birdwatchersdigest.com • MAY/JUNE ’ 17 • BIRD WATCHER’S DIGEST
at times can help nail an ID. One
looks, the other sees.
For some species, a general
impression may be all you need
to identify the bird—a robin,
for example. You have probably
looked at thousands of robins.
You don’t need binoculars. You
can identify a robin easily with
barely a glance. But have you ever
really observed a robin closely
and seen the little details? Here’s a
test: What is the color of a robin’s
throat? Have you ever noticed
the small white triangles at the
tip of its tail? Does it have an eye
ring? Does it have wing bars?
Some birders can’t answer these
questions without consulting a
field guide or actually looking at
a robin to confirm the answers.
With common birds, it is tempting
to just look without really seeing
A mourning dove is another
common bird often looked at but
usually not seen in detail. Watson
could provide the general description of a light brown bird with a
long pointed tail and short legs.
Holmes would have noted its pale
blue eye ring and dark cheek spot.
When you spot a flicker, do you
consistently look for the presence
of the mustache that indicates it is
a male? Or are you content to simply identify it as a flicker?
For common, everyday birds,
it isn’t necessary to really see the
bird in detail. However, for less
common birds, it helps to see the
details in order to confirm an
ID. And for a rarity, it is abso-
lutely essential to observe the bird
closely. Describing a robin as hav-
ing a dark back and a rusty chest
may be adequate for identifying
a robin. But if you see an oriole
outside its normal range, simply
describing it as a black and orange
bird is not enough to identify it.
You need to see more details.
Develop the habit of observ-
ing all birds closely. Begin prac-
ticing with the common birds.
Look closely at every bird. Make
it a habit. Otherwise, you won’t
remember to see the details when
you do find that rarity.
Henry David Thoreau also
noted that not everyone observes
carefully. He warned of observa-tional bias where “you only see
what you expect to find.” I am
guilty of that. Last spring I was
casually glancing at my umpteenth common grackle of the
day, when suddenly my companion became excited about seeing a
rusty blackbird. I wanted to shout
“Where? Where?” but realized it
was the bird I was just looking at.
The fields were overflowing with
grackles, so I just assumed this
was another one of many. I hadn’t
taken the time to notice the shorter tail and overall smaller size.
I definitely had the tendency
to look at a bird but not see it; it
was a deeply ingrained habit and
hard to break. But I finally found
the secret technique that works for