BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: Another Look at the Internet

I've already lost count. Typically, these Hindsight articles say "A Second Look" in the subtitles, but we're certainly beyond just one discussion or two about ID issues raised by postings on MOU-net and elsewhere. Maybe it's the fourth. I admit I'm hooked, addicted, unable to just say no. Why is it so hard to simply ignore those occasional eyebrow-raising reports on the internet and write about something else instead? (Like Lulu Belle! How about a Lulu Belle update? It's been six months since I wrote about her....) [Author's Note, April 2018 – See "A Second Look at Herons".]

I guess part of my fascination with the reports on the MOU-net listserve ( and MOU's on-line seasonal reports ( is that they reveal an endless and surprising array of ID difficulties you wouldn't predict birders would ever struggle with. Take for example a recent posting on TexBirds, the birding listserve in Texas. Someone asked for help identifying a bird she couldn't figure out and posted a link to its photo – which was in focus, in good light, at close range. So, what was this perplexing mystery bird? A beautiful adult male Vermilion Flycatcher.


An unexpected identification difficulty, perhaps, but still an actual challenge for someone unfamiliar with this species. Unfortunately, it's the expected challenges that keep showing up on the internet, with the same known or suspected misidentifications appearing with some regularity. Of the two dozen or so species from this current spring season which are discussed below, more than half of them had been mentioned in previous Hindsight articles as potential sources of ID problems. Consequently, I suppose this column could stay in business indefinitely as long as these inexhaustible sources of ID confusion continue. (My challenge then becomes coming up with new subtitles for the same old problems.)

It's interesting to note that most of the sightings which one wonders about involve migrants reported much earlier than they should be. For some reason, there don't seem to be nearly as many questionable reports in fall of birds lingering far later than normal. Nor are there as many sightings of species beyond their normal geographic distribution. It's the date – not the county – that arouses the most skepticism, especially in spring. (And, as mentioned in an earlier Hindsight article, to find out what's an early or late date, the only current, accurate, and convenient source for such data is on the MOU website:

Always keep in mind that the sightings you find on the internet are unedited, which is probably as it should be. As a consequence, though, any identification errors that birders might make – and we all make them – are posted along with their correct IDs. It would be nice to think that all extra-limital dates and locations would be supported by some documentation, but hardly any are. After all, if you're reporting something you're not aware is unusual, why would you document it?

So, as long as birders are human, we will continue to make mistakes. Similarly, skepticism is also part of human nature. But I have a suggestion. When confronted with a report you suspect is in error, saying "I don't believe it" or "I don't believe him" may not be the best approach. (And I admit I say this as much as anyone.) Think about it. Such choice of words implies someone is not telling the truth, and it's then natural for the questioned observer to become defensive, even indignant. But no one is lying here. All anyone might have done is simply misidentify something. A much better response might be: "I do believe he just made a mistake."

Still, semantics aside, several sightings posted on the internet in Spring 2010 caught my eye and raised an eyebrow. I divide them into three categories: first, species already discussed in this column from Spring 2008 ( but here again reported prematurely early; second, other earlier-than-normal species not covered in that article; and third, sightings not involving unusually early dates.

Chronically Early

I predict these will also be reported earlier than normal in Spring 2012. After all, they were discussed in the context of being posted abnormally early in 2008, and again this spring it seems the same ID errors are reappearing. I guess the bright side of this even-year theory is that none of these will cause any difficulties in 2011.


• Broad-winged Hawk. For decades, birders have had ID difficulties with raptors and specifically have been prematurely reporting this species in March and early April. So this year we had reports on March 14 and April 1, but it's more likely these were actually Cooper's or Red-shouldered hawks if the observer was focused too much on tail bands and not enough on the calendar.    

• Common Tern. Beginning birders especially place too much faith in a bird's name. In reality, too few names will help you identify birds in the field, and too many can lead you astray. So, I'd suspect that the tern seen on April 11 was really a Forster's. Despite its name, the Common Tern is not the "common" tern in Minnesota: generally it's the Forster's that's more widespread in migration, less local in range in summer, and the tern that shows up earlier in April.

• Eastern Wood-Pewee. The sighting on April 15 almost certainly involved an Eastern Phoebe. As previous Hindsight columns have pointed out, most field guides mislead birders by not illustrating how typical it is for phoebes to show pewee-like wing bars.

• Thrushes. Veery, Swainson's and Wood thrushes were all reported in the first half of April in 2008, and probably all were actually Hermit Thrushes. Similarly, without documentation, I would have to assume this spring's postings of a Veery on April 1, Gray-cheeked Thrushes on April 9 and 18, and the Wood Thrush in northern Minnesota on April 19 were also Hermit Thrushes – always the default Catharus thrush before late April.

• Rose-breasted Grosbeak. If the one reported on April 17 was a male, I suppose it was an accurate identification – what else resembles an adult male Rose-breasted Grosbeak? But if a female, and if its size was unclear, I wonder if the possibility of female Purple Finch was considered. Consult your field guides to see how surprisingly similar these two females are.

No Problems in Spring 2008

None of the next group of birds seemed to be a problem two springs ago, but this spring there were early dates involved with these "new" species. And they were equally curious, certainly worth discussing, and you'll see it was generally harder to speculate if the IDs were correct or what the alternatives might be.  

• Osprey. A March 21 sighting is only a week or so earlier than expected, so this report may well be accurate. But since Ospreys have a long tradition of being reported out of season, usually in late fall/early winter, one naturally wonders about this one. My assumption is that most of these birds actually refer to sub-adult Bald Eagles, which often show a broad, Osprey-like stripe through the eye.

• Yellow-bellied Flycatcher. On April 3? Even a May 3 date would raise questions! So, I'm comfortable assuming something else was mistaken for this species – but what? If it was a flycatcher, the only theory I can come up with is that an Eastern Phoebe was actually seen. As mentioned above, phoebes can show wing bars, and some can show a yellowish wash on the belly.

• Eastern Kingbird. This April 15 report was around two weeks premature. But if a case of mistaken identity, what was it? This species is such a relatively straightforward ID, and I'm at a loss to suggest an alternative. (Eastern Phoebe? Tree Swallow? Ivory-billed Woodpecker?)     

• Yellow-throated Vireo. Here's another April 3 sighting that you have to wonder about, since early May would be the expected time of arrival. So, assuming it's in error, I'd have to guess this report might have involved an American Goldfinch.

• Purple Martin. The sighting on April 1 was only about a week before anyone else reported one, so I'm willing to give the observer here the proverbial benefit of the doubt. But within the context of this report, an experience I recently had in Colorado was sobering. Some presumed Purple Martins were spotted circling overhead, and at first that's exactly what they looked like. But a second look revealed they were actually European Starlings – flying around as if catching insects in swallow-like fashion, or doing courtship flights....or something! Indeed, I had never seen starlings appear so Purple Martin-like, and I have to guess such odd behavior could lead to ID errors.    

• Northern Rough-winged Swallow. Same date, same place, same observer: this all suggests the possibility of a misidentification, since the report was about two weeks earlier than it should have been. This swallow does bear a resemblance to female Purple Martin....though I just said April 1 was too early for martins. A female Tree Swallow perhaps? It's brownish above with some duskiness on the throat.     

• Black-and-white Warbler. The reports in this section are driving me crazy! April 4? Some three weeks earlier than normal? OK, but if not a Black-and-white, tell me what it really was. A Brown Creeper in bad light is about the only thing I can think of.

Year-round Challenges

While the sightings listed above all raised questions because of the dates involved, the following birds would be worthy of discussion regardless of the calendar.  

• Northern Goshawk. As previously mentioned, raptor ID is a difficult proposition for many birders, and the three accipiters can be as tough as they come. So, I've always been skeptical of most goshawk postings in southern Minnesota (e.g., the one in Meeker County on April 1), especially immatures outside of the winter season. A female Cooper's Hawk is very similar and much more likely.

• Ferruginous Hawk. Appropriately enough, given its Casual Minnesota status, almost every year this raptor is casually mentioned on MOU-net as being seen on the April Salt Lake field trip. And almost every year I then wait in vain for documentation that never comes. Without some evidence to support the ID, I have to assume any reports of this species actually refer to pale Red-tailed Hawks.  

• Prairie Falcon. There were three reports of this near-Casual species this spring, and it's typically hard to know how accurate these IDs are. And one of these fits into that unexpected-ID-confusion group mentioned earlier. While I never thought a Swainson's Hawk could resemble a Prairie Falcon, a raptor thought to be a Prairie Falcon with photos was posted – which nicely showed the bird was actually a Swainson's.

• Godwits. Some recent postings on MOU-net were discussing a plain-looking godwit seen standing in the mud at Lake Byllesby. Some thought it was a drab, unbarred Marbled; others said a Hudsonian in non-breeding plumage. In flight, of course, the ID is straightforward: look for blackish underwings and white on the tail for it to be a Hudsonian. And the field guides show a Marbled is supposedly larger. But I concur with those who were puzzled. I too have tentatively identified standing godwits as one species or another, and felt that I could detect a difference in size, only to be proven wrong when they flew.  

• Pomarine Jaeger. Even in Duluth any spring jaeger sighting is exceptional, so the Pomarine reported this May in Sherburne County pretty much falls into the category of unprecedented. Without forthcoming documentation, though, it pretty much falls into the category of "I do believe he just made a mistake."  

• Common Raven. I know ravens occur locally as far south as the northern part of Sherburne and Chisago counties, especially in fall/winter, but that's about it. So, what about the April reports in McLeod County and elsewhere? Were they really ravens wandering another county or two farther south – or were they actually crows, which can sometimes show wedge-shaped tails, utter atypical raven-like calls, and thus mislead unwary birders?  

• Chestnut-collared Longspur. Time for a quiz, an open-book quiz to make things easy. You see a longspur in spring with a chestnut collar: what is it? If your answer is Chestnut-collared, you might be correct, of course, but look again at your field guide before making that your final answer. Laplands also have chestnut collars and, except at Felton Prairie, are far more likely here. Remember what was said earlier about placing too much faith in bird names?

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Again, please don't misunderstand the intent of this and similar Hindsight articles which cite the specific problems birders experience. As it said in the Spring 2008 column: "Let's keep in mind that this essay is not intended to be critical of those who make these common mistakes. The intent here is to help birders of all abilities to be aware of and thus avoid – or at least understand – those difficulties others often have."

Oh, by the way, Lulu Belle is doing just fine!