BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Fifty Years



I stood at the end of my driveway and looked down the alley. As arranged by my parents, he was coming this way on his bike from four houses down to help me out. We had never actually met, but I'd seen him around since his parents and mine were friends. Though they all called him Rob, he introduced himself as Bob, it was April 29, 1962, and we were on our way to Gillson Park.


It was an extra-credit project in 10th grade biology – the only biology class I would ever take – to go out and find birds that spring, identify at least 50 species, and keep notes on what you saw. My notes, kept on carefully typed index cards, show that bird #1 was a Rock Dove (Wilmette, Illinois, March 21, 1962).


Thumbing through these cards today brings back memories. For example, bird #6 was Evening Grosbeak. So how did I manage to find such a sought-after species before I ever saw a House Sparrow (#8) or Blue Jay (#31)? Or could it have been just a misidentified goldfinch?


I clearly remember as well that I had no confidence at all in telling a Common Grackle (#2) from a Starling (#3) from a Common Crow (#12) – back then, they were all just black birds to me. And, while listing Red-tailed Hawk (#9), I recall thinking that hawks should be a cinch to identify: just look for a red tail or red shoulders or shaggier/rougher-looking legs or broader wings…. This was Common Rookie Mistake Number One: assume that a bird's name will indicate a useful field mark leading to its identification.  


There were also those Bonaparte's Gulls (#15) swimming around in Wilmette Harbor that I first decided had to be Common Goldeneyes! At that stage, I had no idea that anything except ducks could swim, and goldeneye was the only duck I could find in my 1947 Peterson field guide that even remotely resembled a Bonaparte's. (Never mind that there was no white spot on the face – these birds were whitish overall with black heads, just like goldeneyes.) This was Common Rookie Mistake Number Two: focus in on only one feature, disregard the others, and then choose the closest thing in the book.


For the first five weeks, until April 29, the cards show I only managed to list 32 species on my own, but with Bob's help that day at Gillson Park, my list grew to 46. He was already a four-year veteran of birding and could point out the difference between Herring and Ring-billed gulls (#33 & 43), and between Common and Forster's terns (#45 & 46) – birds which can confuse even more experienced birders at times.


We listed both Hermit Thrush (#35) and Gray-cheeked (#42), though I now have to wonder if a Hermit Thrush would still be around the Chicago area at the end of April. Thrush ID has long been a chronic problem, and perhaps we made a mistake here.     


I managed to list 59 species as biology class ended a month later, and then those index cards with new life birds almost stopped appearing that summer. But the spark was still there, Bob was still down the alley to reinforce it, and the pace of adding new cards to the files increased during the fall and in the following months.


Though I would keep birding for decades, my filing system was abandoned after card #193: Western Sandpiper, Wilmette, Illinois, August 14, 1963. I'd have to say this was a most interesting species to appear on my last card: given this species' long history of being involved in misidentifications in the Midwest, odds are this sandpiper was not really a Western.


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For those birding in the eastern half of the U.S. in the early 1960s, the only field guide out there was the 1947 edition of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds. We all just called it Peterson. Its content is now 65 years old, predating National Geographic's first edition by nearly 40 years and Sibley's guide by over 50. The only alternative to Peterson back then would appear in 1966: Robbins' Birds of North America (a.k.a. Robbins or the Golden Guide).


So, I started birding with a field guide that used several odd species names – bird names which were obsolete by the time Robbins was published: Holboell's Grebe, White-bellied Booby, Water-turkey, Man-o'-War Bird, Wurdemann's Heron, Cory's Least Bittern, Dusky Duck, Duck Hawk, Hudsonian Curlew, Red-backed Sandpiper, Cabot's Tern, Brünnich's Murre, Richardson's Owl, Arkansas Kingbird, Olive-backed Thrush, British Goldfinch, Towhee: Chewink, and Pine Woods Sparrow. It even still included Carolina Paroquet in the main text!


This field guide I learned from had several black-and-white plates, the plates grouped together and widely separated from the textual accounts, and no range maps. It included a 17-page appendix on subspecies with a curious 3-page introduction in which the author basically debated with himself about whether or not this section should have been included.


Today, looking at Peterson's ID material from 65 years ago, you'll naturally find erroneous information in the text and several flawed illustrations, some of which has been corrected or clarified in the ID references of the following decades. Generally, you could not use Peterson to efficiently or consistently identify winter loons, many raptors, peeps, jaegers, immature gulls, female hummingbirds, Empidonax flycatchers, several sparrows, and other difficult bird groups.


For its time, though, there's still a lot to like in Peterson, as the ID coverage in subsequent field guides has not improved in many cases – and in some cases has gotten worse. Consider the parade of photographic field guides over the years, none of them including enough images to adequately address the more difficult species. Even the various editions of Geographic (including the latest ones) don't include enough illustrations for some species groups, and several of the paintings in earlier editions have been – and some still are – just plain bad.  


And especially consider the Robbins guide when it appeared in 1966. (Some Minnesota birders, familiar with the Sax-Zim Bog, preferred to call it the Zim book, since one of Robbins' co-authors was Herbert Zim.) As the first new field guide in nearly 20 years, it was hugely popular since – unlike Peterson – it was entirely in color, covered both eastern and western U.S. and Canada, placed the plates on the pages facing the text, included range maps, and introduced sonograms to depict songs.


But we were deceived by the cosmetics. Several paintings, as attractive as they were, proved to be less accurate than Peterson's. The species accounts were shorter than Peterson's and did little or nothing to advance our knowledge of those ID challenges in those groups listed above. The range maps were almost useless: too small, state and provincial lines missing, and too many annotations jammed in. The sonograms were even more pointless and less comprehensible, and, with very little description of songs and calls in the text, Robbins was clearly inferior to Peterson in this regard.


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Peterson, too, knew how to write better than other field guide authors, a talent much appreciated by English-major birders. Even though 50 years have passed, I still remember many passages and the impressions they left. A few examples:


- There were repeated references to the expertise of Ludlow Griscom, apparently the Jon Dunn or David Sibley of his day: "I suppose Ludlow Griscom has discovered more accidentals in the East than any other man I know….Griscom takes a second look – for a Bullock's. One day he really did see one, but he has never put it on record, except in his own notes."


- A Big Day was referred to as a "lethal trip" and a "grim grind". (No wonder I don't do them any more.)


- In the section on accidentals, western species along the 100th meridian were said to "edge eastward along the more arid uplands." And "when hurricanes sweep up the coast, leveling all before them, they often leave in their wake sea-birds, dead or exhausted." (Who wouldn't want to run off to look for vagrants after reading this?)


- Euphemisms were used for collecting: "Not long ago, some ornithologists would not accept sight records unless they were made along the barrel of a shotgun." (I naively thought this meant the bird just had to be at close range, not actually shot; nor did I know then what collecting actually was.)


- Caution was urged when identifying rarities: "A quick field observer who does not temper his judgment with a bit of caution is like a fast car without brakes."


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I kept track of my life birds for awhile on the checklist provided in Peterson – the checklist boxes in Robbins were never filled in. Further evidence that I favored Peterson over Robbins were my frequent notes scribbled in the margins to annotate Peterson's ID material. No annotations were ever written in my copy of Robbins.


Admittedly, though, some of my annotations and alleged claims now make little sense: female Harlequin Ducks had light chests....Sharp-tailed Grouse were "very tame" while female and young Spruce Grouse were "very pale"....the mask over the Loggerhead Shrike's bill was the "only reliable mark"....the Prothonotary Warbler's song was "fast and soft", the Cape May's song included "loud Catbird-like notes", and a Black -throated Blue sounded "faster and not as buzzy as Black-throated Green....a Lapland Longspur's call note was likened to a Yellow-throated Vireo's. What was I thinking?  


On the other hand, several other of my notes from decades ago correcting or clarifying Peterson's ID information still remain relevant today:


- The Long-tailed Duck characteristically flies in flocks low and erratically  over the water.


- Regarding raptors: Black Vultures flap like accipiters, unlike Turkey Vultures (both species assume a dihedral profile when gliding); Red-tailed Hawks often show white at the base of the tail (which leads to confusion with Rough-leggeds and Ferruginous hawks).


- Among the shorebirds: the two godwits standing at rest are not always safely separable; do not rely on the number of syllables given by a calling yellowlegs (it's the quality of the notes that matters, not how many there are); non-breeding Red Knots and Black-bellied Plovers can appear generally similar (I once mistook an unexpected Red Knot for a Black-bellied); a Pectoral's brown bib can appear washed-out (and can lead to confusion with Sharp-tailed Sandpiper); a Baird's Sandpiper's wing tips extend beyond the tail (though I failed to note this for the White-rumped).


- A first-winter Iceland Gull's bill is all-dark, unlike the Glaucous's two-toned bill (amazingly, this basic field mark was not mentioned in Peterson).


- The Boreal Owl's call is not like a high-pitched bell or dripping water (Peterson, as well as Robbins and other authors, apparently never heard its call – which suggests a winnowing snipe – and quoted unreliable sources).  


- The Sedge Wren's song is similar to a Dickcissel's; a singing Hermit Thrush sounds similar to a Wood Thrush (sometimes I have to pause and take a second listen to be sure of what I'm hearing).


- Among the warblers: Orange-crowneds often appear nondescript and yellower than shown (I've seen them mistaken for Yellows, Wilson's, and Nashvilles); the facial pattern of a Canada suggests a Kentucky (which can lead to an ID error if it's a young Canada with an obscure necklace).  


- Among the sparrows: the necklace on a Baird's is variable, often indistinct, and unreliable as a field mark (the ochre median crown stripe is a more useful feature); the eye ring on a Vesper is more obvious than Peterson illustrated and thus more useful than he indicated.


- And a Purple Finch can give calls which resemble phrases given by Yellow-throated or Red-eyed vireos (and this has led to erroneous reports in winter of heard-only vireos).


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So, after 50 years, what has been learned and what words of wisdom are there to pass along? Probably less than I'd like to think and perhaps not as much as you'd expect.


I've at least come to realize that birders growing up with Peterson and Robbins have sort of been at a disadvantage. We've had to take the time to relearn (or unlearn) some of those inaccurate or incomplete ID lessons of an earlier age – in the decades before Geographic, Sibley, and so many other resources in various formats emerged to rewrite those lesson plans. Many younger birders have now acquired impressive skills and knowledge after just a few years of experience.


Despite all the sophisticated ID references out there, I've also come to realize that there will still be those who'll report, say, a Northern Hawk Owl from their Minneapolis back yard in June (this actually just happened). And that I'll have no idea what they really saw, but that I could at least empathize with them after not knowing the difference between Bonaparte's Gull and Common Goldeneye, once upon a time. (Indeed, in his introduction, Peterson expressed hope that his guide could help the advanced birder, not merely "the beginner who can scarcely tell a Gull from a Duck." He read my mind!)


Also, after 50 years, I've come to realize that Bob's sisters and mother will always call him Rob. That he'll always believe that Ivory-billed Woodpeckers and Eskimo Curlews still exist. That we'll never know the source of that proverbial double-knock sound we heard in Louisiana last March. And that maybe – just maybe – we actually heard a Bachman's Warbler sing as we stood on a bridge high over that Arkansas swamp some 40 years ago.


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Index card #32: White-crowned Sparrow, Wilmette, Illinois, April 28, 1962. This would have been at Gillson Park, the last bird listed before I met Bob on his bike in the alley. Decades more of White-crowneds followed, some of them rusty-capped, pink-billed immatures mistaken by others as Field Sparrows. I always liked to blame that chronic error on a singularly poor illustration in Geographic.


We decided to find our way back to Gillson Park on April 28 of this year, part of a long weekend planned to commemorate all those years. And there, scratching away under a hedge in the park, 50 years to the day after my first one – a White-crowned Sparrow.