May 20, 2018
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Why you should ‘be wrong, fast’ when IDing birds

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
White-breasted nuthatch
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

Timing is everything. If you are reading these words on the website and it’s Thursday afternoon, you’re not too late. If you’re reading the paper at Friday morning breakfast, coffee cup in hand, you’re missing it right now. If you’re catching up with the newspaper Friday afternoon, you’re too late for today but early for tomorrow. Every spring the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon offers a series of May bird walks, and they are now underway.

The first walk took place Tuesday in Brewer. A group of 23 birders tallied a respectable early season total of 30 species, including eight warblers. A walk in Bangor City Forest followed two days later, and this week’s Friday morning walk circles the wetland in Bangor’s Essex Woods.

Saturday, May 13, is International Migratory Bird Day. Audubon experts will kick off the day with a 7 a.m. walk at the Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden. The rest of the schedule begins at 10 a.m., with children’s activities through midday and more nature walks for adults. The entire slate of May bird walks can be found at

The walks are a great opportunity to bird with experts and learn a few tricks about bird identification. However, I’m going to give you a task right now, and you don’t need to be with an expert to do it. Practice this: Be wrong, fast.

“Be wrong, fast” is what I tell all the participants on walks I lead. First, I’d prefer to get a group looking in the right direction, even if the initial identification is faulty. More importantly, the secret to making a fast and accurate identification is to practice making an identification based on first impression.

Guidebooks rely on color and field marks to help readers make a correct identification, but by the time you get to these useful features the birds have often delivered a whole series of other clues, such as size, posture, behavior and location. See how quickly you can use these clues to form a first impression. When you’re by yourself and no one is watching, shout out your preliminary identification. Now confirm the ID and congratulate yourself for being right. Or congratulate yourself for being wrong fast.

Try it in your backyard. You probably know many of those birds anyway. Rattle them off as fast as you see them: robin, blue jay, mourning dove. A bird flies in and lands on the side of a tree trunk. “Nuthatch,” you cry!

Wrong. It’s a downy woodpecker. But instead of berating yourself for making an incorrect ID, congratulate yourself for not calling out “loon!” In an instant, you knew the bird perched against the tree trunk was not a loon. In fact, you should be impressed by how wicked fast you ruled out loon.

Without knowing it, you probably even ruled out most other birds, because only a few are even capable of landing on the trunk. In this area, that would be nuthatches, woodpeckers, brown creepers and black-and-white warblers. If the bird walks head first down the tree, it can only be a nuthatch — and you didn’t even have to think about it.

Pop quiz: Where would you expect to see a swamp sparrow?

There’s a small bird, flitting around the cattails. It might be brown. Instinctively, you know it’s not a loon. Let’s see. Marsh wrens could be in the cattails, but they are secretive and hard to spot. This one is conspicuous. Common yellowthroats could be in the cattails. They play hide and seek, but the yellow color becomes apparent quickly. Hmmm. Probably a swamp sparrow, though song sparrows can hang around wetlands. Yeah, it’s a swamp sparrow, based on location and behavior.

With continued practice, it’s amazing how fast you can make the correct identification based on first impression. You even start to really notice the singular behaviors of certain birds. Eastern phoebes and palm warblers bob their tails. Kinglets flick their wings. American redstarts fan their tails. Ravens soar, crows don’t. Vultures fly with their wings in a V; eagles fly with their wings straight out. Downy woodpeckers can go to the tops of the thinnest tree branches. Hairy woodpeckers won’t.

At first it seems daunting, but remember your brain is quick to sort out sizes. Your brain is also quick to sort out grand behaviors, such as swimming, diving and wading. The smaller behaviors will take more effort to recognize, but it comes with practice. Just be wrong, fast.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at He can be reached at


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