“Experts” make mistakes, too

When I first started my birding journey in February 2011, I found the mastering of the Art and Science of field birding to be an absolutely daunting task! Fast forward 9 years, and I am now a professional birding guide and a lot less worrisome and wary in the field, but I still show great interest, empathy and respect to those trying to extract the most out of this unique craft.

One item that I wish to highlight is, well, a possible misunderstanding; the misunderstanding that once you become an “expert,” you no longer make mistakes in the field! I write the following to you as an “expert” birder. I am widely-regarded as being very strong in the field by birding colleagues and clients alike. Some clients have been with many guides and remark that my hearing and eyesight is unlike anything they’ve experienced before; this is their feedback, not my own impression. Comments such as those sink in my brain, adding to a rich reservoir of tempered self-confidence while in the field. I am an introspective chap, and if I were to consider my ID success rate in the field, I feel, in all honesty, that I correctly ID over 90 out of every 100 birds on, say, a busy migration morning. Some days, I might be red hot, hitting 95+. Other days, I might sit around 90, or….below? That’s my best impression, at least. During tours, I have to call-out every bird I see and hear. If I ponder carefully about past experiences, I feel I catch a mis-ID before it hits the ground 1 time for every 20-or-so IDs (could be anything; a strange call, a distant sub-song, a fleeting sparrow). I might outright mis-ID a few birds a tour (i.e. uploaded to eBird)…maybe more? The important part is: I’m an “expert” and I make mistakes!

Recent high-profile Misidentification

On June 2nd, I was birding along the Quebec side of the Ottawa River. I panned my scope toward some roosting gulls and in flies a jumbo Ring-billed Gull with a slightly darker mantle! I stared at it; it stood slightly taller than the others, its mantle was indeed slightly darker, its bill was slightly longer and thicker than the adjacent Ring-bills. I reached for my phone, in excitement! A gall-darn Cali Gull…that’s all it could be. It flew off. I posted to the local RBA about the bird. A few minutes later, it flew in again, and I got a better look. I I felt a little off about the bird (I recall) but my brain had already been…tricked. I posted another photo of it, then made my way home. I can distinctly recall feeling ill in the pit of my stomach, while celebrating with other birders, by text. Quite a few “good” birders, and even some “experts,” were texting about the bird, mentioning that they were on it. But, herm, something was just a little off about the bird; was it just a second summer Ring-billed? Was I fooled? Did I fall for a field illusion? I sent my images to expert Larophiles (gull loving birders) and the rest is history. One outright said second summer Ring-billed, while others mentioned that the gull had features of both parent species. I posted, publicly, retracting my ID. This came after a sweet two-week stretch of finding rarities and “good” birds.  An “expert” retracting an ID for all to see! I must have been beside myself! In all transparency, I did feel a temptation come on; a temptation to start to get hard on myself. I stopped the thought with force the moment it began, reminding myself that time and time again, Formula 1 drivers bin 6.5-million dollar cars in the wall and walk back to the pit garage, unshaken. That’s it. No sulking. No falling-apart-at-the-seams. All part of a day’s work. The take home here. Mistakes await you. 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 impact will be extinguished. Keep in mind, sometimes you merely slip up, you “lock your brakes” and miss the apex of the corner (misidentify a bird) but continue along on the course of your birding day. Congrats, you were just given some excellent feedback on your current performance; you went through an enlightening experience and planted seeds of growth.

“What’s that call, Jon?”

During tours, a great percentage of my clients experience frustration with bird songs and calls…especially calls! I am regularly asked about songs and calls. I love birdsong but I myself am still learning. Pretty much every time I’m in the field, I hear, and study, a “new” call. Recent “new” calls involved a male Eastern Towhee, a Scarlet Tanager and a fledgling Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I sometimes have to say, “I’m not so sure” when asked about a call. Sometimes, I mis-ID a call, having mentioned one species as another pops up from cover, revealing its true ID! Those moments happen during paid tours. Shouldn’t I be feeling unworthy of my title, or, embarrassed? I’ll answer: GOOD HEAVENS, NO!

Framework for Bouncing Back after Mistakes

Give yourself the absolute freedom, flexibility, humility, curiosity and passion that comes from being a lifelong STUDENT of birding. Avoid, dodge, duck and run from the title of “expert.” Something happens in the brain when that title sinks in; all sorts of windows and avenues close. With a student’s mindset, you will, from the onset, be immune to the inevitable mistakes as they come. You will remain hungry for MORE (more deep learning, more details, more feedback, more tips and tricks, more practical advice from the elders of birding).  Once you reach a high level in the field, the upper limit to field-performance is well within grasp. If you’re consistently performing at a high level, it is easy to overstep the performance line. It’s quite comfy to rest well below it. But, if you’re extracting the most out of yourself, you go on and ride that performance line as best you can! An overstep here, or under-step there–don’t sweat it; it really does come with the territory!

All the best in your birding journey, however far along you are!