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The Birder Jargon Project: Two Bird Theory

May 30, 2013

It’s embarrassing to misidentify a bird. It’s even more embarrassing in the company of others. I’m not too proud to admit I’ve done it my share of times, even when I’ve taken on the mantle of “trip leader”, who are supposed to be the kind of birders who never make mistakes and pluck rarities out of thin air. The truth is that birders make mistakes every time we go out in the field. Even the very best among us. This is because birds are hard.

It is impossible to get the sort of look you need to identify every species every time. It is impossible to make a snap judgement on a bird that ends up being correct given all the impossible angles, lighting conditions, plumage variations, and obstructions that a bird can throw at you. Even when your gut is right 9 times out of 10, it can still be wrong in spectacular ways. If you have a quick draw you’re even more inclined to get things wrong from time to time, and it’s my opinion that the best birders get reputations for being the best largely because they know exactly when to keep their mouths shut because they didn’t see something well enough. That’s a skill as important to cultivate as flight calls and shorebird jizz.

I try to deal with my errors head-on. If I make a mistake I want to admit it because at least people will know that I’m certain, I’m certain. And I’ve made some boners too, particularly when I haven’t been in the field a lot and I’m out of practice. Birding skills are like a knife that you have to sharpen frequently if you want them to function properly and I’ve been guilty of letting it stay a bit dull lately. So while I’ll not go into details, there was a situation recently where a Mountain Plover went behind a pile of scrub and magically turned into a Western Meadowlark when it came out that I’d rather forget. Seems I’m out of practice on keeping my yap shut.

But it gets me to my point, those times when, correctly or incorrectly, the bird you’re certain of seeing turns into something else and you can’t admit it to yourself or your companions. That’s when it’s time to trot out the Two Bird Theory.

Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs - Aruba

Lesser? Greater? Take your shot, you can’t go wrong!

The Two Bird Theory is invoked when you call out an identification for a poorly seen bird, generally a rarity or a target species, and subsequent observations discover a similar, usually common, species very close by. Instead of accepting that the poorly seen bird was a mis-identification, one can state that there are “two birds”, the desired one and the common one, and that everyone else is just unlucky to have seen the second one.

The phrase is generally employed mockingly, or at least ironically, though in the uncommon instance where the two bird theory is proven correct the original observer is triumphant for having stuck by his/her guns in the face of significant skepticism. But usually it’s just a mistake. Roll with it. Make fun of yourself. And know that birding is difficult and fun and the sooner you get on board with your mistake the better off you end up in the eyes of your companions and that reputation you’ve been carefully cultivating for years remains largely intact.

Because it’s usually around this time that the rare bird pops up into view.

  1. Dan Andrews permalink
    May 30, 2013 12:58 pm

    One of my big misidentifications was Redhead Duck. They had landed near sunset in a small bay, and they were close enough to get very good pictures–they just glowed in the reddish cast of the setting sun. At home I loaded the pictures onto my computer, cropped and named them, admired them, and then sent off a few pictures to a coworker who had said he’d never seen Redheads on the lake.

    Later the coworker approached me and said, “Those aren’t Redheads”. I looked at the pictures again, and they were female Common Goldeneyes. I had seen the “red” head because the sun gave everything a reddish cast and my brain stopped there. When going over the pictures I “knew” they were Redheads so again I wasn’t really looking at them. You can tell those two species apart by silhouette, at a great distance, rather easily, yet I managed to misidentify them. The embarrassing part was that I’d been hired specifically to do bird surveys, and here I misidentified ducks that are quite different in shape, size, and proportions.

    I’d like to say that happened early in my career, but at that point I’d already had 20 years of experience (including lots of duck banding experience on the prairies, and tracking down Goldeneye and Bufflehead nests). Some jokes were made at my expense, we laughed about it, but I didn’t forget how easily I’d duped myself on an easy bird, and it makes/keeps me humble.

  2. June 4, 2013 9:11 pm

    I could not believe how much we used the two bird theory on my Costa Rica trip last winter. Surprisingly, TBT was correct an overwhelming amount of the time.

    TBT is also a good way to kindly call bullshit on someone who blew a call. One time while birding with someone we were looking at a Common Gallinule. They told me they saw a Sora. I asked if it was behind the gallinule. They later complimented me for such a gentle smackdown.

  3. June 6, 2013 4:45 pm

    Funny, I thought of Tucker immediately when I read this. Seems like one who’d take particular delight in calling someone out for TBT. Anyway, I find loudly overconfident ID’ers extremely irritating, but like you say Nate, if you own up to your mistake and laugh about it, no one can take issue with that. Nice bit of jargon-splaining here.

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