BIRDING BY HINDSIGHT: A Second Look at Second Looks (Part One)

The collection of "Birding By Hindsight" articles, which dates back to the Winter 1994-95 issue of The Loon, is getting pretty big. There have already been 62 of these, which (with few exceptions) typically include "A Second Look" in the subtitle. This is the sixty-third.

So, I've been trying to collect and edit them all to eventually include the entire collection in the website, and it's been a pretty sobering exercise. For one thing, I can see how some of them may not be quite as brilliant as I remembered them – in hindsight, of course.

A few seem awkwardly worded in places and sort of hard to follow at times. Or too long with perhaps too much information crowded in. Some a bit too serious and pedantic in tone; others with stale or forced attempts at humor. Over these past 15-plus years, I recognize changes in writing style: there was my too-long-paragraph stage; my infatuation-with-dashes phase. And lots of repetition (oh no, here comes another dash!) – I must have said how inadequate the field guides were about 62 times, and how many articles a few years back kept harping away at dowitcher ID?

Originally, these were intended to be shorter and less comprehensive pieces in the MOU's newsletter, and I forget how they ended up in The Loon instead. Nor do I remember getting many comments on them over the years, positive or negative. (Though there were those occasional readers who couldn't acknowledge that any humor in my tongue-in-cheek comments on bird atlases, Lord God Bird sightings, and other proverbial Sacred Cows – or Cowbirds? – could be ever be appropriate.)

Still, I'd venture to say there is lots of information in this stack of journal articles. At the same time, a handful of errors can be found which remain uncorrected, some information is in need of being updated, and clarifications or comments on some of the material would be helpful and worthwhile. Thus, the subject of this (and the next) Hindsight installment: a second look at a whole bunch of these other second looks.

Note that a similar exercise relative to the first ten years of articles has already appeared: However, that article didn't catch everything, so several additional comments are presented now, along with a few notes on more recent installments.

• Birding by Hindsight (

This very first Hindsight and introduction to the series wasted no time in coming up with a provocative claim:

In fact, many solutions to identification problems have not yet been figured out by the experts – and some may never be. In a way, it is nothing short of human arrogance to assume that ornithologists should be able to resolve all the complexities of bird identification; after all, the last time I checked, entomologists and botanists are nowhere near identifying all the species they work with.

In rereading this over 15 years later, I still endorse this statement, but some clarification might be called for. What I intended to say is there are countless examples of birds and other animals with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Just like Superman! After hundreds of miles, long-distance migrants find their way back to last year's breeding grounds. Colonial seabirds unerringly pinpoint their mates, chicks, and nests among the thousands crowded in the same place. Rescue dogs sniff out people buried under snow or debris that human rescuers would never detect.

Similarly, it should be obvious that individual birds could possess the ability to distinguish others of its own species by recognizing "field marks" that even the most highly skilled birder cannot. There's no reason to assume that we always can figure them out. As characteristics of a species evolve which serve to separate one from another, all that matters is that the birds themselves can tell each other apart. It makes no difference at all to the bird whether or not a human – despite our delusions of superiority – can do the same.


• A Second Look at Shorebirds (

Here's one Hindsight installment that might be best if it were not reread, at least not as published in The Loon. Several errors, mostly in the punctuation, were introduced into the article by a proofreader with an even more curious writing style than mine.

But enough whining about how my infallible pearls of wisdom are edited. More to the point are some brief comments about three statements in the article:  

1) Many birders tell me they can separate calling yellowlegs by the number of syllables given (one or two for Lesser, three or more for Greater), but I have serious doubts that this is diagnostic, and I would welcome comments from readers on this point.

I no longer have mere doubts about relying on the number of syllables to ID a calling yellowlegs. I am now certain this is not diagnostic. On numerous occasions, I've heard Greaters giving just one- or two-syllabled calls and Lessers uttering three or more syllables. (The quality of the notes is more important: more strident and screeching with the Greater; mellower and more musical with the Lesser.)

2) Unless they call or fly, or unless the Hudsonian's slightly smaller size can be determined by direct comparison with something, the two are quite difficult to separate.

But any size difference between the godwits must be used with caution,  since females are larger overall and longer-billed than males. Therefore, a female Hudsonian might appear the same size as a male Marbled standing next to it, resulting in the potential for either or both of them to be misidentified.

3) If a juvenile (an individual with a clean-cut, fresh pattern of rusty feather edges on the upperparts), simply examine its tertials: i.e., the longest visible feathers on the folded wing tips. If patterned with rusty and black markings, it's a Short-billed; the juvenile Long-billed's tertials are unmarked.

Sorry, but once again I'm talking about those dreaded dowitchers! While juveniles are distinguished by their tertial patterns, there's another useful, easily seen feature I sometimes overlooked. Long-billeds simply have duller and grayer underparts than Short-billeds, which are brighter and rustier below. (Note that this difference applies to hendersoni Short-billeds, the subspecies which migrates through Minnesota, but it may not work as well on the two coastal races, caurinus and griseus.)  

• A Second Look at Gulls (

I have no corrections, clarifications, or caveats to add to this article's following statement; just be sure to note the exclamation point at the end:

There is also the relatively unknown but potentially serious problem of what has been termed size-illusion. You may not believe this until you try it, but if you have identically sized objects (or gulls) in view through optics (or a telephoto lens) at the same time, and one is a few feet farther away, it can appear larger – not smaller – than the closer one!

But it bears repeating after all these years even if you had read it the first time around, since this phenomenon remains something to be aware of (and beware of), to try out for yourself if you're skeptical, and to take into account during any ID process involving relative sizes.

• A Second Look at First State Records (Parts One and Two) (;

While the ID tips presented for the selected species remain useful, keep in mind that several of those potential first state records have now become confirmed realities on our list, and an updated selection of candidates has recently been compiled: see

• A Second Look at Songs (Part One) (

The section on woodpeckers mentioned the following:

The best place for the beginning listener to start would be learning the difference between the Downy’s flatter, softer “pik” note and the Hairy’s sharper, louder “peek”.

This advice still applies to beginners, but I've recently been surprised to learn that some more experienced birders also have trouble telling the two call notes apart. Perhaps these two species are common enough in Minnesota that birders pay them and their calls relatively little attention?

About the only other hint that might help is the Hairy's note to my ear strongly suggests the American Robin's familiar sharp call, and I sometimes have to pause and give a second listen to make sure which bird I'm hearing. (At this point, some readers are probably thinking: "Great. Some helpful hint that is. Now that I can tell Hairys from Downys, I'll start confusing them with robins!")

• A Second Look at Western (and Eastern) Sandpipers (

This following point regarding Semipalmated Sandpipers was given in the context of how easily they can be confused with Westerns:  

Equally as troublesome is that many Semis in alternate and juvenile plumages have rusty feathers on the head, back, scapulars, and/or tertials.

This information is still valid and well worth repeating, since recently it became surprisingly evident that even some acknowledged shorebird "experts" have been quite unaware how bright and extensively rusty Semipalmateds can get. While confusion with Western Sandpiper was not the issue, some highly skilled birders elsewhere confidently but erroneously attempted to turn a juvenile Semi in Ohio into a vagrant stint: see  

• A Second Look at Songs (Part Two) (

My comments on four species in this article caught my eye.

1) The section on wood-pewee calls wandered off on a tangent about things visually similar to wood-pewees:

Olive-sided Flycatcher – which typically covers up those white tufts with its folded wings while perched.

I had long assumed the only reason those white areas on the rump might not be visible was when the folded wings concealed them. But then I started to notice that the tufts remained invisible on some Olive-sideds holding their wings lowered, so I now assume the tufts can also be concealed by adjacent rump feathers. A minor point, perhaps, except that I wonder if some drooped-winged Olive-sideds have been passed off as mere wood-pewees by birders expecting to see those tufts.     

2) Yellow-bellieds also have a whistled “chu wee” call note, which is curiously more musical than its territorial song — quite the opposite of what is normally the case with songbirds.

Actually, besides their characteristic Least-like "killik" song and whistled "chu wee" call note, Yellow-bellied Flycatchers have a third common vocalization which I've not paid much attention to, always assuming it to be just a simple variation of the song. But whether song or call note, it is noticeably different from the other two: an abrupt, metallic "klee-ink", accented on the first syllable.       

3) I confess I’m unfamiliar with the Bell’s Vireo’s call note.

I finally paid attention to the Bell's Vireo call note this year in Arizona, but I confess this effort was only because its somewhat nasal, lisping buzz resembles the call of the Black-capped Gnatcatcher we were searching for at the time.

4) The paragraphs on Marsh Wren mentioned that the eastern and western forms may eventually be split, with a possibility of Minnesota lying within the breeding ranges of both. Now that I have heard and learned the song of western birds, I doubt that any occur here (or even farther west in central North Dakota), where all I've ever heard is that familiar, musical, liquid gurgling. By contrast, western Marsh Wrens sound noticeably drier, more rattling, and less musical, with more of a resemblance to the Sedge Wren's chatter.  


• A Second Look at Fall Warblers (

The paragraphs on waterthrush ID and on Nashvilles vs. Connecticuts could use some updating:  

1) Briefly, however, one feature to consider is the bird’s supercilium (i.e., the line over the eye). The Louisiana’s tends to be whiter, bolder, and typically wider behind the eye; the Northern’s supercilium is usually buff (but sometimes white) and narrows more behind the eye.

Unfortunately, I am no longer that confident in relying on any supercilium differences between the two waterthrushes. I have observed more than a few Northerns showing a clear white, relatively bold, and wide Louisiana-like supercilium. (Besides their songs, leg color, the presence/absence of throat streaking, and whether the flanks have a buff wash would be more useful.)     

2) Perhaps the most obvious error that novice warbler watchers make is to get excited over a Nashville Warbler, which may superficially resemble the Connecticut in plumage but which hardly acts like the more secretive, slower-moving, ground-walking Connecticut.

Many Nashville Warblers in fall don't show typical field-guide-yellow throats. Instead, they are off-white or even grayish, and consequently somewhat Connecticut-like. Accordingly, with this in mind, the potential for mistaking one of these Nashvilles for the more elusive and sought-after Connecticut is the understandable result.

• A Second Look at Redpolls (

Among the criteria for a "classic" Hoary Redpoll, my list included:

Its bill will have a noticeably shorter and stubbier shape.

While such a bill shape is a useful indicator of a Hoary, you can still have a perfectly good Hoary without one. I have seen several obvious, unambiguous Hoarys with bills that appeared no different in shape from the Common Redpolls with them.

• A Second Look at Bird Identification Books (

This and all subsequent articles on identification references become out-of-date as additional and better references are published. Newer Hindsight installments have followed with updated information on newer books, field guides, journal articles, recordings, DVDs, websites, and other references.

One of the journals with useful ID information is North American Birds (formerly American Birds), and its contents are now conveniently available on an invaluable website: Here you'll find a searchable index and actual pages in .pdf format of North American Birds and other journals with frequent articles on bird identification (e.g., Auk and Western Birds).

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Enough reminiscing for now. So much for the 1990s. Stay tuned for the next Hindsight installment, which will include second looks at articles from 2000 on.