Shorebirds in breeding plumage: an Achilles heel!?

I will start by saying that I absolutely love birding. Perhaps what I love most about it is that there is no ceiling to the limit of knowledge one can acquire throughout one’s lifetime.  I will forever be a student of bird identification, and this mindset keeps me wide open to receiving feedback; if you’re young and hungry and happen to be reading this…trust me, it’s the way to go as you grow as a birder! I have recently come to realize that I have a new identification weakness: shorebirds in breeding garb. My first recollection of becoming aware of this weakness is of a visit to Hillman Marsh last May. I was standing in the shorebird shelter, chatting with clients, when I overheard a birder, I believe his name is Bill Lamond, talking to a fellow birder while viewing birds through his scope. “Semipalmated Sandpiper.” I traced his trajectory to the bird and centred it in my scope view, thinking “that’s a Semipalm..? Oh, wait, ya ya.” I came to realize that it was my lifer breeding-plumage Semipalmated Sandpiper! Here I was, leading tours for a living and I had very limited experience with breeding-plumage shorebirds. In 2012, every bird was new and IDs were overwhelming while birding in Manitoba for the breeding bird atlas. In 2013, I skipped spring shorebirds and focused on forest birds in prep for a summer job. In 2014, I was hired as a field biologist in the Okanagan Valley and missed spring shorebird season. In 2015, I began to lead tours locally, in Ottawa, where the spring shorebird scene is limited; I recall seeing very few! In 2016, I again lead tours as well as worked retail, having no experience with shorebirds in the spring. In 2017, I had my first real taste of spring shorebirds, birding at Hillman Marsh! Once I left Pelee, that was it; no more shorebirds to study. Fast-forward to 2018, where I had a similar dilemma, albeit by 2018 my base skill set had risen quite a bit (even over my spring 2017 “start point”) so my ID weaknesses gave me less concern.

Hi my name is Jon and I have an ID problem

It all began in late March when a client walked up and showed me an image of a shorebird through his viewfinder. “Lesser Yellowlegs, wow, that’s early!” I had failed to note plumage details and instead focused on perceived GISS, etc. The client eBirded his sighting and our regional eBird reviewer caught the mis-ID; it was a Greater Yellowlegs. When I heard-word about the mis-ID, I sat down at my study and took a look at the photo of the bird on my work laptop; indeed it was a Greater! What I couldn’t shake was the fact that I didn’t look for, or discern, plumage details (such as the heavily-barred flanks to a Greater) while looking at the photo in the viewfinder. Show me a blurry photo of a sparrow’s “face” as its buried in cover and I’ll quickly have an answer on the tip of my tongue. It will likely only take a matter of seconds before an impression is hot and ready out of the oven. So, what’s up with this apparent “blind spot” with breeding shorebirds?

Eastern (griseus) Short-billed Dowitcher!…erm, not so fast wise guy

While birding at Pelee, I had to call back only three birds. All three mistakes occurred during my final day of tours when my mind was finally beginning to show some wear and tear. I caught the mis-IDs after calling them out for the group and corrected myself. I was proud of the level of focus I had maintained throughout the three tours. *pats own back*. Upon arriving home, however, I found out about an additional mis-ID; this one being more permanent and more public. I had tagged Kevin McLaughlin in a Facebook post; I had found an Eastern Short-billed Dowitcher…except, I hadn’t! It would have been a lifer breeding-plumage Eastern bird, and I figured I had studied it well enough to say, but it wasn’t quite right. Turns out it was likely a first summer “Inland” (hendersoni) Short-billed and Kevin provided his usual helpful and incisive analysis. My trouble is I didn’t see some of the rather obvious telltale field marks, as described by Kevin, while in the field. The bird was a mere 15 meters away and was lovingly gazed upon through my scope view. I didn’t have certain telltale field marks to tick off on my mental checklist at the time. At any rate, I certainly do now, thanks to Kevin 🙂

The takeaway

As strange as this may sound, especially since I am a professional birder, I feel excited at the time of this writing as I embrace the realization that I am still quite green in some areas. I am excited that I get to continue learning alongside clients as I am paid to do what I love to do. Does any of the above information about my apparent weakness with breeding shorebirds change my status as being a “good” birder? Does it make me any less of a guide? Nope. I continue to be careful, I continue to be precise, I continue to study birds carefully, I continue to have a good memory for detail, and I continue to get a little better each year as I continue to gain field experience. Is this denial? Is my confidence shaken, even if only just a bit? Nuh-uh, nadda. Onwards and upwards, like a flock of well-fed migrant Eastern (griseus) Short-billed Dowitchers exiting a lagoon cell!

Good birding,