Mistakes in Birding

While attending the Formula 1 Grand Prix in Montreal this past June (2017) , I had yet another opportunity to lose myself in pondering a subject I really enjoy considering: the journey toward peak performance, and coping with the minor (and sometimes major) mistakes made along the way.

As I gripped the track side fence, I peered through to the tarmac in front of me, awaiting the world’s most expert drivers to hit the track for their Free Practice session. It is enlightening to see the driver’s momentarily lapsing in judgement/concentration, locking their brakes into the corner. It is enlightening to see a rookie driver inch ever-closer to the barriers on the exit of corners as he builds in confidence and finds more exit speed. It is even more enlightening to witness his journey toward the limit of performance end abruptly in the form of a sudden impact with the barrier. The fans lift their hands and drop them on their heads in disappointment, frustration, and the like, but I find myself enthralled in a daydream, wishing I could teleport myself to his team garage to see him interact with his team of engineers upon his return. What I’d find is an unshaken young man, receiving a firm hand of console upon his shoulder, followed by a debrief from his engineers. They would be asking all of the right questions, and he’d be taking his time, answering them carefully. He’d likely be handed a bottle of water, and some recent telemetry to study, before he went back to the team’s motor home. Before he walked away, he’d likely glance up toward the big lens positioned near the side of his face, the International sports feed, and provide fans with a smile and a thumbs up as he walks past. That’s it. No sulking. No falling-apart-at-the-seams. All part of a day’s work. The take home here. Two points. First point: mistakes await you in the realm of the uncharted. You’re going to have to make them if you wish to improve your birding game, and once you fully accept that they are an integral part of one’s birding journey, their negative impact will be overcome. Second point: sometimes, as the human that you are, you simply slip up…you “lock your brakes” and miss the apex of the corner (miss the ID) but continue along on the course of your birding day. Congrats, you were just given some excellent feedback on your current performance, and you learned something new.

Below is a list of six memorable mistakes I have made over the past year and a half. I’ve made more, too, but I can’t recall their detail in such colour:

  1. Third year Bald Eagle identified as a Golden Eagle
  2. Sharp-shinned Hawk identified as a Cooper’s
  3. Mourning Warbler identified as a Canada Warbler
  4. Willow Flycatcher identified as an Eastern Phoebe
  5. First winter male Surf Scoter identified as a first winter male King Eider
  6. Mourning Dove identified in flight as an Upland Sandpiper!

Discussion

  1. 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.
  2. In the fall of 2016, 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 (but, honestly, I really think you should just wait until you’re home on your laptop/computer!)
  3. In the summer of 2016, 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, and under no circumstance, do not remove your previous answers. Have an honourable birding game!
  4. 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 your birding brain on a regular basis. Avoid complex ID’s like the plague if you’re approaching them on a tired mind!
  5. 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.
  6. While birding the Napanaee Limestone Plain IBA this summer (2017), I spotted a bird in flight, heading straight toward me. A split second later I belted out “Upland Sand’, comin’ right this way.” I turned around and saw a birding mate staring at the bird, unresponsive. I thought that was bizarre, so I glanced back, centered the bird in my binocular view, and saw a Mourning Dove! Ooops, may I please have that lifer/year bird back…it’s not yours. D’oh! Lesson: Yes, sure, it stings a little at the moment, but inject some humour, make the mistake openly famous with your friends, and keep talking. Don’t stand and sulk! If you can, absolutely crush an ID (either silently or publicly) that same day to wash away those minor blemishes to your birding game. Trust me, nothing feels better!

I hope you enjoyed this read. Remember, do not sweat your mistakes and just enjoy the experience, and journey, of birding. There’s really nothing else like it, and it truly is a lifelong pursuit 🙂