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My Life’s Birds: #70

February 20, 2008

June 30, 1993 – Christian Co, Mo – Birders make mistakes. It’s something we all have to come to grips with as our birding skill and experience grows. Even the best birder makes snap identifications that are wrong occasionally. Usually we’re able to correct ourselves and learn from them. Our own limitations are simply a part of birding that we we may learn to live with and control, but never learn to completely correct.

I had my first major lesson in identification slipups early in my birding career when I identified the swallows that I often watched by the Finley River, near the home where I grew up, as Bank Swallows. I was somewhat mistaken. While there certainly were a few Bank Swallows that could be found coursing over the river’s surface, most of the birds are, and undoubtedly were then, the rather similar Northern Rough-winged Swallow.

It’s an ID that, even now, requires a close look at the bird in question to distinguish the Rough-wing’s smudgy brown breast from the Bank’s cleanly demarcated band. At the time I began listing, I was likely unaware of the distinction. A month later, however, as I began to get a handle on this birding thing, I realized my mistake and corrected for it, adding the Rough-winged Swallow to my burgeoning list.

Of course, while I’ve surely increased in experience and skill from those early days, I’m still guilty of the occasional shoot from the hip ID, especially if I am looking for a particular bird and keyed up to see it. The difference, of course, is that I often correct myself far more quickly than the whole month it took that first time. It is a mistake all birders, no matter the skill, are guilty of from time to time, and those that deny it are only lying to themselves and missing the opportunity to learn from these mistakes. It is only from our acceptance of our limitations that we become better, more experienced, more conscious birders.

I’d like to say, as I’m sure we all would, that I’m free from the identification indiscretions of my youth. I’m not. Only more aware of the situations in which I tend to make mistakes and the possibilities that lead to them. I’ll probably never be completely rid of it, and I don’t know that I’d want to be. When you get most comfortable with your skills that you almost need those errors to bring you back to reality. For me, it’s certainly something I’m reminded of whenever I see a Northern Rough-winged Swallow.


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