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The Varying Levels of Birdwatching

Birdwatching is extremely easy. Birdwatching is extremely difficult. Both of those sentences are true.

Semi-palmated Sandpiper

Birdwatching is extremely easy. Birdwatching is extremely difficult. Both of those sentences are true. Everything in between is true as well. I’ve written this before, but one of the many great things about birdwatching is that it is as easy or difficult as you want to make it.

If you are happy identifying a few backyard birds that visit the feeder, fine. If you want to learn a few of the common birds you see on your walks through the woods, fine. And so on it goes until you get to those people who have reached expert status. You know, the people who pick out a first-year Iceland gull among a flock of 200 herring and ring-billed gulls.

Even though I’ve written a birdwatching column for more years than I can count on my fingers and toes, I’m not that expert. I’m not picking out a rare gull because I noticed the trailing edge of its wing is slightly different from the bird next to it. But I still love birdwatching and strive to get a little better each year.

Warblers can be tricky to identify

There are several types of bird families that separate the experts from everyone else. Warblers can be tricky, especially in the fall when they aren’t singing and many of the birds look different than they did in the spring. Sparrows can be difficult when you get beyond the easily identifiable ones. They don’t call them LBBs (little brown birds) or LBJs (little brown jobs) for nothing. As mentioned before, gulls offer their own special challenges.

For me, identifying shorebirds has always been frustrating. I can ID the big and easy ones like American Oystercatchers, the subject of a recent column. But the little ones that gather along the shore are tricky. “Peeps” is the general term for all those birds. Again, they don’t have a group nickname for no reason.

Piping Plover

Among the peeps, I can pick out several species, such as sanderling, Semi-palmated Plover, and Piping Plover. In breeding plumage, dunlin and red knots are pretty easy to ID as well. But many of the other peeps very closely resemble each other and only subtle differences separate them.

The smaller sandpipers are the trickiest. Is that a Least Sandpiper, Western Sandpiper or Semi-palmated Sandpiper? Beats me. Ask the expert next to me. Those sandpipers are very close in size and plumage. Other sandpipers, such as spotted, solitary or purple, look different from their cousins and, to me, are distinguishable.

Field guides, particularly the older field guides with only one drawing or photo of each species, are of little use as they do not reflect the myriad plumages of the birds based on age and season. Also, many field guides typically don’t show adequate side-by-side comparisons with similar species.

I had mentioned dunlin and red knots before. In breeding plumage, they are easy to tell apart. In nonbreeding plumage, however, they are very similar. The sandpipers look similar regardless of age or season.

The differences lie in details such as bill length and shape, head size, shades of brown or gray, and leg color. To me anyway, those details are hard to pick out. Even leg color is often difficult to discern in the field. Head size or shape? Nope. I’m not making a positive ID looking through a spotting scope at a six-inch-long bird based on whether the head is round, oval or “blocky.” There are people who can make the distinction and thank goodness for them. I lean on them often.

American Oystercatcher

I faced this dilemma earlier this month when I took a walk along a rocky beach. The oystercatchers were easy to ID. The hundreds of small peeps by the water’s edge were not so easy. Some of the birds I simply regarded as peeps and left it at that. Some birds, such as the dunlin, I was able to ID based on size and experience with the species.

It was a great, memorable and healthy walk regardless of whether I could ID every bird I saw. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you can identify all the birds, none of the birds or some of the birds. Being out there caring about nature and having fun is what really matters.


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