoon I'm afraid my sense of humor has worn thin.
I didn't drive the yellow car on one day of this MBW, a relatively rare event and one way to avoid the jokes, but we were unable to avoid two chronic ID challenges. One was the frequent problem of telling an American Golden-Plover from a Black-bellied, especially in early fall when some Black-bellieds look more brown than gray. Sure, if they fly it's easy, or if both are present for direct comparison. But I have to admit sometimes I'm just guessing on some birds – until they take off, and often contradict my initial and tentative ID.
Just as challenging, if not more so, was our problem of separating Horned from Eared grebes, since they were in transition from summer to winter plumage. At this time (or when changing from winter to summer plumage in spring), their plumages can be a confusion of breeding color mixed with winter drabness, and we ended up relying on subtle differences in head shape.
• Sounds Good! (or Okey Dokey): Stevens & Big Stone Co's MBW, August 2011
While it's typical to merely say something routine like "OK" to express agreement, one MBW leader prefers his trademark "Sounds good!" response. To say it right, though, you have to drag out the first word a bit and follow with a sudden rising inflection on the second. (But that's tough to get the hang of, so most of us settle for an acceptable alternative: "Okey dokey.")
It's also important that birds sound good, since some songs may be the best or only way to reach reliable identifications. Empidonax flycatchers certainly fit in this category, but I was puzzled when one of the best listeners in the group reported hearing the full "free beeur" song of an Alder Flycatcher.
A migrant Alder in mid-August in west-central Minnesota giving just a call note made sense, but a full song from one well south of its breeding range didn't. It was never seen or heard from again, and I had to wonder if it had actually been a Willow Flycatcher (which could nest where we were) doing an Alder's song. After all, I had heard Willows elsewhere in the past giving Alder-like call notes.
Also curious was this meadowlark in Morris a couple days later repeatedly giving an Eastern's song. But this was were there should only be Western Meadowlarks, well outside the normal range of Easterns. This was not the first time I had heard Eastern songs in western Minnesota, so what were they? Genuine out-of-range Eastern Meadowlarks? Meadowlark hybrids? Or perhaps, as has been documented, Western Meadowlarks singing the wrong song?
This MBW nearly succeeded as well in shaking our confidence when it came to deciphering vireos – but not their songs this time, just their plumages. Here was this nondescript vireo that was clearly yellowish on the breast and sides, so at first we naturally thought it a migrant Philadelphia. But then I remembered some recent and disconcerting encounters with Warbling Vireos showing some Philadelphia-like yellow on their breasts.
Here's the difference: if the yellow on the breast is brightest at the center, then odds are you've got a Philadelphia. If the yellow fades towards the center, then it's one of those confusing Warbling Vireos (brightly-plumaged juveniles?) that none of the field guides choose to warn you about.
Finally, this perennial August MBW tends to focus on shorebirds, and in doing so it exposes some chronic difficulties that participants struggle with. Tail-bobbing Solitary Sandpipers are mistaken for Spotteds, while at the same time their shape and plumage frequently result in Solitarys being overlooked and passed off as Lesser Yellowlegs. Stilt Sandpipers can also be overlooked since they resemble Lesser Yellowlegs in their size and shape and whitish tails. Or, because of their relatively long bills and vertical probing behavior, they can be missed among a group of dowitchers.
• You're Fired: Mower & Freeborn Co's MBW, July 2011
I suppose you've already figured out that such characters as Lulu Belle and Niko from previous Hindsight articles are merely fictitious. But not Craig, the one getting fired. He really does exist, he's been an integral part of MBW for several years, and he does tend to get fired a lot – fictitiously, anyway. Indeed, it's rare for him to co-lead a MBW and not get "fired". Often two or three times, and usually for no reason. (You might say my views on labor relations are somewhat tyrannical.)
When in hired – rather than fired – mode, Craig handles MBWs as their sole leader as well as when he co-leads with me. So, this time he decided to check the Janesville sewage ponds, and they distantly saw something that vaguely resembled a Black-bellied Whistling-Duck: pink bill and feet, large white wing patch, upright posture. He called me right away, and I could hear excited voices in the background, but they still needed a better look. Five minutes later the phone rang again: now it didn't look quite right for a whistling-duck but was still unidentified. Another phone call came after they finally had a decent look at something they'd never seen before – an Egyptian Goose!
Normally, exotic waterfowl raise thorny questions of origin and whether or not listers can count them. Questions that often are never fully resolved. But sometimes, like this odd goose at Janesville, they can present ID challenges as well.
• Proper Adult Supervision: Lac Qui Parle MBW, April 2011
MBW participants often wander off from the group while we're birding, and they may even try to identify things then – without my proper adult supervision, of course. Typically, despite my admonitions, some disastrous result invariably follows, like a misidentified bird.
On this weekend, we added Brewer's Blackbird to the trip list on the basis of a dark-eyed female seen by one of the more experienced members of the group who had wandered off on his own. But I have to wonder if it might have been something else, like a dark-eyed juvenile Rusty. The tricky thing about blackbirds is they can hold on to juvenile plumage into spring, dark eyes and all. And I still remember those large-tailed grackles in Rock Co. a few years back: their eyes were dark, normally an apparent field mark of Boat-tailed Grackles. I later learned, though, that juvenile Great-taileds have dark eyes – sometimes even in May.
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The next Hindsight installment promises to be a drama-filled and action-packed continuation of MBW-inspired identification difficulties: i.e., those from our 2010 season. So stay tuned! In the meantime, you might want to spend some time practicing that proper inflection on "Sounds good!" Or coming up with some yellow car joke I haven't heard before. Who knows – you might even earn a Junior Tour Leader Merit Badge if you succeed.