“There’s a sparrow in the path,” cried one of my birding clients on Tuesday. I hollered back that it was probably just a song sparrow, since they are common along that path. She insisted that this one was different, so I ambled over and took a peek.
“Vesper sparrow!” I yelled in amazement. We were downeast at Moose Cove, a Maine Coast Heritage Trust preserve in Trescott. My group of eight birders and two guides had just seen several vesper sparrows in the blueberry barrens of Columbia Falls the previous day. As this sparrow walked away from us, I could see that this bird was a light grayish-brown color. The white outer tail feathers of a vesper sparrow were obvious and unmistakable.
Except that I was mistaken.
As the bird slowly turned, I stared intently, looking for the next tell-tale clue: chestnut-colored shoulder patches. I couldn’t see any. I was already a little hesitant, because vesper sparrows like blueberry barrens and grasslands, even in migration. I’ve seen them in seaside dunes before. But this was a shrub patch, an unlikely place.
It completed its turn and I looked for the tell-tale eye ring. It wasn’t there. It was a totally different face. Wait a minute. Is that a…?
“Lark sparrow!” my partner called. Seth Benz had been tracking the bird for several minutes. It was definitely a young lark sparrow.
The lark sparrow has a large range throughout much of the United States, particularly in farm fields and along roadsides, but it breeds nowhere in the east. They do, however, wander in migration. Two or three are seen in Maine every year, often on Monhegan Island. They do have white outer tail feathers at the tips, and they have a boldly patterned face.
I had inadvertently followed my own oft-given advice: “Be wrong fast.” When birding with others, and even alone, it’s best to call out a first impression. It’s more important to get everyone’s attention on an unusual bird than it is to be dead sure about the identification, but too late to get anybody else on it. One key to becoming a good birder is to get over any embarrassment about making a wrong identification. Calling out a first impression is critical, because it makes immediate room for a second impression – that moment when you realize something isn’t quite right about your first guess.
“Blackburnian warbler!” Seth called out. No, that wasn’t quite right. Maybe a blackpoll? How about a bay-breasted warbler? All undergo drastic changes in plumage as autumn approaches, but each retains its white wing bars from breeding season. This was clearly a juvenile, since it was dull colored and streaky in a way that makes it harder for predators to see. It had a slightly yellowish rump patch.
That was the key clue. It turned out to be a juvenile Cape May warbler, and we had just seen an adult in fall plumage. In fact, there was more than one youngster. We had stumbled upon a Cape May warbler family, which must have been raised right there behind the Eastland Motel in Lubec.
I suppose my guests might prefer a guide who is infallible, but I’ve made so many public mistakes over my birding career that I’ve gotten quite used to it. It sure makes it easier for everyone to get over any lingering shyness if even the professional is screwing up. Being wrong is a useful exercise. It trains the eye to look for key field marks that identify a bird, and further trains the eye to look for clues that disqualify the identification.
“Palm warbler! I cried in surprise. I was with one guest at Schoodic Point, watching a family of baby chipping sparrows, when a yellowish bird flew in. It was yellow in all the right places, and appeared to have a reddish cap.
But it wasn’t bobbing its tail. Palm warblers incessantly bob their tails. I stared longer, and began to suspect the rusty cap was a trick of the light. And the bill was a little heavy. Warblers have thin bills, which make it easier for them to snatch flying insects and glean bugs from leaves.
“Dickcissel?” I pondered. But I’ll never know. It flew off before I could decide anything.
Famed ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson included portraits of “confusing fall warblers” in his ground-breaking field guide 80 years ago. They’re tough. The best way to make fewer mistakes is to make more mistakes. Get used to it.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.