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Crossing the Rubicon

Back in the April 2015 issue of Birding, there appears a beautiful and remarkable photo of a slam-dunk Black-and-white Warbler. Essayist Tony Leukering explains why it’s this-and-that age and such-and-such sex, but ID of the bird at the species level simply isn’t at issue. The bird is a patently obvious Black-and-white Warbler.

Photo by Sam Galick.

Photo by Sam Galick.

Not only that, it’s an entirely “normal” Black-and-white Warbler, engaged in the entirely routine activity of flying from one place to another. What could be more typical, more perfectly avian, than the sight of a bird flying through the blue sky?

Here’s the deal: Through a combination of photographer Sam Galick’s adroitness and his camera’s technology, the bird in the photo appears in a way that no human eye-brain complex can perceive. And that’s attracted the notice of Pete Dunne and Don Freiday.

Freiday praises essayist Leukering and photographer Galick for their fine work, but also says:

The proper way to test our skills on Galick’s Black-and-white Warbler photo is to have someone hang the April 2015 issue of Birding out the window of their car while they drive by at 35 mph, at least 40 yards away, possibly backlit by the rising sun.

And Dunne, equally enthusiastic about Leukering and Galick, asks:

But is this field identification? It is most certainly bird identification, but doesn’t it bring bird study full circle and back to collecting specimens and identifying birds after the fact?


No question about it, today’s birders are aided and abetted by cameras–and, increasingly, digital audio recorders–that permit “after the fact” IDs. We discussed this at length a few months ago at the ABA’s group page on Facebook. I saw it in action earlier this year at the marvelous Valentine’s Day Gull Frolic in Chicago: click first, ID later. And, increasingly, I do it myself: In the past few days, I’ve ID’d flight calls from spectrograms of recordings I made; I’ve corrected bad IDs based on photos I’ve taken; and I’ve gotten accurate counts (for eBird) by review of photos of large flocks.

Pete Dunne and Don Freiday are inarguably right that there’s been a major change in how we ID birds. Here’s my question to you: Is this a good thing?


Note: For a limited time, Dunne’s and Freiday’s commentaries, published in the August 2015 Birding, are publicly available. Please click here [PDF download] to read their commentaries.

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.