Birding Skills

So how many do we find?

My last post “How many rare birds do we miss?“, was simply getting at the idea that we can miss something glaringly obvious if we are not looking for it. A popular psychology quote goes “I wouldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t believed it”. In the case of the moon-walking bear, since I wasn’t …

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Audubon’s mysteries: Carbonated Swamp-Warbler

One of the enduring mysteries of North American ornithology involves several species which were painted by Audubon in the early 1800s but never seen again. The most striking and appealing of these birds is the Carbonated Swamp-Warbler, and since the painting was published ornithologists have debated whether this could be a rare and now-extinct species, …

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Redpoll investigation widens to include “Greater”

Maybe we are just more aware and looking harder for “Greater” Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea rostrata) this winter in Massachusetts, or maybe it’s really an exceptional winter, but there is no doubt that they have come south in significant numbers. I have seen them on a couple of visits to Dan Berard’s feeders in Millbury, …

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Urging caution when identifying Common Redpolls

Redpoll identification is challenging because Hoary and Common Redpoll seem to show an unbroken continuum of variation from pale to dark, and there are no fully reliable differences. So birders have to rely on a subjective assessment of overall color and struggle to define the threshold for confident identification. Virtually all birders see redpolls only …

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Certainty in sight records

In late August 1982 I walked into the weedy fields at the South Cape May Meadows in search of rare birds. Among many species that I had in mind as possible “prizes” that day was Loggerhead Shrike and, lo and behold, a scan of the bushes ahead revealed a small, white-breasted, dark-masked bird perched conspicuously …

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Fitting pegs in holes

I’ve thought more about the “square-peg-in-round-hole” analogy in my previous post, and made a few simple drawings to expand that analogy. In many ways, bird identification is like a matching game. The observed bird (here in black) must be identified by matching it to illustrations in a diagnostic key (the gray shapes here). This is …

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Judging size of birds

Size judgment is one of the constant quandaries of bird identification – critically important but fraught with error. In a recent online discussion about these photos of sandpipers in flight, I was intrigued by the question of how I, and others, “just knew” that these birds were too small to be Knot or Pectoral and …

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