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Keep an open mind when identifying rare birds

rare birds
Digital illustrations © 2022 David Sibley

One of the most difficult challenges in bird identification (as in life) is to keep your mind open to all possibilities. We all have a desire for certainty. We want to know the answer, with no ambiguity, yes or no, and once we have settled on an answer, we resist any challenge. We tend to emphasize only the evidence that confirms our answer and to ignore or discount evidence that refutes it.

As we learn to identify birds — building up a mental library of what birds look like in different seasons, lighting, postures, etc. — we need to be sure those birds are correctly identified. Some are not, that is a given, but we must be wary of drawing conclusions based on uncertain sightings and constantly testing, confirming, and reconfirming all the field marks we think we know.

I can illustrate this with an experience I had last August near my home in Massachusetts. Peering into a thicket, I saw several Veeries and one different-looking thrush. It was in juvenile plumage, darker and drabber brown above, with much heavier dark spotting on the breast and dusky flanks — all field marks of Gray-cheeked Thrush. It was cooperative, and I watched it for about two minutes, confirming all the field marks.

This would be a remarkable record, exceptionally early for a fall migrant and maybe the first time a Gray-cheeked Thrush in juvenile plumage had been recorded in Massachusetts! But I was confident of the identification and thought this bird’s arrival might be related to the ongoing drought in the region.

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Researching the subject later for some illustrations, I found photographs of Veery in juvenile plumage that looked dark with heavy spotting. This gave me some momentary doubt, but I was still convinced that it had to be a Gray-cheeked Thrush, now based entirely on the dusky flanks.

It took a couple more days, and a conscious effort to think about it objectively, to conclude that it was almost certainly a juvenile Veery, regardless of how dark I thought the flanks were.

Mistakes are inevitable, and our natural tendency to resist admitting them will lead to more mistakes. On the other hand, our misidentifications offer great learning opportunities if we are open to that, and I think this is a way of thinking that can be learned and practiced. Beware of claiming absolute certainty, and practice stepping back and thinking, “What else could explain this?” Your bird identification skills will be better for it.

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This article was published in “ID Toolkit” in the November/December 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016), and What It’s Like to Be a Bird (2020). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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