Getting worse at birding.

Sometimes I go out birding and find myself questioning every bird ID because I didn't see it that well or hear it that well.  Sometimes I start mixing up chip notes.  Sometimes I mix up finch songs, accipiter shapes, goose calls, or take fifty photos of a distant Savannah Sparrow because it looks weird.  Some days I feel like a terrible birder that is only getting worse.

We had an accipiter fly over the house in Lincoln City last weekend and I shot off a few quick photos.  Once at home and staring at the photos I was confused, went back and forth with Sibley and photos on eBird.  Finally I concluded it was a Sharp-shinned.

It has that no-neck look, a shorter tail, wings pushed forward, etc. Anyway.  Then I posted this photo of the same hawk on Instagram that I thought looked cool as a photo quiz:

Someone guessed the ID on the first try. 

I overthink bird ID's sometimes while other times I don't think hard enough.  I recently told someone that a Green-winged Teal they had posted was a Mallard.  It was embarrassing as you can imagine, and I decided to start actively trying to get better.  I joined the Facebook group "What's this Bird?" to follow various ID posts and hopefully learn some things.

Here are the first two things I learned from this group:

1. Hairy Woodpeckers have a "shoulder spur" or comma, where Downy Woodpeckers have spots.

 I had no idea that was a field mark.

 2. Some birders that are known as being very good birders are not always very good birders. 

A picture of a bird was posted that appeared to be a streaky drab sparrow.  A well-known Oregon birder suggested it was actually a finch and quickly was shut down.

Other well-known birders debated the bird and I believe landed with most thinking juvenile Chipping Sparrow and maybe one still thinking White-crowned.  The only thing completely agreed upon was that birding is in fact hard.

Good birders being bad birders is a topic I've been thinking about since a recent discussion on OBOL about kingbirds.  Tropical Kingbird is a bird that has been showing up along the west coast in fall/winter for many years.  Couch's Kingbird is a bird that has never been recorded in Oregon.  They are quite similar and voice is the best way to distinguish them. 

When a Tropical Kingbird turned up in Newport recently a birder commented that if it wasn't heard it should be recorded as Tropical/Couch's.  He suggested a vagrant Couch's could be overlooked here since everyone assumes the fall kingbirds here are Tropical.  It was an interesting point and not something on my radar.  I appreciated the debate that ensued but not everyone did.

Here is a good example of a good birder being a bad birder.  Instead of being open to discussion, this birder plays the whole "I've been birding longer than you've been alive" card to defend the fact that he refuses to consider new ideas. I agree, the bluntly-worded messages are not winning the original poster any friends, but I like the discussions that they initiate. 

A response to Wayne's post from the opposite end of the spectrum:

So what does it mean to be a good birder?  To admit every bird cannot be identified?  To base your identifications on what is possible rather than what is expected?  To be open to discussion?  In a recent What's this Bird? post someone questioned their own ID skills when presenting a photo and someone replied:

There it is.  You need to know what you know, and know what you don't know.  Which is hard because you don't know it.  Know what I mean?  I used to call every dowitcher in the Portland area a Long-billed because that was the more expected one.  At some point I learned that Short-billeds occur often enough that I should not do that and now always use LB/SB because I haven't studied them enough to distinguish them.

A couple years ago I eBirded Tree Swallows in October in my old patch, Blue Lake Park.  The local reviewer, Jay Withgott, contacted me and asked if I was sure about the ID because Violet-greens are actually far more common that time of year.  I had thought the opposite was true.  Now I'm more careful with swallows, especially Tree/Violet-green in fall. 

Birders are wrong all the time.  It's something that takes some getting used to as no one really likes being wrong.  But with birds that is just how it is.  Birding is hard.  But being a bird is harder.


  1. Wow FJ...very introspective. I can't remember you doing such an essay style post.

    Agreed that the ID in the first photo is not straightforward!

    Many birders who are considered great, and practically beyond the realm of making misidentifications, are actually not so good. Speaking confidently, loudly, and often (be it IRL or through interwebs) will often get someone a glowing rep as an ID wizard even if it is not deserved. I've found that many of the most rock solid birders are not the ones constantly chiming in on FB ID or listserv discussions or whatever...I'm sure they have their reasons, but I think one of them is that they are not trying to prove anything to anybody.

    As far as what Brian ____ said about always questioning your skills, I don't agree with that, or at least think it could be phrased better. It's one thing to admit that you are not always going to be right, or that certain birds should be left unidentified, it's another to always doubt yourself.

    1. I see what you're saying about that line. I think I interpreted it less as doubting oneself and more as recognizing your skills or lack thereof. With some bird ID's I doubt myself for years till I realize I am getting it right all the time and no longer need to really doubt that particular ID. Scaup comes to mind- I used to overthink that one quite a bit.

  2. Jen, Thankyou for such a challenging, reflective, and well written post!


  3. Jeez, what is it about birds and birding that gets people so worked up into elitist mode (ahem, gentlemen, are you listening)? Sigh.

    This was such a good post, Jen. We're always learning, always adding new bits to our experience. Last spring I learned a mnemonic for a GCKI song that I will never forget: I. Am. Not. A. Chestnutbackedchickadee.

    If we accept that we have a lot of knowledge already but are always learning then we're good birders, we're open to new information and can accept that we can't know it all even if we've been birding since the earth was cooling. I would never call anyone a bad birder, though, unless they willfully did assholic things to birds or other birders. We all make ID mistakes :) Picture me in front a whole group at Oaks Bottom announcing with total and complete certainty that those ducks down there were Blue-winged Teal because NO OTHER bird has that white crescent on the face. Well, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, eclipse Northern Shovelers have a crescent eerily similar to a teal's. My fave mis-ID.
    OK blah blah, I'm done now. Nice introspection. Keeps you humble, right?

    1. Keeps you humble FOR SURE. Eclipse ducks are the worst though. I agree that "always learning" is key to being a good birder.

      I love that GCKI song mnemonic!

    2. One need not

      name a bird

      to enjoy

      its features and behavior.

      Beauty is in our appreciation of what we see -

      not what we name it.

  4. Learning bird IDs is like learning math in school.

    If the answer is handed to you, the instant gratification is short lived.

    If on the other hand, you search for clues,

    observe details, listen to the bird calls -

    that bird will become yours for life!

    That is a true life bird.

  5. I am never 100% sure of anything! (except death n taxes) So it's my best guess, sort dealing with DSS, CPS, and the IRS all at once, that is some major life crap to wade thru, bird ID's pale in comparison since there is no penalty if you get it wrong. The bird is still out there living it's life, no matter what name I give it...I recently called a weird looking Immature Willet a SOSA but the sky didn't fall....Good thing is the sun will still rise even if I'm wrong and no one is paying me to get it right...(the ebird police don't serve warrants,,,,yet) HOWEVER having said that my personal goal is to keep trying to figure it out, to stretch my skills as far as I can, and be a better environmentalists. When I am aware of my mistake and set MY record straight then I've done my best..I use the .sp more and more and take into consideration the behavior of the bird, which is sometimes easier to gather in the split second than field marks, the field marks of course are important, and any other supporting evidence I can scope the end I can't always get it right, and quite honestly how could I? After all the listing of names is a hobby and my life does not depend on right or wrong bird id's. My sanity yes, but not my life. I want birds to be protected more, I want species to stop declining, I want more people to become enlightened to what is happening to our planet... so my main focus is on habitat protection and awareness. I got kinda bent tho when a reviewer wanted a photo of a purple finch. I got over it, and go with the mantra of Gone With The Wind, "tomorrow is another day." Just do your best and that's all we can expect of each other.

  6. Ah, certainty . . . Back in the old days (pre-Windows 3.1), I was a frequent poster on the Tweeters chat group. I'd been birding for 20 years by then, and had a strong opinion on bird ID, conservation, etc. etc. and happily shared those opinions. At one point, it was pointed out to me that, not only was I one of the most prolific posters on Tweeters, but also that the others on the listserv did not always agree with me, *and* my "facts" and identifications were sometimes in error.

    It was painful. It was humiliating (especially to one not well-known for humility). It was a learning experience.

    I got off Tweeters for a number of years. Cold Turkey, so to speak. Now, twenty-some-years later, when I do post, I go out of my way to not give my 'opinion'. And, I go out of my way to be 'kinder and gentler' toward those making ID errors. I also cut a lot of slack to those whose opinions differ from mine. The "Delete" key is right there, for Goodness' sake. I acknowledge that I am more and more prone to mis-Identifications (like you, I over-think it any more. Just did that with Tricolored vs Red-winged Blackbirds).

    Perhaps it is wisdom? Nah . . . . it's likely just Age . . . . but I lean toward Josh Billings'/Mark Twain's/Atremus Ward's aphorism: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

    Thanks for a Great Post!!

    1. Haha, that's a perfect quote! It's good that your reality check did not completely dissuade you from birding and made you kinder about ID mistakes. That can be a tough lesson to learn! Thanks for sharing your personal experience.

  7. OMG! I just did the NO OTHER bird has the white crescent rant, jumping up and down, swearing on my Sibley's. Then the bird flew. Lesser goddamned Scaup. That was a damn hard let down because I was so sure of myself. Birds can bring pain, humility and Mother Nature loves the last laugh. And that is the balm for my broken ego.

  8. Thanks for your post. It is timely and I've emailed a couple times today about where I'm at as a vulnerable birder and the tone of some perhaps more expert, but disdainful birders. Birding is wonderful and it's important to be able to make mistakes as we learn. Data is easy to edit. And there are so many layers to birding! I can know a bird until it suddenly looks like 5 different species and start looking a subtle differences in tail lengths, striping and seasonal plumages that I'd never had to notice before.

  9. Interesting post! After not birding for a while lately I feel like I'm loosing my skills. I'm hoping I can remember what I do know (or think I know!) when I can get out more regularly again.

    And don't even mention accipiters...


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