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On being a “good” birder

May 14, 2010

I and the Bird #125 up at Twin Cities Naturalist


One morning recently, on a regular walk through some local hotspot or another, I heard a woodpecker call in a nearby tree that I was absolutely dead certain was a Hairy.  The call note of the Hairy Woodpecker is notoriously similar to their smaller co-gener, the Downy Woodpecker, as most every birder knows, and differentiating them is mostly a matter of scale more than anything.  But I’ve heard a few of both in my day and in that bird in a nearby tree, I heard the the huskier, louder squeak-toy of a Hairy rather than the relatively diminutive Downy.  Had I never seen the bird I would have been supremely confident that I could add Hairy Woodpecker to my day list and even did so on the little notepad I carry with me most everywhere to record bird sightings.

Of course, as birds are wont to do on occasion, this one ultimately made a fool of me.  Because when the woodpecker in question flew across my path to a nearby tree and rounded the trunk allowing me an unobstructed view of that dinky little half-bill I knew I was beat.  There was no denying that it was a Downy, albeit one with a much heftier voice that usual.  In the cold light of day it was clear that I had flubbed the initial call and I drew a mark through the line in my pad.  You got me this time, Downy Woodpecker, and you’ll probably get me again.

I bring this up for a couple reasons.  One, obviously birds, even common ones like Downy Woodpeckers, are full of surprises that can trip up the would-be field birder.  Anyone who spends enough time in the field is going to come across aberrant individuals, sub-songs, and ratty molt-ridden birds.   As if that wasn’t rough enough, even the perfect type specimen can seemingly change color and shape depending on the birder’s orientation with regard to the direction of the light or cloud cover or location of the bird.  In fact, given all the potential pitfalls birders run into on a regular basis it can be amazing that we manage to correctly identify as many birds as we do, but it goes to show that any bird can play with any birder’s psyche.

I consider myself, woodpecker issues aside, to be a good birder.  I certainly work hard enough at it and I figure if I’m occasionally lucky enough to have that epithet thrown my way it’s only a little arrogant to go ahead and claim the title.  But I included the earlier anecdote not only to humble the self-proclaimed “good birder”, but as an illustration that even good birders make mistakes.  All the time actually, and if a birder tells you otherwise they’re lying.  I’ve seen birders who’s skills I respect a great deal make whoppers, but turn around and pick a rarity out of a flock of peeps at 500 meters.  It’s because when there are several things going on in the mind of a birder when they catch a glimpse of a bird, the difference between an experienced birder and a novice birder often boils down to nothing more than knowing when to keep your mouth shut, which is something that occasionally can get away from even the most experienced and knowledgeable birder.  Which brings me to my second point.

We all have that instant in our head when we recognize, or think we recognize, something.  And the vast majority of mistakes made by good birders are made in that instant, when the brain makes a connection and, for better or for worse, instantly relays that connection to the mouth.  Given enough time to consider an identification, most birders are going to be able to come to the correct conclusion, but in the thrill of the chase or the excitement of the moment the filter that prevents embarrassing gaffs can sometimes get overwhelmed.  Throw in the fact that under certain circumstances even typical field-guide worthy birds can be difficult to ID and you’ve got a recipe for regular miscues.

The crucial thing to remember is that making mistakes is not, in and of itself, a characteristic of the birder eternally regulated to novice status.  The primary distinction between excellent birders and those who wish to be often lies merely in knowing how to best manage your expectations and thoughtfully consider your observations.  Birding can be difficult, it takes time to accumulate the knowledge necessary to be comfortable on any day in the field, let along a warbler fallout morning or a mudflat packed to the brim with foraging shorebirds.  It’s easy to feel, especially in the quick of the moment with a group of like-minded individuals, overwhelmed by the situation or by fellow birders with fancy optics putting names to mud-colored birds barely beyond the range of a scope.  It can look, dare I say it, easy and not a small bit intimidating.  It may feel as though being a skilled birder is something so far out of reach as to seem almost magical.   It can lead to incorrect assumptions about what it means to be a “good” birder and bad habits for developing field craft.

For starters, too often we feel as though we have to put the right name on everything every single time. Unfortunately, birds are hardly that cut and dried and the more we learn about them from a genetic standpoint that more muddled they can seem.  In any case, birders looking to improve should get increasingly comfortable with “I don’t know”.  It’s not a cop-out, because as Steve Howell writes in the introduction to his great Gull guide, the percentage of unidentifiable birds never reaches zero. He’s referring to gulls of course, a notably difficult group of birds, but he may as well be talking about anything with feathers that any birder is likely to come across anywhere in the world.  For some birders that percentage may seem like it gets darn close to zero, but even the best field birders in the world would tell you they have their limits.

In short, everyone makes mistakes, but it’s recovering from those initial mistakes, either in voice or simply in your mind, and applying the lesson to the next bird that is the mark of a good birder.  It’s far less about nailing the identification in an instant every time than it is about giving yourself the time to think about an identification, to run it through your head, and to realize what about it makes it correct and what is missing.  You may not come to a conclusion as to a given bird’s identity every time, in fact I’d argue that if you’re doing it right you shouldn’t, but you should become more comfortable with your limitations, which will enable you to be a more honest, and better, birder in the long run.  Besides, it’s all about accumulation of knowledge and awareness anyway, and accepting where your limits currently are allows you to more accurately shoot beyond them.

Will I get every Hairy and Downy vocalization I come across?  No.  But I’ll get most of them and maybe in the future when I hear one of those tweener calls I’ll track it down instead of making assumptions.  Or at the very least, get comfortable with Picoides sp.

  1. pinguinus permalink
    May 14, 2010 11:24 am

    Well said.

    Although I still count as my most embarrassing birding gaffe not a miscalled rarity, but the time I just said “Oh, what’s that?”… about a badly-seen Starling.

  2. Greg Swick permalink
    May 14, 2010 11:29 am

    Very true. Good analysis.

  3. Nate permalink*
    May 14, 2010 11:42 am

    @pinguinus- Thanks! But I’d contend that a poorly-seen bird that goes identified, regardless of what it turns out to be, is less a gaffe and more an intellectually honest position given what is known at the time. Absolutely no shame there.

    @Dad- Thanks!

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