A picture is worth a thousand words, some of them four-letter words. I enjoy getting photos and audio recordings from readers, asking for help in identifying a bird. Be aware, though, I can sometimes be wrong. And when that happens, I love it!
I repeat this advice often: If you want to make fewer mistakes, make more mistakes. Over a lifetime of birding, I’ve discovered that the fastest way I learn to identify a new bird is to screw it up a few times. I learn from my mistakes. I rarely remember my correct identifications, but I sure remember the screw-ups.
Photos are the worst. A guidebook image is careful to show all identifying features. A real-life photo is seldom so generous. I recently experienced that firsthand on these pages. Outdoors editor Pete Warner sent me a photo of a large raptor wrestling a squirrel, taken by a game camera in South Carolina. It was a big bird and a small rodent. He wondered if it was a golden eagle. I suggested a young bald eagle.
It was a challenging photo. The bird was facing away, with face, belly, underwing and tail all hidden from the camera. The most prominent field mark exposed in the photo was a yellow talon at the end of a white leg, clutching the unfortunate squirrel. It reminded me of a mistake I had made once before. Years ago, a previous Outdoors editor, John Holyoke, sent me a photo of a large raptor taken in Eastport. It also faced away, concealing the field marks I would typically look for. Since golden eagles are rare in Maine, I opined that it was probably a bald eagle.
It wasn’t. A keener observer noted the feathering around the feet, typical of golden eagles. I hadn’t remembered. But I sure remember now. “I’ll never make that mistake again,” I said to myself. And I didn’t. I made an entirely different mistake.
The current raptor in question clearly lacked the feathering of a golden eagle, and it lacked several other field marks on the wings. So I advised that it was a bald eagle, probably a third-year, since it hadn’t come into its full white head yet. However, two readers commented on the Bangor Daily News website that the barring on the flight feathers indicated a red-tailed hawk.
Really? But the bird looks so big compared to the small squirrel, how can that be?
Then it hit me. I was in South Carolina in April. While birding at Santee National Wildlife Refuge, I chuckled at the small size of the squirrels. Whether this current victim was a gray squirrel or South Carolina’s larger fox squirrel or something else, it was smaller than Maine’s squirrels. Doh! It wasn’t the large appearance of the predator that had thrown me off track, it was the comparatively small size of the prey.
Photos are always tough. It’s hard to judge scale. Unless a bird is photographed standing next to an object of known size, a photo can make a mystery bird look as small as a sparrow or as large as a crow. Worse, just a slight tilt of the head can make the bill appear to change size, or conceal a crest, or change the bird’s color in the sunlight. Furthermore, a live bird gives so many other clues – where it is, what it’s doing, how it’s flying, how it’s feeding, not to mention how it sounds.
Bird sounds are easier to identify, if I get a recording. But written descriptions vary wildly. A friend recently asked me to identify a mystery bird near his cabin. He described it as eight or nine “whoops.” I offered several suggestions, but none of them matched. Later, he sent me a smart phone recording. It was a yellow-billed cuckoo! They’re Maine breeders but very elusive, and this one was deep in the woods – a good find.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology describes the call as “kow-kow-kow.” The Sibley Guide to Birds says it’s more like “cloom-cloom-cloom.” National Geographic’s Birds of North America renders it as “kowlp-kowlp.” Yikes! It’s a nightmare to figure out what a written phrase sounds like in the writer’s mind, even when it’s presented authoritatively in the best guidebooks.
But I love the challenges. Keep ’em coming. I’m already looking forward to my next mistake. And you should be looking forward to yours. Show me a person who makes no mistakes while birding, and I’ll show you a person who isn’t trying hard enough.