Identify Yourself: Getting It Wrong

Much has changed in birding since I started as a teenager in Toronto, way back in the early Precambrian period. Many of those changes have been in technology and connectivity among birders. But, also, there are many more birders now, which is great but also creates change. When I was a teen birder, if someone had a good day out during migration, you might hear about it at the monthly club meeting weeks later, or, if you were really plugged in, you would get a phone call and become informed.

If a rare bird showed up, let’s say a Louisiana waterthrush at High Park, the phone network went into high gear, sort of like Batman getting the call on the red phone from Commissioner Gordon, telling him the location of the scene of the crime. Everyone called the next two or three people on the chain, and in minutes everyone had the information. My friend Hugh Currie would let me know directly, but being a teen, I was not entrusted with the responsibility of calling others. Remember, this was before cell phones. If someone was not at home or at work, they did not get the news unless they had one of those newfangled answering machines.

We also had Harry Kerr, who compiled everything that was being seen by anyone in Toronto. Harry always seemed to welcome a call, and he would verbally download everything that was being seen. He had his finger on the pulse of the birding scene. The national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, had a weekly column by Peter Whelan that birders across the country tuned into. Here we learned about what was going on in British Columbia, if Nova Scotia was seeing some goodies, and maybe what Point Pelee was turning up. Information was scarce, and we treasured it.

Eventually, a big network—infrastructure, if you will—developed to receive, edit, vet, and disseminate information. The infrastructure was made up of birders: peers, experts, people you respected. As you can imagine, this created a hierarchy of roles in the community and also quite a lot of pressure to “get things right” when you saw and identified something unusual. A rare western sandpiper on the Leslie Street Spit? You didn’t upload it to eBird or to Facebook and move on. You had to phone Harry and get a grilling; you had to convince Hugh, and maybe you would even get a call from Peter.

In those days, reputation was everything. You built up your reputation by solidly identifying birds and reporting them quickly and appropriately. We did not have digital cameras; lenses were incredibly expensive; and most good birds you saw on a field outing were never photographed. Slide film cost an arm and a leg, particularly prohibitive if you were a teen birder. So, birding relied on reputation and was sometimes backed up by written field notes or a field sketch. If you reported birds and others went to see them and re-found them, you would notch up. The observer was “reliable.” But then there were the birders that saw much that never was verified. They always birded alone and were deemed “stringy,” as in stringing you along. It is undeniable, looking back, that there was immense pressure to get things right. I would rather have been labeled an annoying, self-centered know-it-all than a stringer. I was okay with them saying, “That Alvaro never shuts up, but at least you can rely on his sightings.” The thought of going out on a birding day and calling out a bird and being wrong, while the birding community looked on, was unbearable. You could not be wrong; you could not misidentify anything publicly. Your reputation would be mud, or at least heading in that direction.

Things have changed. Birding is a lot more inclusive and easier to dabble in and then get going full tilt if you want to. It is easier to document what we see with technology to let others know what we are seeing, and information does not rely on a personal, but instead an electronic, framework of dissemination. But we have not shaken off our history as a birding community. What I describe from the 1980s and into the 1990s had been that way for decades. Today we are not so worried about reputation, and the birding communities are larger and not so insular. What remains that I think is a challenge to birding is the idea that getting something wrong, of misidentifying a bird, is to be avoided and essentially is a public embarrassment. I would like to see a birding community, especially in the beginner-to-intermediate experience level, in which being wrong is not only acceptable, but encouraged! I do not intend to issue a call to arms to misidentify birds willy-nilly and report them to eBird, but rather to point out the benefits of incorrect identifications.

I started birding on a beautiful spot, Kennaway Lake in Harcourt Park, not far south of the panhandle of world-renowned Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Our friends, the Smiths, had canoes, fishing rods, and a raft you could dive from, as well as binoculars and a Peterson field guide. Having exhausted new things to do, one day I took the book and the binoculars out in a canoe. I recall this vividly: Not too far from the end of the lake, I spotted the first bird I didn’t know. (I already knew the loon.) It was black and gray and white. It sat on top of a conifer singing, and then stood still for a long time. Not huge, but then again, I did not have any experience with bird sizes. Having been keen on airplanes, getting books about fighter jets out from the library, and watching air shows—this seemed similar. You got the book, looked at the pictures, and figured out what the bird was named. Then you learn the features, as you would for a F-15 Eagle versus a Mig-25. Easy and fun! I went through the Peterson guide, and there it was: eastern kingbird. The first bird I identified. It was a two-week stay, and I kept at it, finding more birds and learning their names. One evening I went out again with the canoe and found the same bird, which was likely on territory. But this time I looked at the book and it really didn’t look like an eastern kingbird. I realized I had screwed it up! My first bird ever was a misidentified dark-eyed junco. I felt stupid, but I learned. That single experience of shifting emotions has made me remember that event more than any other bird I saw in the next couple of years. I also remember it when teaching bird identification to beginners. I never think, “How can you confuse a junco for a kingbird?” because I have done it. Talk about a “spark bird!”

We learn birds through positive reinforcement. We identify a western tanager with the book—our lifer western tanager—and then, when we see another one and get the same answer by looking at the book again, our identification is positively reinforced. This takes a lot of experience and teaches us how to solidly identify the bird. When you misidentify a bird, the key is to actually do it in public. With a friend, ask, “That is a western tanager, right?” You might get the answer, “No, it is a female hooded oriole.”

The negative—your incorrect answer here—gets catalogued vividly! When we get positive reinforcement, our dopamine (the feel-good chemical) is sent to the brain; we feel awesome, we feel great. With the incorrect identification, the dopamine is shut off, which feels like a bummer, and you may even produce more adrenalin (so you want to run away) and other chemicals that feel much less wonderful than dopamine. The negative experience sears itself in your brain even more than does the positive reinforcement you received by correctly identifying a western tanager. That is to say, make that mistake once, and you never make it again. You have now learned about hooded oriole versus western tanager identification, and the pitfall of female plumages. Obviously, it is better to do this with a trusted friend or a group of people who are non-judgmental. Better still, start a conversation about the misidentification that will allow all those present to learn.

We still have to go a long way to make this happen in public birding outings, social media, etc. We should be open and supportive of people getting it wrong. Experts need to quickly correct the mistake, but the correction should be polite, without judgment, and with the idea that one is trying to help the learning process of the birder, not to shame them into the “stringer” reputation pool. Also, the person making the misidentification should take this as a moment to learn and not run away in terror from their public faux pas. It isn’t really a faux pas: It is normal, expected, and necessary to learning. It is time for us to be okay with being wrong!

If you noticed previously, when the friend was asking about the identification of the western tanager, the question was asked in a specific manner. Not “What is that yellowish bird?” or “Is that a western tanager?” But “That is a western tanager, right?” The difference is subtle, but you learn more from a misidentification when you are committed to it. You have looked at the bird, assessed, evaluated, and come up with an identification that you propose and are allowing to be challenged. You have skin in the game. If you just pose the question (“What is that yellow bird?”), you really have not committed to anything. You may have not even looked all that closely and tried to identify the bird. You actually can’t misidentify it, because you never identified it.

There are other ways to use negative reinforcement to highlight and solve some of your bird identification challenges that balance all of the positive-reinforcement birding you do. You may face hurdles or troublesome birds again and again. Go birding with your more experienced friend or mentor and set up situations of identifying the bird yourself, then asking for a correction or affirmation from your friend. You can also get photos of, say, lesser and greater yellowlegs, which you never feel confident about distinguishing, and then commit to the identification. Once committed, share the photos with more experienced birders, and see if you are getting the IDs right. If not, ask them to explain. Some people like learning systems; others do not, but this system of committing to an identification and being open to critique is great for learning the tough birds that have you flummoxed.

I had to learn the hard way, in a system where I feared being labeled an unreliable stringer. Actually, it was exhilarating to be under pressure to always be accurate in the identification of birds. Teenagers can learn things quickly, memory is sharp, and they are in a stage of life where they actually want to prove themselves. That was me, in my early years of birding. You cannot believe how I felt when Peter Whelan actually mentioned my sightings on the weekly national birding roundup in the newspaper (and spelled my name correctly). I felt as if I had been given a star on Hollywood Boulevard. Cloud 9. It was a big deal. But if I were to start birding now, in my 40s, I wouldn’t want that type of crazy peer pressure. I just want to learn, enjoy, move forward, and get better at my passion. I no longer need to prove anything.

Some new birders are content with what they know, enjoy, and photograph and do not want to move forward in the skill-building demands of bird identification. Birding is about having a good time, after all, and each birder gets to decide what that good time looks like. For those who are interested in getting better at the craft of birding, I offer these final observations. That unpleasant, gruff, experienced birder might have grown up as a birder “in the trenches,” and if they suffered (they think), so should you! Avoid that person, and find others who are more attuned to your personality. That guy is unlikely to change overnight. But you, as a student, should be open to corrections of misidentification, and take those opportunities to ask more questions and to learn.

To the expert birder, guide, or trip leader: Be sensitive and empathetic to the newer birders. Bird watching is the greatest avocation and the most fun, and it is our job to lead more people into this rich and life-changing world. Use correction as a tool to teach, and minimize the negative effects it may have on a beginner’s feelings. Both the new and the experienced have a role in getting us out of the situation where it is shameful to be wrong. Let’s go out there and screw up a bit. It will be fun!

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