BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Bird Identifakation

Perhaps the title is a bit harsh, but at least it’s catchy. More accurately, this discussion is not really about fabricating or faking identifications as it is about making assumptions and guesses as we bird. These “identifassumptions” or “identifiguessings” are much more common than you might think. Some are entirely reasonable to make – others may not be.

Consider, for example, what a group of us saw on a tour of northwestern Minnesota this past Labor Day Weekend. Among our total list of some 160 species were these:

• Western Grebe (distant)

• Double-crested Cormorant (distant)

• Great Blue Heron

• Black-crowned Night-Heron (distant immatures)

• American Wigeon (female-plumaged)

• American Black Duck

• Blue-winged Teal (female-plumaged)

• Green-winged Teal (female-plumaged)

• Redhead (distant)

• Common Goldeneye (female-plumaged)

• Bald Eagle (distant immatures)

• American Coot

• American Golden-Plover

• Semipalmated Plover

• Solitary Sandpiper

• Spotted Sandpiper

• Semipalmated Sandpiper

• Least Sandpiper

• Pectoral Sandpiper

• Wilson’s Snipe

• Franklin’s Gull

• Herring Gull (immature)

• Common Tern

• Black Tern

• Common Nighthawk (silent)

• Chimney Swift

• Ruby-throated Hummingbird (female-plumaged)

• Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (briefly)

• Northern Flicker (female-plumaged)

• Eastern Wood-Pewee (silent)

• Least Flycatcher (call notes heard)

• Great Crested Flycatcher (silent)

• Western Kingbird (distant)

• Blue-headed Vireo (silent)

• Red-eyed Vireo (silent)

• Black-billed Magpie (briefly)

• American Crow (silent)

• Common Raven

• Purple Martin (female)

• Cliff Swallow

• Black-capped Chickadee (silent)

• Eastern Bluebird (distant)

• Northern Parula (female)

• Northern Waterthrush (silent)

• Rose-breasted Grosbeak (immature male)

• Red-winged Blackbird

• Western Meadowlark (silent)

• Brown-headed Cowbird (female)

• Orchard Oriole (female)

• Baltimore Oriole (female)

• Purple Finch (silent)

• American Goldfinch (female)

Now, if you look through this list of 52 species, you’ll find nothing out of the ordinary or unexpected, given the time of year when migration was in progress, and given that we birded lots of habitats from Thief River Falls to the Canadian border, from Lake of the Woods to the Red River Valley. However, at the same time I submit to you the possibility exists that all 52 of these birds could have been misidentified! In other words, nearly a third of our total trip list merely consisted of ID guesses and assumptions. Identifakations, if you will.


But if we may not have seen these species, what were they? Take a second look at the list above, get out your National Geographic field guide, and if you ask me to prove we didn’t see any of the following birds, I couldn’t do it:

• Clark’s Grebe

• Neotropic Cormorant

• Gray Heron (There is not yet a confirmed record for North America, but it is considered

   overdue, and one could easily be overlooked as a Great Blue.)

• Yellow-crowned Night-Heron

• Eurasian Wigeon

• Mottled Duck

• Cinnamon Teal (or hybrid Blue-winged x Cinnamon) (Note: It is often impossible to detect a

   hybrid in the field; some may look like just like one of the “pure” species. However, a majority

   of the MOU Records Committee generally does not reject documentation because of potential

   hybridization unless there's something anomalous about the bird to suggest it has hybrid traits.)

• Eurasian Teal

• Common Pochard

• Barrow’s Goldeneye

• White-tailed Eagle

• Eurasian Coot

• Pacific (or Greater) Golden-Plover

• Wilson’s (or Common Ringed) Plover

• Green Sandpiper

• Common Sandpiper

• Western Sandpiper (or Little or Red-necked Stint) (Note: We had excellent looks at many

   brightly-colored juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers with extensive and obvious rusty feather

   edges on the back, tertials, and scapulars; it is both curious and frustrating that no field guide

   adequately illustrates this plumage, and it’s easy to see how birders could misidentify these as


• Long-toed (or Temminck’s) Stint

• Sharp-tailed Sandpiper

• Common (or Pin-tailed) Snipe

• Laughing Gull

• Yellow-legged Gull

• Arctic (or Roseate) Tern

• White-winged Tern

• Lesser (or Antillean) Nighthawk

• Vaux’s Swift

• Black-chinned (or Costa’s or Anna’s) Hummingbird

• Red-naped Sapsucker

• Gilded Flicker

• Western Wood-Pewee

• Gray (or Dusky) Flycatcher

• Ash-throated (or Brown-crested) Flycatcher

• Cassin’s (or Tropical) Kingbird

• Cassin’s Vireo

• Yellow-green Vireo

• Yellow-billed Magpie

• Fish (or Northwestern) Crow

• Chihuahuan Raven

• Gray-breasted Martin

• Cave Swallow

• Carolina Chickadee

• Western Bluebird

• Tropical Parula

• Louisiana Waterthrush

• Black-headed Grosbeak (or hybrid Rose-breasted x Black-headed) (Note: See Cinnamon Teal

   comment above.)

• Tricolored Blackbird

• Eastern Meadowlark

• Shiny Cowbird

• Hooded Oriole

• Bullock’s Oriole (or hybrid Baltimore x Bullock’s) (Note: See Cinnamon Teal comment


• Cassin’s Finch

• Lesser Goldfinch

Well, wouldn’t that be a trip list to end all trip lists! Certainly, of course, I’m not claiming that anything on this second list was seen. I’m quite confident all of our IDs on the first list were correct. Confident, yes, but I still can’t actually prove anything.

To take just one of 52 examples, we did not identify any of the Semipalmated Plovers until we saw them well enough to tell they weren’t Killdeer or Piping Plover. So far, so good. But, admittedly, we did not critically examine all of them to see if one might have been a Wilson’s Plover. Nor did we ever address the possibility that a Common Ringed Plover might have been in their midst.

So, consciously or unconsciously as we looked over these Semis, we made an educated guess, felt safe in our assumption that no Wilson’s or Common Ringed plovers were present, and called them all Semipalmated Plovers. If I can make another assumption, I bet every other Minnesota birder would have done the same thing.

But what about the IDs we made on these birds: distant grebes, immature night-herons, female teal, Semipalmated Sandpipers, Franklin’s Gulls, wood-pewees, waterthrushes, grosbeaks, and meadowlarks? Admittedly, we did not see all of them well enough to preclude Clark’s Grebe, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Cinnamon Teal, Western Sandpiper, Laughing Gull, Western Wood-Pewee, Louisiana Waterthrush, Black-headed (or a hybrid) Grosbeak, or Eastern Meadowlark respectively. Any of these would have been unusual finds, but all of them are possible (certainly more so than a Wilson’s or Common Ringed plover), with most having been recorded at least once in northwestern Minnesota.

With these identifications, I’m not so sure everyone reading this would have made the same assumptions. It’s certainly possible that some would choose the cautious route and list those silent meadowlarks in the farmlands along the North Dakota border as just “meadowlark, sp.”, rather than assume they were all Westerns. But would these same birders exercise the same caution with a silent wood-pewee, take into account the fact that Westerns have been documented there, and not assume it was an Eastern?

Or, some birders might have taken the time to get close enough to every distant night-heron to confirm none was an out-of-range Yellow-crowned. But would this be time well spent? Would it be better to save time and effort and just list them all as Black-crowneds? And, if you would take the latter course, would your answer be the same if you were birding in Fergus Falls? Or in St. Cloud? Where do you draw the line?

Look again at the above lists. Most readers might find it totally ridiculous to think that Gray Heron, Mottled Duck, White-tailed Eagle, Gilded Flicker, Yellow-green Vireo, Yellow-billed Magpie, Tropical Parula, and others could ever occur anywhere near Minnesota. Be reasonable, they might say: just go ahead and list Great Blue Heron, American Black Duck, immature Bald Eagle, female Northern Flicker, Red-eyed Vireo, Black-billed Magpie, female Northern Parula, etc. without worrying about any possibility of those “impossible” birds.

But, again, where do you draw the line? Consider, for example, Lesser Nighthawk, Vaux’s Swift, Carolina Chickadee, Western Bluebird, Shiny Cowbird, and Lesser Goldfinch, among others. There may be no Minnesota records for any of these, yet all have been confirmed in nearby states/provinces. With this in mind, is it OK to assume or guess that every nighthawk, swift, chickadee, bluebird, cowbird, and goldfinch you see without close and critical examination is safe to list as Common, Chimney, Black-capped, Eastern, Brown-headed, and American?

The examples seem endless, even if you disregard species from other continents that would be “impossible” in North America. Paging through my European field guide, I find something called a Dalmatian Pelican (Pelecanus crispus) from the eastern Mediterranean, which looks a lot like our American White Pelican. For the moment, though, let’s not worry about pelican ID.


But look at the following list of species pairs, get out your Geographic field guide again, and refer to these birds’ illustrations and range maps. (Also look again at the paired lists of 52 species above.) The first species is the more likely bird of the two to occur in Minnesota — some are Regular species; others are Casuals or Accidentals. All the species listed second occur in the U.S./Canada, or at least have occurred as vagrants, and all but a few are in Geographic.

Assume for the moment that you find a bird in question, but it is not seen or heard well enough to definitely distinguish it from the second one of the pair. Then ask yourself when you would consider it acceptable to assume the first species is what you are seeing and the second is safe to disregard: Always? Never? Sometimes? If sometimes, would this depend on the season, on where you are in Minnesota, or on how well the bird is seen or heard?

• Pacific Loon / Arctic Loon

• Common Loon / Yellow-billed Loon

• Magnificent Frigatebird / Great or Lesser frigatebird (Note: There are two accepted sight

   records of frigatebirds in Minnesota; although neither documentation ruled out the remote

   possibility of another frigatebird species, a majority of the MOU Records Committee accepted

   these as Magnificents.)

• Snowy Egret / Little Egret

• White-faced Ibis / Glossy Ibis or hybrid (Note: See Cinnamon Teal comment above. There are

   recent records of a few hybrid ibis seen in Oklahoma, and a minority of the MOU Records

   Committee currently takes this potential for hybridization into account when evaluating

   records. However, the range of field marks exhibited by these hybrids is not yet known, nor is

   it currently known if the potential for the occurrence of hybrids is widespread or limited.)

• Greater White-fronted Goose / Lesser White-fronted Goose

• Snow Goose / Ross’s Goose

• Trumpeter Swan (summer) / Tundra Swan

• Greater or Lesser scaup (female) / Tufted Duck 

• King Eider (female) / Common Eider

• Willow Ptarmigan (female) / Rock Ptarmigan (Note: Although the most recent ptarmigan

   record in Minnesota was of a Rock Ptarmigan, all previous records were of Willows.)

• Greater Prairie-Chicken / Lesser Prairie-Chicken

• King Rail / Clapper Rail

• Whimbrel / Bristle-thighed Curlew

• Hudsonian Godwit / Black-tailed Godwit

• Purple Sandpiper / Rock Sandpiper

• Short-billed Dowitcher (July) / Long-billed Dowitcher

• Long-billed Dowitcher (October) / Short-billed Dowitcher

• Parasitic Jaeger / Pomarine or Long-tailed jaeger

• Bonaparte’s Gull / Black-headed Gull

• Thayer’s Gull / Iceland Gull

• Great Black-backed Gull / Western or Slaty-backed or Kelp gull

• Least Tern / Little Tern

• Eurasian Collared-Dove / Ringed Turtle-Dove or hybrid (Note: See Cinnamon Teal comment

   above. The MOU Records Committee generally does not accept documentations of Eurasian

   Collared-Doves which do not preclude the possibility of Ringed Turtle-Dove.) 

• Common Ground-Dove / Ruddy Ground-Dove 

• Black-billed Cuckoo (northern Minn.) / Yellow-billed Cuckoo

• Groove-billed Ani / Smooth-billed Ani (Note: A few of Minnesota’s anis were not seen well

   enough to preclude the remote possibility of Smooth-billed Ani; these currently are filed as

   unidentified ani, sp.)

• Eastern Screech-Owl / Western or Whiskered screech-owl

• Barred Owl / Spotted Owl

• Whip-poor-will (silent) / Chuck-will’s-widow

• Rufous Hummingbird / Allen’s Hummingbird

• Red-bellied Woodpecker / Golden-fronted Woodpecker

• Scissor-tailed Flycatcher / Fork-tailed Flycatcher

• Northern Shrike (January) / Loggerhead Shrike 

• Loggerhead Shrike (July) / Northern Shrike

• Pygmy Nuthatch / Brown-headed Nuthatch 

• Blue-gray Gnatcatcher (female) / Black-tailed or Black-capped gnatcatcher

• Gray-cheeked Thrush / Bicknell’s Thrush

• Brown Thrasher / Long-billed Thrasher

• Cedar Waxwing (July) / Bohemian Waxwing 

• Black-throated Green Warbler (female) / Golden-cheeked Warbler

• Mourning Warbler (female) / MacGillivray’s Warbler 

• Summer Tanager / Hepatic Tanager

• Eastern Towhee / Spotted Towhee or hybrid

• Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow / Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow

• “Gray-headed” Dark-eyed Junco / Yellow-eyed Junco

• Lapland Longspur (female) / Smith’s or McCown’s or Chestnut-collared longspur

• Snow Bunting / McKay’s Bunting

• Indigo Bunting / hybrid Indigo x Lazuli Bunting (Note: See Cinnamon Teal comment above.)

• Great-tailed Grackle / Boat-tailed Grackle (Note: A majority of those on the MOU Records

   Committee generally accepts documentations of Great-tailed Grackles even if they do not

   preclude the remote possibility of Boat-tailed Grackle.)

• Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch / Brown or Black rosy-finch

• Common Redpoll / Hoary Redpoll

• Pine Siskin / female Eurasian Siskin

Whenever possible, of course, it’s always best to see and study every bird well enough to make a conclusive ID and eliminate all guesses and assumptions. And no one is suggesting that you’d ever want to assume the identity of a distant or briefly-seen scaup or yellowlegs. But keep in mind there are lots of times when we make identifiguessings and identfassumptions which are entirely appropriate. Keep in mind as well that there may be no right or wrong answer when you wonder if it’s OK to make such an ID.

*          *          *

So, the next time a big ol’ American White Pelican flies off into the sunset, stop and ask yourself these three questions:

1) Why couldn’t it have been a Dalmatian Pelican?

2) Why am I wasting my time asking such a dumb question? Of course it’s an American White Pelican!

3) Or, on second thought, how dumb a question is it?

And, if you actually find yourself getting as far as asking question #3, perhaps it’s time to take up a new hobby.