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How to Know the Birds: No. 11, Beware Expectation

I was leading a field trip a couple weeks ago, and our group came across this bird:

Telluride, San Miguel County, Colorado; June 16, 2019. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

One of the trip participants needed Hammond’s flycatcher for his county list, and we were at a good elevation—and a good part of the state—for that long-winged, small-billed, and generally dumpy empid. Was it a Hammond’s? Well, it never hurts to get a second look:

Telluride, San Miguel County, Colorado; June 16, 2019. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

Hm. Now it’s got that small-headed, long-billed look, dull and low-contrast overall. Could it, weirdly, be a gray flycatcher? One doesn’t normally confuse Hammond’s and gray flycatchers. Let’s take one last look:

Telluride, San Miguel County, Colorado; June 16, 2019. Photo by © Ted Floyd.

This isn’t a flycatcher of any sort. It’s a bird in an entirely different suborder. It’s a ruby-crowned kinglet, Regulus calendula, in the ginormous oscine suborder, featuring everything from ravens to nuthatches to chlorophonias to oropendolas. And, yes, kinglets. Ruby-crowns are usually easy to ID, especially when they flash their red crown as here. So I did I commit this blunder?

The fact that we’d just been talking about the Hammond’s flycatcher—remember, one of the tour participants needed it—no doubt affected my thinking. But the bigger problem, I think, is that I knew too much. I knew that kinglets rarely visit aspens and never perch upright for extended periods of time.

 

I totally get the value—I’ll even elevate it to the birderly virtue—of knowing what to expect. I’ve gone off from time to time, in this forum and elsewhere, on the critical importance of knowing when and where to look for birds.

On the flip side, there’s a danger in relying too much on expectation. Doing so can desensitize us to novelty and aberration. If we “know” that kinglets “never” perch upright like flycatchers, we are led seriously astray. But take heart! Expectation and open-mindedness are, or ought to be, two sides of the same coin. Together, they add up to experience, which might, just might, be the greatest virtue of all when it comes to identifying—and, more to the point, understanding and enjoying—wild birds.

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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.