Monday, October 3, 2016

ID Challenges: The Worst of The West's not easy. Sure, there are times when you get out of the car, walk over to a group of birders, and they wave their hand at the staggering mega that is sitting there in front of you. Some birders will chase rarities, see the bird, then ask to have the field marks explained to them by easy! How great! What else is great? Harlequin Ducks, Roseate Spoonbills, Elegant Trogons, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, Scarlet Tanagers...those are beautiful, unmistakable birds.

Most birds? Not that easy. Not that easy to find, not that easy to see well, not that easy to identify. I thought I would take the time today to run down some of the hardest families of birds in the western Lower 48...people like lists, after all, particularly birders. There is some overlap here with other parts of the country, but there are distinct differences...for example, the east coast has more terns and thrushes, but less storm-petrels and hummingbirds.

Before we get to the list, I should name some Honorable Mentions that didn't quite make the Top Ten:

- Swans. Tundra vs. Trumpeter can be extremely challenging. Luckily, we only have two swan species to really worry about (until Bewick's Swan is split). That's a Tundra Swan up top there.

- Petrels. Petrels are arguably the most difficult of our birds, period. A large suite of them can potentially show up off our coast, very few birders know them well, and they rarely cooperate with boats or come close to seawatching sites. They fly incredibly fast and all come in white, gray, black and brown. However, they are rarely encountered relative to all the other birds we are discussing today; while often seen on repositioning cruises, there are few other instances when you can realistically expect to see them.

- Hawks. Hawk ID is not exceptionally complicated west of Texas, in my opinion, though obviously there are problematic plumages out there. Of course, Accipiters will always be misidentified by everybody, so hawks are deserving of a mention (an honorable one).

- Oystercatchers. This problem is unique to Southern California...Black Oystercatchers are as distinctive as any bird we have, but Black X American Oystercatcher hybrids and our local American Oystercatcher subspecies look confoundingly similar. American Oystercatcher is one of the most overreported birds in the area.

- Plovers. Telling apart American and Pacific Golden-Plovers can be absolutely excruciating. Beginning and intermediate birders will often misidentify Black-bellied Plovers for either Golden-Plover species. The smaller plovers aren't bad though.

- Crows and Ravens. Some birders can't tell crows and ravens apart from one another...well what about Common Raven vs. Chihuahuan Raven? American Crow vs. Northwestern Crow? In some places, these ID challenges can seem almost impossible to overcome, particularly with the crow situation in Washington.

- Gnatcatchers. If you are birding someplace where Black-capped Gnatcatcher can reasonably be found, the other two southwestern species can give you a world of trouble, especially if you don't find yourself birding down there very often and don't know the calls well. They are hyper little bastards, which makes seeing already subtle field marks an extremely taxing ordeal.

And now...the list!

#10 - Sparrows. The western U.S. is blessed/cursed with an impressive diversity of sparrows. The majority of them are migratory and/or have a tendency toward vagrancy, and they are all brown, brown, brown, brown, brown, brown brown...gray, and brown. However, though they are terrifying for beginners, sparrows aren't so bad once you've put some birding years in the rearview, and some of them are downright difficult to misidentify. That said, Spizella sparrows (like the Clay-colored above) can be especially vexing. Savannah Sparrows, one of the most abundant sparrows in the country, are arguably also the most misidentified of them all, as they can pass for Song, Lincoln's, Vesper and Baird's.

#9 - Sandpipers. Show me a rookie birder and I will show you someone who is going to be greatly shorebirds, sandpipers in particular. The dowitcher duo is legendary, peep problems are put it bluntly, almost every sandpiper species is at a high risk of being misidentified for something else. Those of us on the coast always have Siberian species on the brain, which complicates the picture even further...yikes. However, the "expected" species do become pretty familiar in time.

#8 - Warblers. Spring warblers are decidedly unproblematic, with the exception of waterthrushes (that's a whitish Northern above). However, you may not be aware that there are three other seasons. Most warblers do not have the same snappy facemelt in October that they do in April. They are referred to as "confusing fall warblers" for a reason, though I despise that tired and overused phrase. There are so many identification pitfalls here that there is no point in even starting in to them. Californians have it especially bad, since we have multiple records of almost every breeding warbler species in the country.

#7 - Vireos. Vireos make people very uncomfortable. Seen poorly enough, every single vireo species (with the exception of a vagrant White-eyed) stands a good chance of being misidentified. Just a few days ago on Facebook, I watched (seemingly in slow motion, like a car crash) in horror as a birder sought out the expertise of an expert, to identify a bird she had photographed very well. He called it an Orange-crowned was a Warbling Vireo. At least with a sandpiper you know it's a sandpiper...with vireos, people call them warblers (and vice versa) on the regular. The hardest vireos? Warbling vs. Philadelphia, and Blue-headed vs. Cassin's vs. Plumbeous. That's a Philadelphia above.

#6 - Longspurs. Away from the prairies of eastern Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, we don't even get to see longspurs in spring. When we get them, they always look like rubbish. Lapland (above) can look like Smith's, Smith's can look like Chesnut-collared, Chestnut-collared can look like McCown's. And 90% of the time, you are getting total garbage looks at them. They all look similar, their calls are not drastically different, and they hate being cooperative for birders. That is a recipe for pain.

#5 - Hummingbirds. Unlike sneaky longspurs and skulky warblers, you can typically get really solid looks at hummingbirds. That said, this may not be of much use to you if you are not prepared...male hummingbirds are facemelting birds, but young males (like the Costa's above) and females can be brutal. With the exceptions of Violet-crowned and maybe Berylline, I think every one of our young/female hummingbird species is at an extremely high risk of being misidentified. Don't believe me? Go geri-birding in Arizona and watch the carnage unfold.

#4 - Storm-petrels. I lead a lot of pelagic trips, and I will tell you that no group of birds strikes more fear into the heart of an inexperienced birder than these. When it comes to these birds, people seeing them for the first time completely surrender any attempt at an ID to the leaders on the boat. We could tell them whatever we wanted and get away with it (fortunately, we want to tell them the truth). Other than the lovely Fork-tailed Storm-Petrels (most of the birds above), they are either all small black birds or small black birds with white rumps. Generally, they want nothing to do with the boat you are on and you are going to be really unsatisfied looking a them if there is a big swell that day. New developments in the Leach's complex have everyone reeling. These are the birds your nightmares are made of.

#3 - Jaegers. You probably didn't see this being #3....but the difficulties of jaeger ID are legendary. Even dark Pomarines and South Polar Skuas get mixed up. Trying to ID certain individuals can lead to such circular logic and mental numbness that I am getting tired just thinking about it. Just be happy when you get to see "easy" individuals, like this Pomarine above.

#2 - Flycatchers. You know what? I haven't done a quiz in a while. What do you think this bird is? The answer is at the bottom of the post. Hint: It's a flycatcher.

Flycatchers are just heinous. Think about each gnarly genus we have all lumped into one jaw-clenching, teeth-grinding family...Contopus, Empidonax, Myiarchus, Tyrannus, etc. That's some heavy shit. The first three genera are especially bad. I don't even know what to tell you here, except to advise you that you can at least get close to the right species. Hammond's and Grays are not similar. Willows and Pacific-slopes are not a confusing couple. Buff-breasted do not look like pewees.

Pewees....yeah. Just identify pewees correctly (don't misidentify them for Empids) and you will command at least a small modicum of respect. Don't report an Eastern unless it's calling though, or you will be run out of your state.

#1 - Gulls. Obvi. I have nothing to say about gulls that you haven't heard before. This is a perfectly typical Herring Gull...I bet not many of you knew that.

There you have it, the list, for your edification and mine. Do you agree, or do I have it all wrong? Are ducks and geese deserving of being on the list? Are alcids alarming? Do Wrentits cause your brain to boggle? I hope not. At any rate, feel free to let us know.

p.s. The quiz bird is a Least Flycatcher. Props if you got it right. And before you descend into a nerdy rage, yes it is a flycatcher that breeds in western states. #notjustavaguerunt


  1. Nice summary. Here is a list I put together a few years ago of birds that are nearly or entirely impossible to identify.

    • Immature Glossy and White-faced Ibis
    • Long-billed and Short-billed Dowitchers in basic plumage
    • Female Rufous and Allen’s Hummingbirds
    • Eastern and Western Wood-Pewee (non-vocal)
    • Alder and Willow Flycatcher (non-vocal)
    • Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers (non-vocal)
    • Couch’s and Tropical Kingbirds (non-vocal)
    • Northwestern and American Crows
    • Bicknell’s and Gray-cheeked Thrushes
    • Eastern and Western Meadowlarks
    • Female Hooded and Orchard Orioles

    1. Meadowlarks and ibis are definitely worth bringing up, good call. Some easterners are comfortable with silent Alders and Willows, but it seems dangerous for those of us who don't see many Alders or eastern Willows.

    2. Treat even the most seasoned easterner who claims to be comfortable with silent Alders and Willows with extreme caution, especially when worn plumage blurs even the faint visual lines that render them (barely) distinguishable. Those who pronounce an ID at a mere glance are either very good (and therefore deserving of the utmost reverence) or in far too many cases supremely overconfident.