BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Photographs

So, wouldn't these Hindsight articles about bird identification be improved by including photographs? Why not show the field marks under consideration, not just talk about them? Sure, why not! But wait, on second thought, maybe the use of photos here wouldn't necessarily be all that great.

For me, the problem started in earnest back in 1980, with the very first installment in a long series of regular photo quizzes in Birding, journal of the American Birding Association. The subject was a so-called mystery photo of a bird which was later identified in the following issue as a "Heerman's" Gull (Birding 12:87). No, the problem I had wasn't so much that "Heermann's" was misspelled, but that the analysis advised the reader to note the unstreaked body of the bird in the photo, along with the size and position of its eyes. However, you couldn't tell from the photo whether or not the body was streaked, and you couldn't really see the eyes.

As a result, the reader was probably left wondering if this quiz had much value, since the photo failed to illustrate two field marks the text said were there. So what went wrong? Was the original photo a poor choice to have readers identify? Did the printing process fail to adequately reproduce the photo? Did the author even see how the photo would look before writing about it? (Perhaps he never even saw it at all, with the editor pulling it from his archives.) Or, worse, could the photo have been misidentified in the first place, with the field marks unreliable, non-existent, and more imagined than real?

Unfortunately, this example from over 25 years ago is not nearly as isolated as you might believe, and it's not just a quarter-century-old occurrence that ceased to be a problem long ago. This still happens all the time! Over the years I have repeatedly found books and journal articles on bird ID with too many photo captions or text references which are inconsistent with the printed image. Many of these cases have simply been the result of human error which escaped the notice of proofreaders. For example, a photo or caption is lost in the shuffle and ends up being printed in the wrong place. Or perhaps an author inadvertently writes something he never meant to say, or an editor mistakenly deletes a sentence or paragraph.

But human error is simply unavoidable and entirely understandable, and that's not my complaint. The problem is when the text, captions, editing, layout, and photos are all printed as intended, but the photos still fail to show – or they even contradict – the field marks discussed, and neither the editor, author, or reader seems to notice or care.

It would be impossible and serve little purpose to list here a long list of photos inconsistent with their captions, but note they appear in books on identification as well as in journals. Consider these examples in three otherwise excellent references which took only a few minutes to find:

A Field Guide to Hawks of North America by Clark and Wheeler, p. 127 – The caption for an adult White-tailed Kite photo says the white tail is "distinctive," but the tail is in shadow and appears dark gray.

The Shorebird Guide by O'Brien, Crossley, and Karlson, p. 166 – The photo caption for a Baird's Sandpiper with a group of three Leasts refers to its "dark legs," but the legs look light gray and paler than those of the Leasts.  

Sparrows of the United States and Canada: The Photographic Guide by Rising, p. 81 – The Chipping Sparrow caption mentions a "narrow white supercilium," but in the photo it is broad and medium gray.

Turning again to birding journals, American Birding Association's North American Birds (hereafter NAB; formerly American Birds) is widely read and, like Birding, has a long history of articles with identification information. Unfortunately, inadequate photos frequently illustrate them, as evidenced by these examples in the three most recent issues:

• The text in the account of California's first Stonechat record (NAB 60:308-309) states the photographs show a bird with "very long tarsi": there are four photos, and in all of them the legs are quite difficult if not impossible to discern.

• The documentation for the first U.S. record of Parkinson's Petrel (NAB 60:166-169) refers to a photo allegedly showing feet projecting beyond the tail (they don't), and to two other photos supposedly showing tail shape (it's not visible in either photo).  

• The caption for a Nazca Booby photo in Hawaii (NAB 59:667) states the "bright orange clearly visible in the image," but the photo is black-and-white!  

But since Birding has long printed so many ID articles and photo quizzes, most of the dozens of less-than-adequate photos I could cite are in this journal. Here are just a few examples from photo quizzes in recent years:

• The ID of a Red-tailed Hawk (Birding 36:521) is said to be determined by its pale flight feathers, dark brown upper wings, and pale sides of chest; none of these features is visible in the photo to any useful extent.  

• The ID of a Sharp-shinned Hawk on the next page is supposedly based on the type of streaking and paleness on the underparts, the under tail coverts streaking, and the colors of the tail bands and on the upper tail coverts; again, none of these can be confidently determined in the photo.    

• To my eye, the Mottled Duck photo in another quiz (Birding 37:194) clearly shows what I would describe as an obvious and blackish eye-line along with an equally blackish crown. So why does the text claim its eye-line is "not as pronounced as in Mallard, and the crown is paler"?

• Even more puzzling and frustrating is the next photo on the following page, which is allegedly and dubiously identified as a leucistic Cackling Goose of the subspecies hutchinsii, because of its stubby bill (hard to see), short neck (angled away and hard to judge), relatively paler breast (mostly in shadow), and pale underwings (they look back-lit and thus unnaturally pale).

It's the most recent issue of Birding, however, which perhaps contains the most glaring – and controversial – example of an ID article with photos and captions at odds with each other. The article is "Advances in the Field Identification of North American Dowitchers" (Birding 38:34-42), and you might recall my recent criticisms (see of an earlier on-line version of this article. One interesting aspect of all this is that several readers have been highly critical of the article on the "Frontiers of Field Identification" listserve, and in response the authors and the Editor of Birding have defended it. But, unlike most other ID articles over the years with photos of dubious merit, at least birders are paying attention to the deficiencies in this one.

The problems with the photos and alleged field marks are many, but especially unfortunate is the reversal of captions of the article's featured photos at the beginning, a result of an editing error. The dowitcher labeled as Long-billed on p. 34 is actually a Short-billed Dowitcher photographed in Churchill, and the one labeled as Short-billed on p. 35 is a Long-billed Dowitcher from Alaska.

But even more convoluted and confusing is a litany of field marks which may or may not be useful distinctions between the two dowitchers. There are at least nine of them which are either inconclusive in the article's photos, or actually contradict by them! So, how is the reader supposed to know if the features are solidly diagnostic, just possibly useful at times, or entirely unreliable?  

• Loral angle. There is some math involving the relative eye positions of the two dowitchers, but it's not worth explaining. It's enough to say that the photos in figure 1, which are supposed to illustrate the difference, fall into the broad area of overlap between the species and thus fail to prove anything. Even worse, the featured Short-billed Dowitcher on p. 34 actually measures out to have a Long-billed's loral angle. And the caption for the photo of four Long-billed Dowitchers (figure 2) says to note their "low loral angle" – well, I'd like to, but three of the birds are asleep and impossible to measure, and the fourth is too small to confidently measure anything.

• Supercilium shape. Supposedly, a Short-billed's supercilium arches or curves up over the eyes more than the Long-billed's straighter supercilium. Supposedly. That same unhelpful Long-billed photo used to show loral angles (figure 2) is just as useless when it comes to showing any sign of a "straight supercilium" mentioned in the caption. Even more undermining are four other Long-billed Dowitcher photos (p. 35, figures 3, 6, and 9a), each showing a supercilium every bit as "arched" as on a Short-billed.

• Bill shape. The article claims Short-billeds have slight but noticeably downcurved bills, while the bills are straighter on Long-billeds. If so, why do the two species in the figure 1 photos show essentially identical bill shapes? How can the captions for two photos (figures 4 and 6) claim they illustrate bill shapes when they're partly underwater?! And the Long-billed's bill in another photo (figure 9b) sure looks slightly downcurved to me.

• Forehead shape. If a Short-billed has a steeper forehead than a Long-billed, why is there no visible difference in two side-by-side photos of the two species (p. 34-35 and figure 6)?

• Lower back profile. We're told a Long-billed's lower back profile is relatively concave and a Short-billed's is straighter. Yeah, right. By now I'm sure you can guess there are photos which show the opposite: p. 35, figure 2, and especially figure 4. (And by now I'd understand if you don't want to look at more defective photos, but at least look at figure 4, which clearly shows a Short-billed with a classic Long-billed profile.)

• Primary projection. The captions for four photos (figures 2, 5, 9a, and 9b) advise us to check out the primary projections, said to be noticeably shorter on Long-billed and longer on Short-billed. I sure would like to, but none of them are clearly visible. (Indeed, of the article's 12 photos, only one of them shows an unambiguous primary extension.)

• Tail barring. The photo caption for figure 9a says this Long-billed's "black stripes on the tail feathers are distinctly thicker than the white stripes." I'd believe this if I could, since there is an average difference in the two species' tail barring. But (you guessed it) the tail is nowhere to be seen, and I'm not inclined at this point to take the authors' word for it.

• Basic plumage. (Hang in there, we're almost done!) An average difference between basic-plumaged dowitchers involves the darkness of chest and chin: i.e., Long-billed with darker gray chest and chin; Short-billed with paler chest and whiter chin. There are three photos showing basic-plumaged dowitchers (figures, 2, 3, and 4). Guess how many successfully illustrate this distinction.  

• Alternate plumage. Finally, and mercifully, there are four photos provided to illustrate alternate-plumage differences between the two dowitchers. Naturally, figure 6 is out-of-focus, and the birds in figures 8, 9a, and 9b are too small to clearly discern the subtle plumage distinctions.

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There are so many more examples of ID references with inadequate ID photos. And I haven't even begun to complain about those illustrated with unsatisfactory paintings and other artwork. I could go on, but I won't. Suffice it to say that a picture may normally be worth a thousand words, but, when it comes to bird identification references, too many of their photographs have been worth a lot less.