Surprise! It’s a Bird Identification Manifesto!
You thought you were here to learn about peep identification. We will get to that, but first…
Organizations, causes, startups, etc. tend to go through a predictable early and middle-aged life cycle. It starts with excitement, new discoveries, few rules or hard and fast guidelines and lots of innovation and excitement. Over time and growth leadership begins to codify sets of practices and rules, teaching what they believe works best and ignoring and even quashing other points of view or practices. At this point there may actually be improvements in productivity, in practices, or in outcomes as a limited set of standards is perfected. It is at this point that the early leaders are often gone, their teachings have been passed on second or third hand, often losing important nuance in the process. If the processes they put in place are still effective this is not a problem and things carry on as before. More often though, this is where organizations begin to decline, belief structures calcify, and nimbleness and innovation are lost. This process was well documented at NASA, but similar examples are common.
After a period of learning, innovation, and discovery in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, in my opinion North American birding has reached a point where we are on the verge of widespread calcification of beliefs and techniques that date before the internet era. Optics have improved significantly since many of the field mark still in use today were pioneered and popularized, camera technology has improved dramatically and can serve as a gateway for people to discover birds, our ability to disseminate information has changed most dramatically of all, yet by and large, the way we teach and think about bird identification has taken these significant changes and attempted to force fit them into the existing structure.
For some people, the existing structures work well enough or they can figure out on their own how to borrow from those structures what is of use to them and figure the rest out on their own. For others attempting to learn bird identification with the most popular tools and ideas is a frustrating experience, something that they can sense is suboptimal but they have yet to encounter alternatives and there is no one telling them that it is ok to forge those answers on their own. This is what I’m attempting to improve with Avocet Birding Courses. I’m attempting to provide an alternative to the popular narratives about bird identification. To teach it in a way that resonates with those that are frustrated or stuck in a rut and don’t feel their knowledge is progressing.
I have my approach that has served me well. It is based around four pillars: size, structure, movement, and very basic patterns and overall color. I weave everything else in as support structures around those pillars. When I see a bird, I use size and structure as a means to cut down a list of hundreds of possibilities to just a handful. Often through winnowing the possibilities with just these two characteristics, I’m immediately left with just one species and the process is complete. If not, years of looking at birds allows me to read their movements like a language, a language that usually gives away their identity. If I’m still unsure, I have basic coloration and patterns batting clean up. Specific “field marks” come to bear rarely but can play their part if needed. The reality is that after 30 years of looking at North American birds I recognize most of what I see instantly and use the identification process to double check my conclusions more than I rely on it to make identifications.
My approach, as I have forged it, may not work for you as it has for me as everyone processes information differently. That’s fantastic, I don’t need clones, but I can still teach you something that you will find useful in building or honing your own personalized approach to bird identification. Maybe what you learn from me will only be that its ok to have your own approach or maybe most of my approach will also work for you, very likely you also have knowledge I can learn from. The concept though, that approaches to bird identification can be as varied as the people that watch birds, is on its own an antidote to calcification. Another antidote is the knowledge there is always more to learn about birds, and that, to me, is a huge part of why I still enjoy every moment I’m outside with binoculars. Anyone who tells you bird identification is already solved is someone who has calcified to the point of no return. For me the puzzle of bird identification is something that I’m good at but am still learning. It is old and familiar to me, yet I still find bird identification to be fun and exciting. I have limitless challenges and interests, but I can surmount those challenges and solve the puzzles with enough time. Take a look at the sandpiper photo from Texas in April and follow along with me on how I would approach the identification of such a flock.
In the left image, let’s start by looking for the largest bird. We find it in the bottom left, it also has a noticeably longer bill than any other bird in the image and the large black chunks on the belly, nail it down as a Dunlin coming into breeding plumage. Dunlin’s long slightly drooped bill is a useful structural trait, for about ½ the year many have black bellies or at least splotches of black on the belly which is an useful plumage trait, making it overall a pretty easy bird to identify. Common, easy birds serve as ideal points of reference when breaking down a flock of birds. Dunlin are also ideal as there are rough 60 species of sandpipers that have occurred in North America, but only 11 are clearly smaller than Dunlin, so by identifying the Dunlin and deducing that everything around it is noticeably smaller, you’ve cut 60 species down to 11 just by using Dunlin + size. That doesn’t even take into account rare species; of the regularly occurring North American species that you are likely to encounter, only five are noticeably smaller than a Dunlin. Of the smaller birds that surround the Dunlin in this image, some are tiny and brown-backed, others are slightly larger and gray-backed. There are four of the gray-backed birds and two of the brown-backed. Comparing the two smaller, brown-backed birds to the Dunlin they appear to be almost ½ the size. Only Least Sandpiper is this small and brown-backed. The grey-backed birds are only slightly larger than the Least which eliminates White-rumped and Baird’s, both of which are distinctly larger than Least and is a mark against Western which is typically clearly larger than Least. Westerns often look like small Dunlin in overall structure and the gray-backed birds do not look like small Dunlin. Their bills are fairly short, somewhat thick, and blunt tipped: all traits consistent with Semipalmated Sandpiper. We could check our work on the Semipalmated in a number of different ways: we could note that many of the back feather have black centers but the fringes of those feathers are plain gray, not rusty as they would be on a Western; that the head shape of the right hand bird has the rounded shape typical of Semipalmated; or that the legs are closer to gray than black and Semipalmated often have gray legs.
Let’s move on to the right hand image keeping in mind what we discussed on the left hand image. Here we see some familiar characters, 2 tiny brown-backed birds that can only be Least Sandpipers, 2 much larger Dunlin, one in very distinctive full breeding plumage, one still in the midst of the molt to breeding but with enough black on the belly to still be quite distinctive. What about though, that bird in the back left corner that looks like a Dunlin but seems small and lacks black on the belly-immature Dunlin? or…Western Sandpiper. Remember, I mentioned that Western Sandpipers often look like small Dunlin. This is a perfect example of that appearance; the bill is not as long or a drooping as that of a Dunlin, but the semblance is there. It is also a perfect example of the kinds of mental shortcuts I use in the field to quickly make identifications: X species reminds me of Y species but differs in Z way. This is the kind of thing that is super personal, my comparison of Western Sandpiper as a structural sibling to a Dunlin will resonate with some people but not with others, the point is if you are drawing comparisons between species, it only needs to work for YOU to be useful to YOU. Getting back to the image we only have one unidentified bird remaining, in the back right; larger than the Least, smaller than the Western. Only Semipalmated Sandpiper falls between those two species in size. Comparing the Semipalmated to the Western in this out-of-focus image serves to help up ignore the details that are often mentioned in guides and just slow down and focus on what we CAN see, the structure: Short, blunt-tipped bill on the Semipalmated; longer, more tapered bill on the Western; smaller, rounded head on the Semipalmated; larger, blockier head on the Western; Apparent longer legs on the Western; and subtle differences in body structure, the body is larger and thicker in front of the legs on the Western but tapers so the part of the body that falls behind the legs is not as thick as that of the Semipalmated; while the Semipalmated’s belly appears subtly rounded with the deepest part of the body falling near the midpoint, where the legs join the body.
This approach might seem wordy and involved, but explaining what the brain does in mere seconds once it is trained can seem that way. In reality, using easily identified species as a point of comparison and taking information from each additional species you identify to pin down the more difficult members of a flock is a faster and more accurate process than tackling each bird individually. If you are experienced it might also seem unnecessary as you can easily name all these birds at a glance, but I frequently use this exact technique to sift through flocks of birds that would be just a little too far away with just a little bird and too much heat shimmer. The presence of highly distinctive species allow me to use my knowledge of those species to draw inferences about the species that surround them.
If you’ve hung with me this far then thank you. I appreciate your attention. I wrote an identification article on small sandpipers in Birding Magazine almost 20 years ago, a rough first version of the article still exists here: https://www.surfbirds.com/Features/coxpeeps1006/coxpeeps1006.html
The article focus on all the ways this challenging group of birds can be identified without using traditional, plumage-based field mark. It represents my first attempt to push back against calcification in bird identification. In the intervening years, I’ve learned much more, thought more about these subjects and refined my process and my teaching methods, but for a first attempt it is still something I’m proud of. If any of what I’ve gone over resonates with you or peaks your interest I’d love to have you join one of my workshops or private guiding sessions. To find out more, please email me at email@example.com or submit a contact form on this website.