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Certainty, Experts, and Confirmation

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


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; 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.

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Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys

Blake Mathys completed his Ph.D. at Rutgers in 2010, studying evolution of birds introduced to islands. His field work was in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Trinidad, and was complemented by museum research. Prior to graduate school, he worked with Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows in Everglades National Park, as a hawk counter in Washington State, on the Farallon Islands studying Northern Elephant Seals for PRBO Conservation Science, and sampling fish for the Ohio EPA. Blake and his wife Dimitria recently moved to Ohio, where he is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus. Aside from birds, he maintains a fascination with salamanders, mammals, and anything else with a backbone.
Blake Mathys

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  • John A. Blakeman


    You have presented the conundrum of bird ID well, as it relates to specimens such as that in your photos, where utterly prescriptive field marks are not present. Had we (or you) been able to view the tail, there would have been little controversy—just as there should not have been with the lady who questioned the osprey. For those of us familiar (readers included) with ospreys in the field, their ID is virtually never in question. No other raptor is close (except to the inexperienced, unfamiliar with plumage hue patterns—where some, perhaps, might confuse the torso [not tail] patterns of a sitting immature rough-legged hawk with a sitting, tail-obscured osprey).

    The fact remains that some photos and fleeting or obscured visual observations simply do not present sufficient information for a definitive, exhaustive species, sex, or age-class identification. Such is the case here. Yes, I offered my plumage pattern and color tone reasons for my rendering of a red-tail, along with parallel reasons it probably wasn’t a red-shouldered or broad-winged, based upon my four decades of buteos in my hand, on the trap (banding), in the lab, in the breeding chamber, and at observation points across the continent.

    But am I 100% certain of my species or age-class determination? Nope. This could have been a bird with aberrant or atypical plumage. Without a clear view of the tail, or the spread wings, the bird is still “indeterminate.”

    Might I suggest the consideration of some agreed-upon designation for such conundra: e.g. “Purple-billed Cloud-falcon, (Indeterminate!)”

    But of course, that conveniently (or awkwardly) evades everyone’s purpose—to get an accurate ID.

    Would an online, accessible list of designated “experts” be of any help? Well, if there were no disagreements, concurrent IDs would be definitive. Wonderful.

    But a number of “experts” (including me) rendered opinions on this buteo, with the resulting ID problems. So, what then makes an expert? Number of relevant books published? Number of related published species studies? Number of years of field ID focused on the taxa of concern? I have no answers whatsoever. Whew!

    –John Blakeman

  • Paul Hurtado

    There is a hugely important “third party” left out of this discussion between novice and “expert”: that third player is data. The scientific evidence behind bird identification.

    I’ve found an excellent way to judged expertise in any area is to get my hands dirty and ask the potential expert to back up their claims, to give me some explanation, and/or to suggest some good resources. Are there any scientifically sound articles on the subject? If so, is this supposed expert interested in consulting them or are they just interested in throwing out an answer?

    In this case, articles on what young Red-shouldered vs. Broad-winged vs. Red-tailed hawks look like (or don’t look like) would be key. Are there peer reviewed journal articles, secondary sources like books & field guides, resources that summarize all of those peer-reviewed studies? When those resources exist, they will be your guide to judging who are the experts, and who could stand to do a bit more homework. 😉

    A real expert in my mind is someone who is careful about checking things against the huge body of scientifically sound knowledge that exists out there, someone who is familiar with that body of knowledge (or at least how to tap into it), and who looks to engage with that body of knowledge to make the most of their own experiences.

    Going back over your conversations with folks, it’d be interesting to do the following exercise: 1) ignore all feedback that isn’t justified. “It’s a Broad-winged Hawk” alone doesn’t make the cut it. Demand people explain why, and 2) follow up on their reasoning by reading up on aging and IDing buteos, getting your hands on any resources/books they mention, etc. I suspect that exercise will lead you to both the question of whether or not we can ID of this bird to the species level, AND the question of who are the experts in this case.

  • Jerry

    John A. Blakeman said…

    “For those of us familiar (readers included) with ospreys in the field, their ID is virtually never in question. No other raptor is close”

    Once again “familiar” and “close” are relative. I don’t know if John Blakeman has ever seen a second year Swainson’s hawk.

  • Great post and great points made. Depending on age and geography certainly many confusing possibilities for raptor plumages (and size is difficult to judge from pics). I take it you never heard from Sibley??? (surprised you only got 3 responses from ID-Frontiers).

  • I really like that you write about this topic. I am often surprised at how little attention is given to the *social* dynamics of bird identification. Those aspects actually make up a huge part of a birder’s experience, that is, how one learns from and enjoys their time in the field with or just around other birders. Or around non-birders even.

    Several weeks ago, I was spending an afternoon along a river just NW of Fort Collins, Colorado with my girlfriend. We weren’t birding, just swimming and sunning. At one point a Red-tailed Hawk started circling overhead, not far away. A small group of older women was walking nearby along our riverbank, and I heard one tell the others with her that she recognized the same bird I was seeing as a “Spotted Eagle” – apparently because she thought she saw spots on the underside. (I considered the bird to be a rather typical western adult.) The pedant in me felt a very strong urge to interject myself right then and there, but I held back instead. At the time I felt like I didn’t know how to contradict her so plainly without it seeming disrespectful, but in retrospect I think I should have said something. My goal would have been just to educate, but sometimes I think it can have the effect of shaming the person you’re talking to, especially if it’s right in front of their friends.

    Maybe I shouldn’t care about that so much? Am I reading too much into the situation? I don’t know. In any case, thanks for the posting.

  • Hi Eric, I too am very interested in the social dynamics of birding (and by extension, identification). So interested, in fact, that much of my PhD was focused on birders. If you’re interested (and I’m not assuming you are), you can read more here:

    But around this notion of needing to make the right ID, its all around demonstrating that you’re a good birder. I describe the culture of field birding as a reputation economy—meaning that your value as a birder comes from the reputation you accrue, and IDs are the currency. I suspect that’s why were are so compelled to correct someone’s “missed” identification. It demonstrates our competency and builds our reputation.

  • Thanks for the link to your diss, Gavan.

  • I was expecting a few more replies from ID-Frontiers. Perhaps most people didn’t have a strong opinion on the identification. A better picture of the tail would probably have increased the response rate…

  • David Rankin

    What amazes me about bird ID is how two people can look at the same bird, or even the same picture of a bird, study it in detail, and see totally different field marks, (or at least interpret field marks differently). Some look at this bird and see a belly band. I look at this bird and see no belly band, at least not in the way that a red-tailed hawk would show. Several people will look at the structure and some will say that it has a big headed appearance, while another may see a small head.

    I’m not sure you want any more comment on the ID of the bird, but I don’t think I can resist..

    Its a buteo, based on the shortish tail and chunk body. It appears to be a small buteo, but we can’t judge that for sure. I immediately rejected Red-tailed Hawk because of the lack of a distinct belly band and lack of a clean, pale area below the throat, leaving juvenile Red-shouldered Hawk and Broad-winged Hawk. The bill and head also appear smaller than a Red-tail would show. Both are variable, but the “moustached” appearance (streaks on either side of the throat) and slightly denser streaking on the sides of the breast, leaving the center of the breast slightly less streaked, point towards Broad-winged Hawk. Red-shouldered Hawk’s tend to have more even streaking on the chest and a darker, streaked throat.

    So that’s my answer- almost certainly a Broad-winged Hawk.

  • Along these lines, I’m often dismayed by apparent “ID by vote” processes that can take place in various forums. New birders, who have no other basis, often assume that more is better, rather than thinking about evidence (as Paul Hurtado emphasized) or about reputation (which they have no information on, either). This is why it’s frustrating when crack birders fail to provide arguments or evidence for their IDs, because new birders gain nothing from the exercise.

  • Ted Floyd

    Oooh! THAT kind of diss. Naturally, I thought Rick meant this:

    It’s the dominant use, for sure.

  • Amen!

  • Hi there. I live in Toronto, Canada and earlier this week, my wife, Jean, and I came upon an adult Red-tailed Hawk in Markham, Ontario. We have read that stalking a hawk is no easy task,that you have to sneak up on them when they are looking the other way. Well, this Hawk was only looking one way when it landed, and that was right at us! Fortunately, we had our cameras with us and got some good pictures and video. At one point we filmed the Red-tailed Hawk putting off a Great Blue Heron, high in a tree. What a moment! We have posted our pictures and video for anyone interested at:

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