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Birding is Hard

I started birding in 1972, and took to it like an ibis takes to drainage ditches. I pretty quickly learned all of the birds that could be reasonably expected in the city parks of Chicago, where I grew up. By 1975, I was a fully fledged, vagrant-hunting birder. By the time I was 13 years old, there was nothing I couldn’t find, no bird I couldn’t identify.

It took me another 10 years to learn just how hard birding really is.

That knowledge—an awakening, really—doesn’t happen in the form of an epiphany. It’s a very slow process which begins with realizing that, after a dozen years at this, you really don’t know jack.

Feel lucky, punk?

Feel lucky, punk?

For some it’s gulls, for others it’s warblers or sparrows. But at some point you will realize that you cannot identify every individual of even the most common species that you see “every day”. Birds are variable in plumage, size, habits, and habitat choices. Put that all together, and you’re going to get thrown on your ear by a Song Sparrow or a Ring-billed Gull, at close range, and with 50 killer photographs. It’s inevitable.

It will be humiliating. And, if you’re open-minded, exhilarating.

Then, the tough birds get even tougher. You start to doubt all those yellowlegs that you glibly counted off as “16 Lesser and 27 Greater”. You’ll start rethinking that Baird’s Sandpiper, which now you realize, probably wasn’t.

Seeing gestalt and detail simultaneously is the mark of a truly experienced birder. Taking in tertial pattern, and undertail coverts, while comparing size, shape and overall “feel” to what you know, or the birds around it. One such birder was describing to me his experiences with Slaty-backed Gulls (a particular nemesis of mine), and while talking about all the field marks, said, “every Slaty-back I’ve seen … I’ve just known it when I see it.”

Musicians, especially drummers, use the term “feel” for that natural, almost indescribable ability to not only play music, but move within it, and stay in-time. It’s similar with birding. Study the common species, so that you become so familiar and comfortable with them, that something different—no matter how subtle—doesn’t have to be picked out so much as it reveals itself.

Differentiating the unusual from the common or expected is almost always how rarities are discovered (though, sometimes they do just seem to jump up and say, “hi!!”). Getting on that unusual bird and “working it”—taking in all the details, keeping field notes or getting photos, listening for calls—all will add up to a solid base of information to work through a tough identification. Often times, the key to identifying a bird is something you photographed or took note of, but didn’t give particular attention to while actually watching it.

Well, punk? Do ya?
Photo by Dan Wilkerson

The impetus for this essay was the “brown” shrike currently confusing the hell out of everyone in California. In a photo essay about this bird at Bourbon, Bastards and Birds, author Seagull Steve wrote, “What do I think? I think birding is hard.”

When this bird was originally discovered, it was photographed, and subsequently seen and documented as a Brown Shrike (an Asian vagrant) by many. Though skittish, it has stayed in one location for over a month—and during that month it’s been molting. Into something that is not a Brown Shrike. Oh, it’s a shrike, and it has brown on it … though considerably less brown than it did a month ago. It was speculated that it could be a Red-backed Shrike (as yet unrecorded in the ABA area). But as the bird continues to molt, it appears to be losing its “red back”. Experts from all over the world are flummoxed by this bird, that has been photographed hundreds of times, and even heard singing. It may never be identified to species (and, just for fun, may be a hybrid).

I have several friends who are eBird reviewers. It’s a thankless job that requires considerable skill, patience, good humor and a thick skin.

“I know what I saw!”, is a common response from novice birders whose sightings are questioned because they “throw a flag” in the eBird system. Being flagged means it’s out of range, out of season, or for some other reason, an unusual sighting. Even when the submitted sighting is patently absurd (a flock of Winter Wrens at a feeder?), the reviewer’s job is to contact the person that submitted the sighting, and ask for more details. Often, they are met with defiance from novice birders who take the questions as a personal affront. Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. An experienced birder, when told that they might have made an identification error, thinks, “hmmm … I didn’t consider that”. And then they consider it; most often agreeing that a mistake was made. (And sometimes, reviewers and records committees can make a mistake. But it’s quite rare.)

An old birding maxim—I don’t know who originally said it—goes something like this: the main difference between a novice and experienced birder is that the experienced birder has had the time to mis-identify more birds.

For me, anyway— that’s the biggest part of what continues to make birding exciting, even after being at it for over 40 years. Even after studying this stuff for decades, it can still throw you for a loop. There’s always more to learn. Your skills can never be honed or practised enough. And, you can take it at your own pace, make it your own thing. But it’s not simple, and it’s not easy or predictable. Which is why birding is so much fun.


Update: I found the quote that I reference above (“an old birding maxim…”). It’s by Pete Dunne, from his 2003 book titled, Pete Dunne on Bird Watching: The How-to, Where-to, and When-to of Birding. It goes like this:

“The difference between a beginning birder and an experienced one is that beginning birders have misidentified few birds. Experienced birders have misidentified thousands.”

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Greg Neise

Greg Neise

Web Development at American Birding Association
Greg Neise developed his interests in birds, photography and conservation as a youngster growing up in Chicago, across the street from Lincoln Park Zoo. At the age of 13, he worked alongside Dr. William S. Beecher, then Director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and a pioneering ornithologist, and learned to photograph wildlife, an interest that developed into a career supplying images for magazines, newspapers, institutions and books, including National Geographic (print, web and television), Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Boston Globe, Nature, Lincoln Park Zoo, Miami Zoo, Jacksonville Zoo, The Field Museum and a host of others. He has served as President of the Rainforest Conservation Fund, a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving the world's tropical rainforests. Greg is a web developer for the ABA, and of course, a fanatical birder.
Greg Neise

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  • Tony Leukering

    A tour de force, Greg. Birding IS hard. Experience is king, but only when teamed with focus and, most importantly, an open mind. That is because with skill comes arrogance, the belief or knowledge that “I am better than most.” While that may be true, unless one runs in the rarified circles that include the very best birders of the ABA-area world (a certain Steve, a certain Michael, a certain Chris, among others), one cannot know what the “best” is, what the “best” knows, what the “best” can do with a binocular. And even the best will tell you that the best still make mistakes. Even the very best among us, unless deluded or lying, makes mistakes. All the time. Skilled birders need to keep that in mind.

  • Lee Loudenslager Adams

    Brilliant blog post, Greg! The longer I do this, the less I realize I know! Fifty years and counting and learning something new each time I’m in the field.

  • Mike C

    Great article. It strikes how infrequently that many “expert” birders are willing to let a difficult i.d. go and let it remain as unidentified. Anyone who can identify every single bird that they see without question…….that raises a red flag for me.

    • Sean Walters


      Searching for an ID is what actually propels and fuels the increase and spread of knowledge. The “search for an answer” factor has always been the driving force behind growth and innovation in all science fields. I would say that the search for a name or an identification is why most birders looked into a field guide for the first time. Granted, a birder will never be able to classify every single bird that is on earth with absolute certainty (at least not in my lifetime probably). Continuing to look for and suggest an identification is not the issue at all. It is, as you mentioned in your last sentence, claiming to know with absolute certainty. However, the true experts pursuing cutting edge challenges know just how much is absolute . . . little.

      • Mike C

        Oh yes….the “wanting to know” is a pretty fundamental part of birding for me. What I object to is labeling with only the slimmest of evidence. It’s the “until proven otherwise, this is a _____” that I object to. It’s o.k. to say, “I don’t have enough information to be really accurate here”. I would like to see that stated more often.

  • Cameron Cox

    While I agreed with most of the sentiments Greg expresses, I find I cannot agreed with the conclusion if the conclusion is the title of the piece. While birding (Greg seems to use “birding” as equivalent to bird identification and I will do the same in this reply though in reality the term “birding” is a bit more nuanced.) certainly can be hard, sometimes even impossible, overall it is remarkably easy. Hasn’t it been the ease with which amateurs can gain proficiency in bird identification as well as the ubiquity of birds that has driven the popularity of birding far beyond that of other natural history pursuits? Micro moths are hard, birds are easy! Take Greg’s confusing Ring-billed Gull example. How many Ring-billed Gulls did he identify instantaneously before happening across one that, for whatever reason, was a challenge? 10,000, 100,000, more? Knowing how numerous Ring-billed Gulls can be on the Great Lakes I’d guess it was 100,000 or more seen over the course of years before Greg found one that tripped him up. To me a test with 99,999 simple questions and one difficult one would not be considered a hard test.

    Certainly it is the breadth and depth of the puzzle of birds and bird identification that draws so many of us to this activity. The ability to go back to the same species you have seen thousands of times and still learn more is what keeps me interested. No matter how many times you go back to the well it never runs dry. However the times that you struggle or make mistakes are the exceptions to prove the rule. Even an moderately experienced birder makes far more correct identifications than errors. Far more often than not it is the conditions not the challenges of bird ID that make birding hard. A bird is seen too briefly, too distantly, or is too obscured by vegetation to see what must been seen for an identification. How many birds in the ABA area are truly difficult to ID when seen well? There is a very short list of things that are consistently challenging, a litany of birds that very occasionally show odd plumages or are aberrant in some way, and then some odd hybrids that can present significant ID challenges, but in comparison to birds that are readily identified challenging birds are but a drop in the bucket.

    Why does this distinction matter? It is my opinion that a great deal of bird identification literature over-emphasizes the difficult of the subjects they address. In attempting to sell the importance of a piece or make readers aware of the potential difficulties there is a strong tendency to go far overboard. Often I talk to birders that are unwilling to even attempt to learn a difficult group of birds because what they have read on the subject or heard from other birders suggests that sparrows are hard or shorebirds are hard, ect. I believe that if we get beyond the preconceived notions about the difficulty of birding or that of specific groups of birds and instead focus on the fact that the overwhelming majority of the birds we encounter are easily identifiable it would help create a more confident and competent birding community.

    While, yes, birding is occasionally hard, I frequently tell people when I lead trips, “Its bird watching, not rocket science”!

    • Greg Neise

      Cameron, a couple points to start off with. For as long as I’ve been birding, the definition of it has been pretty clear in my mind: seeking birds in the wild with the intention of identifying them. There’s a lot of other stuff that goes on, for sure, but to me, that is the core essence of birding.

      Two, this is an essay, not a scientific paper. It’s a collection of thoughts and musings, and the title captures my feeling of what the ramblings are about—but it’s not a “conclusion”.

      Okay, so…

      Sure, compared to micro-moths birds are easy. But I don’t think that’s the main reason for it’s popularity. I think birding is enticing because of how easy it is to start, right where you live. How once you start, your eyes are opened to a world—literally in your backyard—that many (most?) had no idea existed. And, birds are colorful and they can fly. They capture our imagination.

      Figuring out what they all are is addictive, because—unlike Microlepidoptera, of which there are some 10,000 species in North America alone—with birds, there is a manageable number of species and variations to learn and consider (we’re talking ABA Area here).

      But just spending a little bit of time on the many birding groups on Facebook, will give you an overview of how, every day pictures of the most common species are posted either misidentified, or by people asking for help.

      They are very new beginners, for sure. And a couple years from now, they won’t even remember a time when they were stumped by a female Brown-headed Cowbird. But at that same time, they are learning shorebirds, Empidonax flycatchers, and fall warblers. The challenge continues. Summer gulls. The challenge continues. Maybe they get interested in one of the most difficult and demanding forms of birding: sea watching 😉 …the challenge continues.

      The point of my essay here is that the challenge always continues, no matter how long you stay at it. The deeper into the rabbit hole you go, the curiouser and curiouser it gets. I’ve been landlocked pretty much my entire life. I recently picked up a copy of Steven N G Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm Petrels of North America … and WHOA!!! It was 1972 all over again, and I just started.

      So, yes. I think birding is hard. But so is playing a guitar, or playing tennis, or even gardening or cooking. That doesn’t stop us from doing these things, becoming crazy about them, and working hard at being better … if we so choose.

      It’s not rocket science. But birding sure ain’t a frozen pizza, either.

      • Ava

        Greg, your quote, “The point of my essay here is that the challenge always continues, no matter how long you stay at it. The deeper into the rabbit hole you go, the curiouser and curiouser it gets,” as well as other phrases in your essay remind me of television’s “House.” It was the puzzle that interested him and kept him hooked.

    • Steven Tucker

      Birding is hard*. Taking inside jokes (which is what this phrase is) too literally is awfully easy in comparison.

      * = how often do birders try to make young Ring-billed Gulls into Mew Gulls? Constantly. They might as well be micro moths.

      • Tim in Albion

        *chuckle* I am always trying to do the opposite: turn young Mews (or even subadult Californias) into Ring-billeds… the latter are quite rare here.

  • Ruth Hanessian

    Greg’s comments are right on but from a much older perspective I am now delighted to study more closely the “common” species in my back yard. The precipitous decline of so many species common in my birding as a 13 year old has resulted in many fewer magic moments such as I remember with a Redstart at the Bronx Botanical Garden on a trip with Farida A Wiley from the American Museum. How many today remember a shoreline covered with Red Knots for as far as you could see, gorging on Horseshoe Crab eggs?
    There are still birds and birders but how I wish we could see Passenger Pigeons.

  • Cindy Hurst

    I started birding as a reason to be outside and go on trips with my friend. Now I go on “hikes” with my grandsons. Everyone has binoculars, soon we’re looking for birds, animals or pokemons. It doesn’t matter what they’re looking for, we’re outside and having fun.

  • MJ

    The article notes, “the reviewer’s job is to contact the person that submitted the sighting, and ask for more details.” I’ve never experienced that feedback … just saying’.

    But I greatly appreciate the article as few of my good birding days, and perhaps none, finish without unknowns. Greg’s comments are helpful.

  • Rebecca Hadley

    This article tells exactly how I feel as a novice birder trying to pinpoint that new bird I just saw and want to ID for my life list. SHEESH! How many little non descript grey birds are there in Nor Cal. Anyway, I plopped your version of Pete Dunnes quote at the top of my list for comfort. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Brooke

    Birding isn’t hard. I’ll tell you what’s hard–being a single mom on a limited income living in the SF Bay Area and raising 2 kids, while you’re working full-time, and trying to plug-in a few birding hours a week. THAT is hard. Birding is a hobby (I’m assuming you are not getting paid to do it), and you have a choice as to where to go, when to go, how long to go, and whether to go. I did get my kids raised and onto their own lives, and now I bird every day, keep my lists in eBird, and am pretty much a birding fanatic. It’s a choice, though. When I make a mistake IDing a bird, life goes on and I learn something (hopefully). Being a single mom and raising kids on my own was not a choice, and if I made a mistake (and I made plenty) it could affect the future of my kids well-being. So, enjoy the fulfilling fanatically hobby of birding and don’t worry about mis-identifications. Nobody’s life is depending on it. And, ‘lighten-up’ and have fun!

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