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Mistakes Were Made



Western Sandpiper by (c) Bill Schmoker.

When I started birding, the fourth edition (1980) of Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds was hot off the presses. One thing that instantly piqued my curiosity was this statement on p. 29 of the introductory matter: “Allan Phillips argued convincingly in American Birds that practically all of the Semipalmated Sandpipers so freely reported in winter on the southern coasts of the U.S. were really Western Sandpipers.” What can I say?—the preteen male mind loves it when the conventional wisdom is overturned like that. I’d never heard of this Allan Phillips guy, but I already liked him.

I had no access at the time to Calidris sandpipers, but Black-capped Chickadees abounded in my urban Pittsburgh neighborhood. I came to know them well. Until I “discovered” they weren’t Black-capped Chickadees. They were Carolinas. Others were in on the discovery, including ornithologists Ken Parkes and Bob Mulvihill and the birding brothers Nathan Hall and Eric Hall. It was gratifying to be in on this secret knowledge, to be a part of this little cabal. And something else: I was awakening to the wondrous realization that this world around us often isn’t at it’s been popularly described.

A third of a century later, I’m still drawn to these ornithological detective stories. Allan Phillips and Ken Parkes are dead, but they’re still inspirations. Their example sustains me. What keeps me going as a birder, more than anything else, is the promise of surprise and discovery—especially, I have to confess, when it involves reversing the conventional wisdom. Which brings me to the matter of Amar Ayyash’s article in the January/February 2014 Birding


Wesa gull

This gull, it turns out, is likely NOT a Western Gull. Photo by (c) Amar Ayyash.

Amar Ayyash has a thing with gulls. His gateway to birding was hard gulls. So much for the conventional wisdom that birders need to build up from chickadees and such. Amar recently found a glorious Slaty-backed Gull, one that, last I heard, continues to elude his gulling buddy Greg Neise. That’s cool (the gull part, not the Neise dip), but what’s cooler is Amar’s involvement in the story of a gull that wasn’t.

I’m being a bit glib here, but anybody can find a rare bird. We birders are programmed to find rarities. But who among us would think to take a second look at all those “boring” Semipalmated Sandpipers wintering along our southern shores? Or who would think to reexamine a nearly century-old gull specimen lying on a tray in a museum in Chicago? Amar Ayyash and some other Chicago-area birders did, and the rest, as they say, is history.


I have a question: Can you think of instances in which the ornithological conventional wisdom was proven wrong? I’m not just talking about rebutting or refuting a sighting. Instead, I’m talking about taking a big step backwards, looking at the birding landscape from a new perspective, and coming up with a new way of appreciating birds and nature. In doing so, let’s not diss anyone. Let’s instead share together some of the ways we’ve moved forward by reexamining old assumptions.

I look forward to the learning experience!


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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives of the ABA. He is the author of more than 100 magazine and journal articles, and has written four recent books, including an ABA title, the ABA Guide to Birds of Colorado. Floyd is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and state ornithological society meetings, and he has served on the boards of several nonprofit organizations. Mainly, he listens to birds at night.
Ted Floyd

Latest posts by Ted Floyd (see all)

  • Frank Izaguirre

    This may not qualify, but didn’t Audubon famously christen an immature pine warbler as a new species, Vigor’s vireo? I think there are a few other interesting examples of that kind of thing from early ornithology.

    • Rick Wright

      Many, many such things.

  • Chris Rurik

    How about this article — — maybe North America’s only extinct waterfowl never existed as a species?

    • Ted Floyd

      I sense that the Labrador-Duck-just-a-hybrid thing is falling apart. But I applaud the author for venturing the hypothesis, and I don’t begrudge those who have refuted his findings; it’s all part of the give-and-take of learning.

      Here’s a related item. It’s possible that one of our skua/jaeger species (we’re not sure which one) arose, via spontaneous hybridization, as recently as 600 years ago. No wonder the references in Beowulf are so messed up!

      Here’s a summary:

  • Dick Cannings

    Here’s a more local example of the sandpiper situation. When I was growing up in the Okanagan Valley in southern BC, all the big flocks of scaup wintering out on Okanagan Lake were presumed by the local experts (e.g. my father) to be Lesser Scaup, simply because in the Peterson field guide it said that Greater Scaup wintered on the coast, and Lessers on freshwater (or something to that effect). Occasionally we would get excited when a scaup close to shore proved to be a Greater. Later, when we got spotting scopes and good binoculars, the number of Greater records began to increase until we realized that they were essentially all Greater Scaup, and the few wintering Lesser Scaup were found on the slow river channel and sewage lagoons. A check of Allen Brooks’ specimens in Berkeley (and his field notes) confirmed that he knew 50 years earlier that this was the case, but we had to learn it all over again.

  • Tristan McKee

    This is truly timely (always will be?) and hits very close to home. This process is coming to a head with first-cycle Slaty-backed Gulls throughout the lower 48; I believe this may be our most overlooked bird. The issue is especially heated in Humboldt County, CA, where I have photographed four birds this winter that I am claiming to be identifiable as such. There is a very interesting history to this debate. I am not alone in that I have been looking for birds showing these characteristics for over twenty years. There is an almost brainwashed assumption that Glaucous-winged x Herring hybrids can duplicate every Slaty-backed character. As it turns out, I did not find these four birds by agonizing over these “Cook Inlet” hybrids. Rather, each time, I took a second glance at a “Western” that seemed a little off structurally, raised my camera, and waited for it to fly. In each of these four cases, the photos revealed a Thayer’s-like primary pattern and what I consider to be a unique Slaty-backed wing structure (which I have elaborated upon on various listservs to little effect). One interesting note is that never for an instant did I think any of these birds looked like Herring Gulls. There are likely more Herring-like Slaty-backeds out there, which I am missing, and I don’t know if I can ID those at all, but the more Western-like birds are pretty distinctive, once you develop the right search image. One interesting suspicion that has arisen from all this is that our descriptions of individual variation in first-cycle gulls (at least) may be expanded by accidentally including hybrids and vagrants of other species in our samples. For instance, the Slaty-backed Gull that has frequented downtown Arcata this winter was considered a typical smithsonianius by a number of experts, suggesting that Slaty-backed Gulls may be sneaking into our assessments of variation in smithsonianus. Any claim that a particular plumage of a well-defined species is “unidentifiable” needs to be better supported. In this case, for Cook Inlet Gulls to be truly identical to Slaty-backed Gulls would be a remarkable coincidence, considering the different ranges, habitats, and probably life histories of these two populations. No bird is truly unidentifiable–it had parents, after all. It’s just that we might be right or wrong in our conclusions about what its phenotype can tell us.

  • Rick Wright

    Many newer birders may not remember the days when we really didn’t know what those big ring-necked doves were in Florida.

  • I think there are these sorts of hidden hybrids marring many state/provincial records.

    My state of North Carolina recently removed Yellow-legged Gull from the
    state list because it was felt Lesser BB x Herring was not ruled out.

    Frankly, I think the state’s sole record of Slaty-backed Gull may be due for
    another look too, because Great BB x Herring is a legit, and arguably
    more likely, possibility. Sadly, it was from the days just before photographs became commonplace.

  • Aaron Stutz

    Here is an article that summarizes an excellent piece of detective work in Wisconsin. Idzikowski’s research resulted in the addition of Thick-billed Murre to the state checklist.

  • Brooke McDonald

    I’m working on a review of Alderfer and Dunn’s “National Geographic Birding Essentials,” and they mention that Williamson’s Sapsucker was formerly considered two species by some very renowned ornithologists.

    • Joe Morlan

      Back in the day, there was a conventional wisdom that Western bird species such as Western Tanager and Bullock’s Oriole turned up periodically in the East. The assumption was that the prevailing westerly winds carried these birds. However the phenomenon of Eastern birds turning up in the West was not known or understood until Guy McCaskie arrived in California and started to document such regularly occurring species as Blackpoll Warbler in the Far West. The whole idea of Eastern Vagrants in California is now very well established with people like Dave DeSante developing and assessing the mechanisms for the phenomenon.

      A less known situation had to do with the skuas in the North Pacific. The 5th edition of the AOU checklist had them all wrong. It took a Belgian physicist, Pierre Devillers to examine all the specimens and determine that they were all South Polar Skuas (Stercorarius maccormicki); a species previously unknown from North America.

      And then there was the discovery of Murphy’s Petrels occurring regularly in the North Pacific.

      Which brings me to wonder what conventional wisdom of today will be considered naive, and obviously wrong by future birders.

    • Rick Wright
  • Kestrel

    I appreciated Greg Neise’s post enough to comment, and now again. These attentions to detail and stepping back for a different view is an aspect of birding I adore. As a long time educator and naturalist I subscribe to the notion that when your visitors or students inquire about the name of the thing you are observing we refrain from giving a name right away or at all. First nudge them towards their own observations and connect their experiences to them. Once things are named we tend to be done with them. I’d rather continue observing and discovering that “…this world around us often isn’t as it’s been popularly described.” Birds and nature in general provide endless opportunities for perspective and “learning experiences.” Good stuff!

  • Al Schirmacher

    From last 2003 to mid-2013, lived near Sherburne Refuge in central Minnesota. Such is one of the best meetings places – if you can put it that way – for Golden-winged and Blue-winged Warblers. Conventional wisdom states two things – Brewster’s and Lawrences are rare – and Blue-winged take over for Golden-winged. Both are certainly macro-true, but during my ten years walking Blue Hill Trail on that refuge, such was not micro-true. Golden-winged continue to thrive, Brewsters are virtually common, and finding a Lawrence’s was not terribly unusual. Again, this was on a micro level, both geographically and chronologically.

  • Matthew Halley

    Hey Ted, great topic! Three years ago, I began my graduate research on the Veery (Catharus fuscescens) by testing an old assumption: Veeries practice biparental care (i.e., social monogamy). I used video cameras to study a breeding population in northern Delaware where color-banded veeries have been monitored for more than a decade by Dr. Christopher Heckscher (Delaware State University). It turned out that the Delaware population exhibits a high degree of variability in parental care, including multiple males attending the brood of a single female, males attending multiple broods (each with a different female), as well as apparently socially monogamous nests. There are similarities between our findings and that of polygynandrous Bicknell’s Thrush (C. bicknelli), but also some interesting differences that I won’t get into here.

    The bottom line is that without video surveillance of color-banded individuals, social mating patterns are difficult to assess for sexually monomorphic species. Our ecological models and species-specific conservation plans are only as good as the life history data we base them on. Given our findings, it seems to be rather important to address this issue for other monomorphic species, most of which have had few (if any) population studies conducted. Species that come to mind include other members of Catharus (e.g., Gray-cheeked Thrush, Hermit Thrush), and even other monomorphic migrants like Gray Catbird. Digital video technology has finally provided us the opportunity to test some of these old assumptions of behavior that were based on anecdotal studies of unbanded birds half a century ago. It is truly a golden age of American ornithology. Thanks for stimulating this discussion!

  • Anders Peltomaa

    One story that comes to my mind is how the faeder Ruff was discovered. When I first heard of and read the story of its discovery, it completely blew my mind.

    “The faeder identity – A third male type in ruffs”

    • Frank Izaguirre

      That was super interesting, thank you.

  • Rick Wright

    Here’s a cool example of how just looking can change the way we think about certain birds: The 2001 _Birds of Nebraska_ lists 4 reports of the Cassiar junco for the state. Now, I’ve just plucked the latest issue of the _Nebraska Bird Review_ out of the mailbox, and the seasonal report for spring 2013 describes it as “enigmatic but fairly common … statewide.” Junco distributions probably didn’t change in those dozen years, but our awareness did.

  • Pingback: Birding Online: January 2014 « ABA Publications()

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