American Birding Podcast



Stealth Birds

One of my earliest memories of the fourth edition of the Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds has to do with something that appears on p. 29. Half way down the page, Peterson writes:

“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.”

When I first saw those words, I had never seen a Semi, a Western, or any other species of sandpiper. I had no basis for evaluating Phillips’ claim. But I was intrigued by the possibility that everybody—save Phillips—had gotten it wrong.

The wisdom of Allan Phillips provided me with early instruction in one of life’s great lessons: Perception and reality are quite often out of kilter.

KaufmanFast forward to my college years. One of the great new bird books from that era was Kenn Kaufman’s Advanced Birding. I loved that book (and I still do), and I was particularly fascinated by something on p. 30:

“Most birders were not even aware of the existence of two forms [Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe] until the early 1980s—shortly before the two were formally split in 1985.”

That passage hit me where it hurts, I have to say. That’s because I had recently had my first encounter with those striking, swan-necked, black-and-white grebes. I had watched the birds carefully, closely, for an extended period of time. And yet I honestly couldn’t say whether they had been Clark’s, Westerns, or both. In hindsight, I know that the two species are readily separated from one another. At the time, though, they were strangely indeterminate for me, one and the same in my mind’s eye. The birds “weren’t in the book,” so I was unaware of the differences.

There are many other stories like the preceding.

Joseph Tobias, writing in the July/August 2007 issue of Birding, tells the strange tale of the recent “discovery” in Peru of the Rufous Twistwing. The species had been seen by hundreds of birders and field ornithologists. But it wasn’t in the book, so they all assumed it was something else—some other species, properly pictured in the book.

Alvaro Jaramillo, in his “Tales from the Cryptic Species” in the May/June 2006 Birding, puts a chiefly North American spin on the story. Were you birding a generation ago? If so, you probably weren’t aware of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. Nobody was. It wasn’t in the book; it hadn’t been a named to science. What we now refer to as Centrocercus minimus was just the “Sage Grouse” to the hundreds of birders who had seen it; and it was called the “sage hen” by the thousands of hunters who had shot at it.

These and other stories fascinate me. They point to one of the great currents in modern human history: our ongoing discovery of a universe that is weirder and more wonderful than we’d ever imagined. Everybody knows the famous players in this unfolding drama: Nikolai Copernicus, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and their ilk. And we birders have our own pantheon of heroes: Allan Phillips, of Western Sandpiper fame; Dan Lane, discoverer of the Rufous Twistwing; Clait Braun and Jessica Young, who realized there was something special, something unique, about the “Sage Grouse” of the Gunnison Basin; and others—folks inclined to think outside the box, to challenge the conventional wisdom, to embrace new conceptions of reality.


Which brings me now to the matter of an intriguing article in the recently published November 2011 issue of Birding. The author is Tony White. The title is suggestive: “The False Kirtland’s: A Cautionary Tale.” Ah. It’s always valuable to remind overzealous twitchers that a Magnolia Warbler in fall might be mistaken for a Kirtland’s Warbler. That must be the take-home message from “The False Kirtland’s,” right?

Guess again. Evidently, many birders have gotten the Kirtland’s Warbler mixed up not with the Magnolia Warbler, but, rather, with an entirely different warbler species. And what might that other warbler species be? Well, I’m not going to tell you quite yet.

Instead, check out this photo, from p. 35 of the November 2011 Birding, of a Kirtland’s Warbler:

Warbler typepad





It all pans out. Bluish above with white wing bars, yellow below with black streaking along the flanks; black lores; and, of course, those telltale white eye-arcs. Kirtland’s. Check.

Now what about this photo, from p. 37 of the November Birding:






This warbler is bluish above with white wing bars, it’s yellow below with black streaking along the flanks, and it’s got black lores and white eye-arcs. Also a Kirtland’s?

To be sure, it doesn’t look quite right. I mean, that honking big bill, for starters. But let’s be honest with ourselves. If you’ve made it this far, you’re on heightened alert for a “trick question,” if you will. You’ve probably sensed I’m up to no good.

Now pretend for a moment that you have not been following along with me. Instead, it’s 1975, and you’re birding the Bahamas in winter. You’re looking for the critically endangered Kirtland’s Warbler, which winters only on Abaco and Grand Bahama. You’ve done your homework: blue above, white wing bars; yellow below, black flank streaking; black lores and white eye-arcs. Naturally, you want—more than that, you need!—Kirtland’s Warbler. You’re in a Kirtland’s Warbler frame of mind. You’ve just encountered a bird like the one pictured on p. 37 of the November Birding. For sure, it’s not a Magnolia or any other potential Kirtland’s lookalike pictured in your field guide.

All true. You see, your bird is a Bahama Warbler. A Ba-what Warbler? Yes, a Bahama Warbler. The Bahama Warbler was until a few months ago “just” a subspecies—albeit a highly distinctive one—of the Yellow-throated Warbler. Now that it’s its own species, we’ll doubtless be hearing more about the Bahama Warbler. But birders in the late 20th century had practically no information about this distinctive resident of the pine forests of the Bahamas. The bird “wasn’t in the book.” So those birders did what you and I and practically any other birder would do: They put it in the best-fitting box, which happened to be Kirtland’s Warbler.

On a personal note, what’s cool—what’s really cool—to me about this story is that I had no idea. Until Tony White submitted his article, I had no idea that one might misidentify a Bahama Warbler as a Kirtland’s Warbler. To be honest with you, I hadn’t even heard of the Bahama Warbler until relatively recently. If I’d been birding the Bahamas in the late 20th century, I bet I’d have made the same mistake as all those other birders. Reading “The False Kirtland’s” has made me a better birder, I suppose. But there’s something else, something more valuable than that: Tony White’s article has made me a bit more aware of the world around me.

We publish articles at Birding based on a variety of criteria. Elsewhere, you may recall, I’ve written about the importance of authorial voice as a guiding principle for us at Birding. Another essential criterion can be expressed in the form of a question: “Did I learn something new from this article?” My hope is that every article in Birding will provide you with at least a kernel or nugget of new information about birds. And every once in a while, we’ll run an article, I hope, that causes us to reexamine old notions and assumptions about the way things are in this fascinating world of ours, ever more wonderful when we engage it with our minds wide open.