American Birding Podcast



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!