Untamed Land

Untamed Land
Untamed Land

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Identifying Unfamiliar Birds

Several years ago I was in Guayaquil, Ecuador when I saw a hummingbird. I had no idea which species it might be since there are 132 species of hummingbird that occur in Ecuador. How could I memorize all of them?
The bird darted off after a few seconds so I pulled out a pocket notebook, made a quick sketch, and wrote down as many details as I could remember.
A short time later I saw another one and managed to get a few photos.
Now you have both a field sketch and a photograph. Can you identify the species?  Luckily I had the ponderous Field Guide to the Birds of Ecuador to help me. Which do you think would be the most useful tool; the drawing with notes, or the photograph, in helping you figure out the species? 
A year or two later I saw another race of the same species, Amazilia Hummingbird.
The thing that inspired this post is a series of blogs that I read dealing with the pros and cons of using photography as a tool to identify birds.Follow this link to see the original blog that caught my interest.
The stodgy old birder who wrote the blog above and most of the birding elites who chimed in universally condemn the practice of using photography to identify birds. 
What poppycock! Try to get an unusual bird sighting on ebird or other bird organization like ABA without a photograph and you will learn just how skeptical the experts are. Submit a photograph and there will be little problem in getting your sighting accepted.
Of course you cannot always get a passable photograph of an unfamiliar bird and that is where field sketches become so essential. I seldom carry a bird guide with me so I depend on field notes.
I carried the same pocket notebook, (actually an address book) that I got in Ecuador for years until I filled it up; with bird lists and sketches instead of addresses and phone numbers.
The above drawings are from Prachuap Kiri Kahn, Thailand. The shorebird is a Marsh Sandpiper, the raptor is a Besra, the starling is a Vinous-breasted Starling, and the dove is a Red Collared Dove; all new birds for me at the time. I also got photos of the starling and dove to help with the identification.
I could not identify the tailorbird on top well enough to be certain. The bottom bird is a Spectacled Bulbul.
It is difficult to get a decant drawing of a bird that only stays put for a few seconds. 
Also from Thailand. My original black ink pen died, I got a blue ink pen and it died when I first started sketching this bird. Then I stole Gary's pen to get a better rendition of the Ashy Minivet.
These birds are from the Amazon jungle in Peru. I could not identify two of these birds. When making field notes, it is important to include the bird's habitat and behavior. I seldom try to describe the bird's voice, too difficult.
Some examples of a time when photography is better than field notes is when trying to figure out sub-adult gulls. Check these birds out. Iceland Gull above.
California gull.
Slaty-backed Gull.
Herring Gull. An advantage of photography is the ability to compare the subject's size in association with other birds.
The Glaucous-winged Gull, (left) Iceland Gull (right). Both gulls have nearly identical plumage but the Iceland Gull is significantly smaller. I could not have identified the vagrant Iceland Gull using field notes alone.
The take-away lesson is to use all of the tools at your disposal to get a proper bird i.d.
Shame on the birding snobs who think that photography is a less valid method for identifying birds.


John Holmes said...

Both methods can work well, but I find looking at an old sketch or description in a grotty old notebook brings back the memory of the encounter so clearly.

These days, I'm more likely to try to get a photo, though. Like you, for "difficult" families like gulls it's hard to know what features to note the traditional way

john said...

You are right about the sentimental value of old notebooks. I have kept a few but I threw out many more of them. Now I wish that I had kept them.
Photographs are also a great way to preserve memories of birding trips. I took many trips to Mexico in my younger years where all I have are lists of birds that I saw. I remember nothing at all about those trips. I can only assume that I had a good time. I did'nt even keep lists of birds on the earliest trips. It's like they never happened.

Jeremy Pearse said...

Great tutorial John, like most artist/birders, I too keep notebooks such as you have illustrated here and mine are some of my most cherished items! I often add diary notes too and a comment on the weather - all helps later on bringing back memories of the day - and of the birds too.

John Holmes said...

John L. - interesting comment on your Mexico trips.... is it like "If you can remember the 1960s, you weren't there" :-)

I CAN remember the 60s - but I was very young then.

john said...

I also sort of remember the sixties. I was just a kid. I first went to Mexico in 1975, before I was even a birder. In fact I was not yet into bird identification for my first 3 or 4 Mexico trips. I have been there at least 15 times over the decades.
Since My first trip to Thailand I have kept a daily journal for my trips in addition to photos, lists, and field sketches. Now I wish that I had done that from the get go.