A teachable moment (or why I love birding, even when I make a fool of myself)

(or — I did a dumb thing again, and we’re gonna talk about it….)

I’ve only been birding “seriously” for a couple of years, where seriously is defined as “for the sake of birding, as opposed to trying to photograph birds” — and it’s only been the last year or so where I’ve started to feel like I somewhat know what I’m doing. Mostly. I still have my share of ‘teachable moments’, and I had one this weekend I figured was worth sharing.

I ran into the bird down in Coyote Valley at a location where I’d previously found a large family of California Quail (which factors into my thinking later…) and I was seeing if I could find the family again (no) — but I suddenly see this bird walking away from me.

And in these cases, especially with a bird you don’t recognize, you suddenly go into “what the HELL is that?” mode. I snapped off a couple of photos immediately in case I lost the bird and tried to both watch it and get into a position for a better set of photos. The bird, bless it, watched me for a short bit, then swaggered off into the weeds and disappeared. Such is the life of birders, except many times, all you get is that first glance.

At this point, the brain starts wandering through your mental rolodex of birds. Quail? No (too large, wrong shape); Roadrunner? (body shape close, but head and beak all wrong), Pheasant? (too small, tail all wrong)… once THAT fails, you open up the field guide and use it to help you think through options. Since it’s living in the same habitat as the Quail, you start in the part of the guide where the Quail are and look for other species with similar habits.

I don’t realize it until later, but I’ve already made a key mistake in identification — and I’m about to compound it. Quail are game birds. Their primary function in life is, well, lunch. This is good habitat for that kind of bird. The other common game bird here in the bay area is the Ring-Necked Pheasant, but I’ve already evaluated that and decided it’s not a pheasant because of the size and the tail.

I defer further evaluation until I can get a photo onto a monitor and take a closer look. When I do, I’ve already started thinking down the road that this bird is a weird one, something unusual. That is a mistake (more on that in a second). It’s obviously a game bird, so what is it? I finally decide I don’t know (always a safe option), but that it’s most likely an adult female grouse. One problem: they don’t live here. But — aha — we do sometimes get birds that are kept and escape, either as ornamentals or by people planning to hunt them (there are resident populations of chukars in california that are escapees, for instance). So once I’ve decided it’s a Grouse, the logical reason it’s there is because it escaped and found an enclave of quail to hang out with. And I’ve trapped myself into a well-thought out braincramp, which I’ll now explain.

Now, it’s not unusual for bird that’s out of its native habitat to find the species that’s similar to it and hang out. My logic trail is quite logical, but the problem is it’s wrong. If I’d taken a step back and thought it through, the chances of a hunter keeping grouse (as opposed to Quail, pheasant or chukar) here in Coastal California is tiny, and in the area I was (Coyote Valley), the chances of someone keeping game birds for later hunting is beyond remote, and that bird wouldn’t have travelled any distance. It’s not a realistic scenario, so it should have been rejected.

If there’s a universal truth in identifying birds, it’s that you don’t think about the rare cases until you evaluate and reject all of the common ones. This is in conflict with the natural tendency of the enthusiastic novice, which is you’re hoping for that “rare” or “big” find, and so there’s a tendency to lean towards finding it. In reality, as a novice birder, you generally don’t really know what “rare” or “big” is — because you don’t really know what “normal” is yet. The hardest lesson I’ve had to learn so far is to back off and think through the “what it ought to be” situations before heading off into left field looking for that rare find.

The key to the mistake I made is the difference between these two pelicans. The one on the left is a young bird, young enough that the primary feathers on the wings and tail haven’t fully grown in. If you compare the wings with the adult on the right, you can see the wings look — stubby.

The logical bird to be where I was looking was the Ring-Necked Pheasant. I rejected that as an ID — why? because the bird was too small, and the tail structure was wrong. In reality, the bird is juvenile (probably female, but with kids, it’s difficult), or hatch year bird. It was a silly oversight to not consider a juvenile bird.

How’d I figure it out? I reported the trip to our local birding list (South-Bay Birds) which is full of extremely smart (and way more competent than I am) birders, and one told me they’d birded that same location and seen a male pheasant. Where there are male pheasants, there are female pheasants, and where those exist there are nests, and where there are nests, there are — baby birds who haven’t grown to adult size and who’s tail feathering is still growing in, just like those primary wing feathers on the younger pelican. Duh.

For those in the readership that aren’t birders (or birdwatchers — there is a difference, but that’s a different posting), birding isn’t so much about watching birds as it is about locating them and identifying them. I’ve found myself primarily curious about how an environment shifts over time, which is why I get excited over the return of white-crowned sparrows (“fall is here! the sparrows have arrived”) than I am chasing some rarity like the blue-footed booby that hid from me in Dana Point (I was going there ANYWAY. REALLY!); I love revisiting areas I know and watching how they change and what the resident populations look like over time. Birding is different for every birder, some of us consciously don’t set any goals at all, some are very competitive.

This is part of why I’ve really come to like birding — it is both a reason to get outside where I get exercise AND it’s a rather technical and challenging as a hobby. There’s an endless amount of technical geekery you can spend time studying and ultimately it requires a lot of time and energy to master. It really is the kind of hobby I think geeks can really get into if they choose to — but at the same time, it enforces a need for patience (something geeks aren’t always good at), because if you rush, all you do is scare the birds off or scatter them into deep cover.

And just when you start feeling comfortable with how well you’re doing, it throws you a curve that reminds you how much further you have to go.

Like baby birds that haven’t grown their tail feathers in yet.

But these are situations you can learn from; the lesson here is actually universal, too. It’s a simple one — and that’s that the further you get from the simple or common answer, the more likely it’ll turn out that you missed something along the way than it is that you’ve would up with something really rare. Even if you think you’ve ruled out the common answers — it never hurts to go back and challenge those assumptions before assuming those lights in the sky are a UFO instead of an airplane…

I long ago gave up hiding from (or denying) my mistakes; there’s plenty to learn from mistakes, and if you aren’t making  mistakes, you aren’t pushing yourself to improve. And the more I thought about it, the more this seemed a chance to talk about decision making in general and how easily it can go sideways based on what seem to be really trivial choices — and also to perhaps explain a bit why I’ve been talking about birding so much recently and why it’s turned into something I spend time on and enjoy as much as I do. Who knows, maybe it’ll convince you to experiment a bit and see what you think…