Working as a field guide, I identify and discuss birds for a living. I must call out and justify my identifications on a regular basis and this practice has “scared me” into developing my skill set to a higher level this year. Out of 100 identifications, I am inside the 90% accuracy mark. My gut impression is I am somewhere around the 92-93% accuracy mark. Meaning, out of 100 identifications, on average, throughout the entire year, I make 7 to 8 mis-ID’s and out of 1000 identifications, I make 70 to 80 mis-ID’s. I hit a performance peak in September and was likely averaging 95% during outings. I was feeling the difference, too. At the start of an outing to Britannia C.A. on 2 September, I stood giving the morning address. Birds were absolutely everywhere. I remarked that “I won’t make a single mis-call today.” We all laughed, but I was ready for it. I made hundreds of calls that day and had a perfect score. Considering my performance that day while resting and sipping coffee after the tour gave me one of nicest feelings of 2016. However, this post is not about ego-stroking….quite the opposite! In 2016, there were five mis-identifications that I made that stood out above the others. I have remembered them well!
- Third year Bald Eagle identified as a Golden Eagle
- Sharp-shinned Hawk identified as a Cooper’s
- Mourning Warbler identified as a Canada Warbler
- Willow Flycatcher identified as an Eastern Phoebe
- First winter male Surf Scoter identified as a first winter male King Eider
- While birding Amherst Island earlier this year (Feb-March) I spotted a very distant, dark eagle high overhead. I studied it momentarily and called out “GOLDEN.” All the participants readied their cameras and took a bunch of photos. I was thriving on the electricity of the group and continued to look at the bird through my bins. Then I saw something about the bird that made me feel like the power abruptly went out! I *shuddered* and whispered “oh sh*t”…..and turned to the others, “sorry, oh no…I can’t believe this….I’m sorry…it’s a tricky Bald!” I sat in the car afterwards and, behind my sunglasses, clenched my eyes shut and tried to ride out the discomfort. I never wanted that particular mis-ID to happen to me….especially during a field outing. Lesson: On high-flying, slow-moving birds like distant eagles, don’t feel the need to call the ID until you’re sure. Stay relaxed and check the bird carefully. You have time.
- Earlier this year, an Ontario birding legend sent me an email regarding the ID of a tricky-looking Accipiter. I received the email using my iPhone and checked the pic out. “Male Coop” I wrote. Later that day, I heard word that Jerry Ligouri had also received an email and he mentioned “Sharpie.” I opened the pic up and viewed it on my laptop and saw a Sharpie. If only brief, I experienced true suffering when I came to grips with seeing the end of my amazing run of strong Accipiter ID’s! Lesson: Do NOT identify tricky birds while using your cell. If you happen to, coat the ID with careful language and make it clear to others that you’re using your phone.
- This summer, a birder posted a pic of a warbler on my Facebook page. The shot was taken from underneath the bird but its ‘face’ was apparent. I identified the bird as a first year female Canada Warbler with a faint necklace. I even provided an analysis. Later that night, I laid in bed and my eyes opened real wide…”oh no….NO! It’s a first fall Mourning!” But that’s the cruel world of social media for you. The ID was signed, sealed and delivered. D’oh! The next morning I wrote a new comment under my previous one and explained my new ID. I did not remove my previous comment. I stand, sometimes painfully (at first), by my mistakes and I don’t make the same one twice. Lesson: Do your best. Answer questions carefully. Stand by your mistakes.
- No question, the most off-the-mark and painful one of 2016. Especially painful is the fact that I pride myself on my Empidonax ID. I was birding with Michael Runtz who was having a very strong day and I was having perhaps my weakest day of the whole year. I was very, very tired from a busy May-July filled with field trips and survey work and was birding with a fresh Michael (a terrifying entity!). A flycatcher flushed in front of us and I took one look at it and called it “phoebe.” There was silence. “Looks better for Willow Fly’, Jon.” I looked again and saw a Willow Fly’ and wanted to go home and lay in bed while sucking my thumb. Lesson: Rest, honestly I mean it, Jon.
- When I first learned how to downhill ski, my friend remarked “watch the last few runs of the day….that’s when mistakes can be made.” I’ve found the same with leading tours. You’re not done until everyone’s in the car…anything can happen and big moments can spring up when you least expect them. This past weekend while birding the waterfront at Stoney Creek, I saw a distant, orangish-billed duck. I brought my mag up and stared at the bird. Orangish bill, long forehead, rounded rear of head, one swath of color throughout the upperparts…no apparent other field marks. “Uh…..yep….yep, it’s good. So I have a first winter male King Eider here!” The group huddled around and each birder saw the bird. One birder mentioned “what’s with the faint white to the back of its head and don’t first winter male King Eiders have a pale breast?” I answered…”variable traits.” And I heard myself answer and thought, “come again?” I began to study the bird some more and by then most of the birders had walked back to the car to get out of the wind. “Uh-oh…..oops”…as I stared at the bird some more. First winter male Surf Scoter (not at all something Ottawa birders have the pleasure of seeing well!) was absolutely a better fit. “Sorry, that lifer you thought you had” not fun to call back sexy birds like eiders! D’oh. Lesson: 10 hours into a birding day involving navigation, identifying and fielding questions about birds, and discussing identifications via walkie talkie….watch that last bird on a tired mind.
I hope you enjoyed this read. Remember, do not sweat your mistakes and just enjoy the experience of birding. There’s really nothing else like it!
Happy Holidays 🙂