American Birding Podcast



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 inspiration 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 know what I saw!”

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.)

Pete Dunne writes his 2003 book titled, Pete Dunne on Bird Watching: The How-to, Where-to, and When-to of Birding:

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

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.