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The Evolution of a Birder

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about birders–specifically, the various kinds of birders we are, have been, and will become. When I think back across my life as a birder, I can see how own my skill level has progressed, but perhaps more interestingly how my mentality has changed as it relates to the bird identification process. What drove me in the early days isn’t what drives me now, and I wonder what will drive me moving forward? What does it mean to be an “expert birder”? How can I get there? There are many talented birders out there, but there are certain qualities that I’ve seen shared among the birders I look up to–the ones that consistently blow my mind when I’m birding with them in the field.

We all start out birding as beginners. For whatever reason we’re drawn to birds. The initial spark that grabs us can come from a variety of sources, but once we have it we’re captivated, and our lives are never the same. But being captivated by birds and learning to identify them with skill are two different things; the former can happen in an instant, but the latter takes a remarkable amount of time. The great thing about being a beginning birder is that everything is new. There are amazing discoveries and new species to be had around every corner. The Sibley Guide is a wondrous thing; a book of possibilities. We thumb across the pages, dreaming of seeing our favorite birds, indeed learning what our favorite birds are! It’s an amazing time to be a birder. The funny thing is, we often don’t appreciate the newness of it all. Instead we’re like impatient children, eager to hang out with the older kids, to get older ourselves, to become experts.

Screen shot 2012-01-23 at 10.18.00 PM

Arctic Loon, San Simeon, CA, 13 Jan 2012. A bird I dreamed about seeing as a young birder, but would I have recognized one back then?

Over the years we learn the ins and outs of basic birding. Some learn faster than others. We learn the common birds in our neighborhoods, and then we move onto bigger challenges. Perhaps it’s fall warblers, shorebirds, or raptor identification. For the sickest ones among us, it could be gulls. We pursue our specific interests and learn more about how to look at birds, transcending into the realm of the intermediate-level birder (for lack of a better name). New questions perplex us. How old is that bird? What subspecies is it? What is a subspecies anyway? We learn how real-world birds differ from those we see depicted in field guides, and how lighting, molt, wear, weather, and other climactic conditions affect the way a bird looks on any given day.

Now don’t take this the wrong way but…these “college years” of birding can be a dangerous time for many of us (not all though). We think we know a lot, but in reality we know a little, and often our egos get the best of us. We foolishly challenge conventional wisdom, having misplaced confidence in our abilities, finding one too many rarities or birds that fall outside their expected windows of occurrence. We suffer from single-observer sighting syndrome. Armed with our new found knowledge and budding identification skills, we too often shoot from the hip, pushing the limits of our skills, and testing the patience of our mentors. Unconstrained by reality (historic precedent) and freed from the gripping fear of making mistakes as beginners, we’re sometimes a little too loose with our identifications. It’s a delicate time for us, and some of us don’t learn from our mistakes, and pay the price by loosing credibility among our peers. Others do learn though, and become excellent birders. The best avoid this phase altogether, being keenly aware of themselves, their skills, and their reputations from the beginning.

The next phase of our birding life is “middle age”, a higher level of intermediate birder. Most of us forgo the capriciousness of youth for a more measured and thoughtful approach. Instead of shooting from the hip we become more methodical in our identification process. We transform our mentality from thinking we know everything to realizing we know nothing. We are humbled again, just like at the beginning, but this time the questions we ask are different. The possibilities are endless. Identification becomes just one of the things that fascinates us about birds. It is at this level where many of us remain for the rest of our lives, happily birding ever after. But it is here where the truly expert birders begin to diverge.

So what makes an “expert birder”? Well, lots of things! Truly expert birders combine the passion of the “college years” with the clear-headed approach of “middle age”. They mix blazing hot field skills with an incredible knowledge of bird distribution and seasonality. They use probability of occurrence to help quickly limit their likely identification choices, and then use their field skills to quickly sort through the possibilities to make seemingly instantaneous identifications. They have an intimate knowledge of the common birds, and are prepared to recognize a rare bird as “different” the moment it occurs. Unsatisfied with the status quo, expert birders question conventional wisdom, but this time break new ground, pushing the boundaries of the identification process forward, doing so by asking questions, long hours in the field, and careful study.

Expert birders learn to look at birds differently–they look longer and more closely than most birders. They form an initial impression, but they then divorce themselves from it to look at it anew, always double-checking. Their mindset changes from being about making the call first, to being about getting it right in the end. Expert birders are often the ones that forgo an emotional response to a rarity in favor of a rational examination of the situation. Instead of saying ‘got it’, and quickly ticking off a rarity on their lists, they identify the bird for themselves, sometimes coming to a different (and often unpopular!) conclusion.

Perhaps most importantly though, the truly expert birders know when to say “I don’t know”. This is a difficult thing to do, as it goes against everything we’ve trained ourselves to accomplish over the years. We’re driven to put a name on every bird, but many birds defy identification for various reasons. Whether Kaufman or Sibley, Crossley, O’Brien, or Howell, I’ve heard all them say “I don’t know” when asked to identify birds under certain circumstances. Instead of simply giving an answer, they are more interested in providing the right answer. And sometimes the answer is unknowable. They know more than all of us about birds, yet they are smart enough to know when they don’t know, and they are big enough to admit it.

These birders, and many others like them, are my mentors. They are the kind of birder I aspire to be.

So what does “expert birder” mean to you?

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Brian Sullivan

Brian Sullivan

Brian L. Sullivan conducts fieldwork on birds throughout North America and beyond. He is Project Leader for eBird and the Avian Knowledge Network and Photographic Editor for Birds of North America Online. Sullivan has written and consulted on various publications on North American birds. Among his numerous articles are several that have appeared recently in Birding magazine—on such topics as molt in migrating raptors, Harlan's and Krider's hawks, thrush identification, birding in hurricanes, and of course eBird. Sullivan lives in central coastal California, and birds everywhere.
  • I like your comment about our failure to appreciate the newness. As a newbie I remember almost being annoyed by “experts” constantly telling me they were jealous that I could get a lifer (or eight) on every Saturday morning field trip. Now, as a middle-aged birder with frequent college years relapses (according to the Sullivan Scale), I find I’m telling newbies the same thing.

    As to what an expert is, in most fields of study the person who replies with a thoughtful “I don’t know” is the one to be trusted. I think you nailed it with your description.

  • My good friend Jon Graves defines an expert as “somebody from out of town.” The folks at the garden club define expert this way: “they don’t know much more than me, but they have a slide show.”

    I started birding “seriously” in 1970 at the tender age of 13. I wince every time somebody tags me with the epithet “expert”. I know some stuff. Knowledge is like arthritis, it comes with age, and like arthritis, knowledge can slow you down, make you think before you jump, make you cautious, maybe too cautious sometimes, grumpy and stodgy. The best remedy for arthritis is exercise.

    “Expert” is a title handed to me by somebody else. In the continuum that is bird lore, I know more about some things than some people, less than others. As soon as I start believing too much in my own expertise, I stop listening, I stop learning, I stop exercising.

    I do put on a pretty good slide show, though.

    And for all you young whipper-snappers out there, a slide show is what we old folks call a power point presentation…

  • Vince Elia

    Great article, Brian…

    One trait that I find common among truly “expert” birders is their willingness to share their expertise with almost anyone who has a question to ask… and I think this comes from a level of comfort with their own status… they have nothing to prove, and nothing to hide… they have no need to squirrel away the knowledge they’ve gained for fear of being overtaken by others…

  • John Heneghan

    I am amazed by those who can ID birds by their calls. I am getting better but have a long way to go!

  • Anton

    As has been said, experience could make you a better birder. I don’t go out to bird a whole lot, but even so, I’ll always remain a beginner-birder, as there is always something new to learn or discover, even from familiar birds.

  • bugman

    Brian, that is one of the most eloquent commentaries on the stages of birding I’ve ever read and you’ve essentially nailed it. I’ve heard the various stages described as freshman, junior varsity and varsity level birders which appeals to some of us, but however you categorize it, there are roughly 3 stages of development in the birding learning curve. Those in the varsity class are many, but even among those accomplished birders there are many (in California at least) that have an apparent chip on their shoulders towards the ‘minions’ who would look up to them, and there are those that are happy to treat the minions as almost-equals with a smile instead of a defensive prickly response, whether it be in the field or at a birding festival that they’ve been to a dozen times or more. Some of them might be more friendly when they have a book coming out, but even so, the ones who have the patience and the time to interact with the up-and-coming birders are the ones I look up to as mentors. The ones who are hot and cold depending on what day you catch them on are bores at best and they know who they are. I’d love to see an expanded version of your analysis of the various birder levels sometime in the Birding magazine. Keep up the good work.

  • Levi

    This is a amazing article. It truly leaves you thinking about the type of birder you are, were, and want to become.

  • Michael Retter

    This is a great synopsis, Brian. I’ve noticed that really keen birders have a natural, insatiable curiosity, and consequently, tend to also develop interests in other aspects of the natural world: botany, leps, odes, mammals, etc.

  • Peter Burke

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay Brian. I love being in the field with expert birders because I see more birds and I always learn something new. Expert birders come in many flavors, some have an amazing ability to bird by ear, others display encyclopedic knowledge of 2nd or 3rd level field marks – recognizing the under tail coverts of a bird who’s head is not visible… I’m always humbled when people identify birds in flight – flap rates and trajectories and all. My favorite quality in expert birders, though, is their Willingness to share what they know. When I bird with this type of expert, they usually don’t make the call out loud, but instead ask me what I saw, helping me see what they saw in the bird’s GISS, or explaining why one field mark is more relevant than another. For me, this is the true mark of expertise. -pb

  • Excellent summary – and agree with Peter, that willingness to share knowledge is the mark of “evolution” in expert birding.

  • Dan Collins

    This is perhaps the finest synopsis I have ever read about birders and birding. Excellent!!! Truly excellent!!

  • Sally Williams

    Brian, I would really like to know how one birds in a hurricane. My reaction to hurricanes I’ve lived through has been to stay indoors and the reaction of the birds has been to completely ignore feeders; I presume they stay close to tree trunks if there are trees. Seaside or boat birding seems to me a bit reckless. Birding out a car window might be ok if the rain is not too heavy and the police have not told us all to stay indoors.

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