It is a funny thing, but you see what you expect to see, and you look over that which you do not. In my view birders whose brains are not wired like this are in a huge minority, and the masses, of which I am one, are generally all proponents of range-based identification. That is to say, if you are in a place where a species is resident or expected, and you see something that looks like it, it is very difficult to not record it as such. Combined with the human trait of familiarity breeding contempt many birds are unlikely to even get a second glance from the majority of birders. Those that do look more closely, carefully and above all, slowly, are in a different league from you and I. Well, I don't want to tar all my blog readers with the same brush, but I really really hope that this is not just me!
I was made painfully aware of this just recently in New York. The previous day a local birder had photographed a presumed juvenile Ringed Plover on the East Pond at Jamaica Bay. A very rare bird indeed, perhaps the third record for the State. The arrival of a UK birder, doubtless highly familiar with all ID features of juvvy Ringed Plover, distinctly cheered the many twitchers who had driven from all corners of New York. Oh dear. In the UK we are naturally taught to separate Ringed Plover from Little Ringed Plover, that is the confusion species, and if the two were side by side I could likely manage that. But to have a crowd of people all asking you, a perceived expert, if this bird here was the Ringed Plover, and not just another Semipalmated Plover.... Awkward!
I realised quite quickly this task was beyond me, mainly as I had no idea (other than the largely invisible feet) what differentiated non-calling juvenile Ringed Plovers from Semi-ps. Worse than that, I realised I could not really describe a juvenile Ringed Plover at all, or at least not in a way that was going to be of any use in this particular situation. I've been birding for years, but at that moment I appeared as if I knew nothing, a complete duffer. I muddled through it, and as far as I am aware nobody (with or without my 'help'!) saw the bird that day, but it was embarrassing and got me thinking. And writing this, as I expect that many people will be in the same boat and it would be nice to get them thinking too.
There are not many Ringed Plovers in Wanstead, although I live in hope. But even when I am at the coast, for example in Fife where Ringed Plovers are common, how much do I really look at them? The answer is not at all. If they are on a beach, as they normally are, I probably don't even think to look for LRP. I do a rough count, and they all go in the book as Ringed Plover. A day tick perhaps, and I move on. This is classic range-based 'identification', identification in the loosest possible sense of the word as in truth I have not ID'd the bird at all. I have just gone with the likely option, which 99.9999999% of the time will of course be correct, but does nothing whatsoever to enhance by birding skills. Or, as I just found out, my reputation.
Not all species are as tricky to sort out as Ringed Plover from Semipalmated Plovers of course, it is probably one of the worst possible conundrums to be faced with. I am struggling to think of another that is in this league - Snowy Egret vs Little Egret perhaps? Female Wigeons vs their American counterparts? Greenshank and Greater Yellowlegs.....The point is that you don't look at them closely, and the same can be said for any common species. Next time you are out take with you a piece of paper and three pencils - black, blue and yellow. Ask the first birder you come across to draw a Blue Tit. The results may surprise you. This is one of the reasons I bought an art pad and some pencils some time back. Have I used them? Have I f...
Anyway, a salutory lesson on how we mostly bird and how we ought to bird. I remember a day spent on the Aberdeenshire coast trying to find a Black Scoter amonst the flocks of Commons. It was one of the most exciting days birding I have ever had and it took me something like seven hours to finally and confidently pin it down. It was great, so why don't I do more of it?!