Certainty, Experts, and Confirmation
by Blake Mathys
A couple of friends and I were birding around Jamaica Bay in New York a few years ago. We came upon a couple of people, a man and a woman, looking out over the water and discussing a bird perched in plain view, but a bit distantly, out in the marsh. They didn't seem to be birders (judging by their lack of optics), but one of them suggested it could be an Osprey. I took a look with my binoculars, easily saw the relevant field marks due to the benefit of magnification, and assured them that yes, it's an Osprey. The woman replied "Could be" as they were walking away.
Could be?! How could she doubt someone with expensive binoculars and birding experience? I had confirmed that it was in fact an Osprey, there was no doubt necessary, we now knew it was an Osprey, didn't we? In this post, I want to discuss how we confirm identifications, what we mean by expert, and how we ever know we are right. It is a treacherous subject, as birding reputations are built on accuracy and perceived infallibility, but I think it is a necessary discussion that may reveal a lot about the community of birders and our interpretations of other people's birding abilities.
What kind of hawk is this? Larger pictures available here. Read more about this bird below.
More recently, I found a hawk on our property. We haven't had a lot of raptors on our farm, not even migrants. I've been hoping for more buteos, and as soon as I saw this bird I knew it was a new species for us. However, I also knew it was going to be a tough ID. It seemed to be a young hawk, smaller than a Red-tail, perched on a dead branch in the morning fog. I immediately had it down to two species: Red-shouldered or Broad-winged. But which one? I quickly digibinned a few pictures, taking breaks to look more carefully with my binocular. I really wanted to see the top of the wings, so I decided to walk around the row of pine trees beside me and have a better angle on the bird's back. I quickly but quietly moved around the pines, and of course the bird was gone. Fortunately I had the pictures, and headed indoors to clinch an ID.
I started with reference books, but didn't find a definitive answer. I only saw the bird from the front, and young Red- shoulders and Broad-wings can be really similar from that angle. I was leaning toward Broad-wing (it was around the peak of their migration through the east), but I certainly wasn't leaning very strongly. I decided to seek outside help, get some other views on the matter. I emailed pictures to some of my birding friends and to the Ohio-Birds email list. One of my first responses was from the list, someone I didn't know. His name was John Blakeman, and he introduced himself: "Blake, I'm a master falconer and raptor biologist. The bird is a red-tailed hawk, clearly. But I'm not so sure it's an immature. Did you see the brown tail? The tail here looks too short for an immature. Immie RTs have tails about an inch longer than adults. But no doubt, a red-tail. --John Blakeman."
I panicked for a second. Wait, was this a Red-tail? Did I just jeopardize my birding reputation by asking for ID help on the most commonly seen hawk in the country? I went back to the pictures, and quickly assured myself that it indeed wasn't a Red-tail. How did I know? Well...it didn't look like one to me. I started to receive other replies; Haans Petruschke said, "...Looks like a Red-Shouldered Hawk. Others may say something else based upon plumage, but the eye structure and shape is pure Red-shouldered." Then another reply, "Immature Red Shouldered Hawk. (For what it's worth, raptors are my specialty.)" This last was another reply trying to convey the idea of knowledge and experience. Not confirmation necessarily, but just trying to indicate that they weren't some random person who started birding yesterday; they had time and experience and background with this subject. A couple of my birding friends agreed with Red-shouldered, but then a couple said Broad-wing, and then a couple more from the email list also said Broad-wing, so I was faced with a split vote. I really wanted to add this bird to our property list, so what to do?
I joined the ID-Frontiers email list to post a message about this bird. I included a link to the pictures, hoping to gain some insight from those on the 'frontiers of identification.' I knew that there were a few people on the Ohio-Birds email list who also subscribed to ID-Frontiers, but I hadn't heard an opinion from them. Based on the split vote, I thought that moving it up to a higher court was acceptable. But what do I mean by acceptable? Aren't birders available to help others, would anyone judge you for asking a stupid question? I mentioned to my wife I was thinking about emailing Sibley to get his opinion. She was incredulous: can you just email Sibley? I felt like it was an identification question that was worthy of expert advice; I'm not a new birder sending out a fuzzy picture of an obvious Brown Pelican. I have some idea what I'm talking about and didn't know what this hawk was, and other people couldn't agree, so I didn't think I'd be wasting anyone's time. I knew many respected birders were on ID-Frontiers, and I would get some good feedback. I received three responses; the one I weighted highest came from Bill Clark, co-author of the Peterson Field Guide to Hawks of North America. He said it was a Broad-winged, and I took that as the final answer.
I emailed the Ohio-Birds list, saying I'd accepted the expert testimony from ID-Frontiers (all in favor of Broad-wing). Case closed. John Blakemen replied, "Blake, You are certainly welcome to assign the ID of the hawk photo to a Broadwinged. But all of the Broadwings I've ever dealt with have distinct but subtle horizontal patterns on the breast, not the vertical ones on your provided photo...Redtails (except in the vary rare melanistic specimens) always have the central, upper breast lighter than the belly band or flanks of the upper breast (chest area), exactly as on your photo of your bird. Red-shouldereds and Broadwings have evenly hued coloration and evenly-patterned upper breasts. But the lack of horizontal patterning on the upper or middle breast negates a Broadwing for me, and the presence of a less-patterned, slightly lighter central area on the upper breast marks the bird as a Red-tail for me. I've trapped, banded, and rehabbed many dozens of Buteos in 40 yrs of working with these birds. John A. Blakeman".
I quickly did an internet search for John Blakeman. Who is this guy? Does he really have the credentials that he claims? I quickly found that yes, indeed he does. He has many years of hands-on experience with these birds. How do I decide which expert to believe, which claims to consider valid, how do I confirm an identification when it isn't clear-cut? The bird is gone, there is no way to get it back. We can't collect further evidence to make a final determination. What if everyone I consulted said it was a Broad-wing? What if they all said it was a Red-tail? Would I listen to the majority, or choose voices here and there? Maybe this bird was a hybrid, or a ghost (I mean a literal ghost, not one of the two species we sometimes call 'gray ghosts')?
My point is, we often have no way to be certain of our identifications. We see a bird, we put a name on it, and it flies away. We don't know whether we were right or wrong. Even if we move it to a higher authority, we can't know for sure if they were right or wrong. One of the people who corresponded with me suggested I try whatbird.com; the site includes a forum where people will help you identify birds. Many people post pictures, hoping to find someone knowledgeable to determine the bird's identity. Many times the responses say something like, "Chipping Sparrow. Confirmed." That is supposed to mean that the person doing the confirming knows what the species is, and they know that they are right. But how do any of us ever know that for sure?
When I decided to write this post, I emailed all of the participants in the discussion and asked whether it would be okay to use their names and responses. A couple were reticent at first, they wanted to check what they had said to me before having it thrust upon a larger birding audience. Why is that?
It is partly because birding credibility is fragile; there are people who think they are good at identifying birds, very willing to share their expertise, but who in fact lack those skills. People who are well-known in birding circles or make their living from birding-related enterprises are justifiably concerned about being lumped in with these other 'bad birders.' Unfortunately, this often keeps them quiet when a difficult identification arises. Sometimes the best identification is 'I Don't Know', but we don't usually want to admit that fact. Even worse is proposing an incorrect identification. This has the obvious side effect of stifling discourse and preventing knowledge from being shared. I was impressed when Birding began running photo quizzes where different birders explained their identification and how they got there. This prevented a consensus view from clouding perception and coloring judgment. Sometimes the experts differed, and I don't think there is anything wrong with that. Maybe there was no right answer (hybrids...or ghosts).
My point with this post is not to decide what kind of hawk is in the pictures, or decide which birders are better than others. I wanted to point out that we perceive different levels of birding expertise, and there are people and organizations we are more likely to believe. It isn't always clear why we choose to believe some people over others, or how we pick which 'experts' to consult. The next time you are out birding and run across someone grossly misinformed about the identification of a bird, feel free to do your best to correct their obvious error. Just remember, they may be trying to do the same thing for you.