Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fall warbler confusion

Even though this post is about warblers, I've included a photo of a black-capped chickadee as a header. This is because one of the things that drives me crazy about warblers is that they won't stay still for a minute! I have a hard enough time getting a long enough look at them to try to identify them, let alone record them for posterity. But they frequently hang about in the same general vicinity as chickadees, and thus it was on Friday at Ewing Park, when I happened upon a nice mixed flock.

I'd already started reviewing my field guides, trying to memorize as many distinguishing features as possible in preparation for fall migration. For, as I described in the spring, I find the warblers to be downright crazy-making. And frustrating. And, they make me feel inadequate! I've been birding for several years now, and I still struggle with the warblers, what's up with that?

Case in point: I pause on the page of my Stokes' field guide devoted to the Tennessee warbler, trying to memorize the little bugger in his non-breeding plumage. A drab little guy, really. Kind of yellowy, olivey--but hey, this is good, he's got a bit of an eye-line. Then I come to the next page, which showcases the Nashville warbler, whose non-breeding plumage is also sort of drab and yellowy, olivey. But--his eye is different! It has a ring instead of a line. Very good, if only I can make sure I get a good look at the eyes...which almost never happens. I mean, they're up at the top of a tree, obscured by the foliage, moving continuously, how am I supposed to focus on the eyes??

But no problem, moving on: the orange crowned warbler. Guess what his non-breeding plumage looks like? Kind of drab, yellowy, olivey. And he has a faint sort of eye-line.

Well, that's OK, so what if three species are a little tricky in the fall? At least I can always nail the magnolia! With that yellow belly and black steaks along the sides, what else could it be? Nothing...except maybe a prairie warbler, which also has a yellow belly and black streaks along the sides, of course the head is different but not as distinguished in the fall and what if I don't get a really good look at the head? How many dozens of fall magnolias have I seen? What if one or two of them was really a prairie warbler, which would have been a life bird?

Very disturbing, moving on. The palm warbler! He's extremely drab in the fall, but luckily easy to distinguish because he pumps his tail, which the others don't do...except for the prairie, oh, and the Kirtland's. Which look similar by the way.

So there are perhaps six species of fall warblers that I can easily identify, and the rest of the time, I just make something up! Or, more likely, I scribble down a description in my notebook and later scour all of my field guides hoping to finally place that drab yellowy olivey one I saw high up in the trees, and never do, and end up feeling frustrated. Or else I have a moment of confidence, proclaim the Warbler to Self and ebird, and then spend the rest of eternity consumed by a nagging doubt: "At the time I thought it really seemed like...but what if I'm wrong?"

Last Friday, as I strolled around Ewing Park in Bloomington, I happened upon a nice mixed flock of warblers. I identified an American redstart, magnolia warbler, black and white warbler, and blue-winged warbler. At the time, I was completely confident about each ID, feeling quite happy to have seen them. Yeah, warblers!

Then I got home and studied the field guide. I noticed the similarity between the magnolia and the prairie. The difference is in the head -- for one thing, the magnolia's is darker -- but how close a look did I get at the head? My ID was reduced from 100% to an 80% on the certainty scale. And the blue-winged, which was a county bird, is, I notice, rather similar to the fall plumage of the pine warbler. Not the same, obviously. But similar enough to make me question myself.

I kept both IDs as they were, because I felt sure at the time, they are "likely suspects," and well...because I always do this to myself. My life list frequently grows by several species, and then is reduced again, as I ponder and doubt and question my abilities. Am I a terrible birder or just pathologically lacking in self-confidence? Is this symptomatic of a greater problem? A sort of ontological crisis? How can I know, really absolutely know, what you are, little bird? And if I don't know, then how can I name you? Fairy tales are very specific about the power of names, and for a good reason. This momentary intersection between me and Bird is deprived of its mojo if I have no names!

A book I am reading on my kindle, Zen Birding by David White and Susan Guyette, has an excellent discussion of the perils of identification, and does not admonish us to forget about it and just enjoy seeing birds. On the contrary: "...To only appreciate birds for their beauty, or for how they make us feel, is being self-centered. We generally recognize that we cannot relate well to other people without some sense of who they are, and this applies to birds as well."

Knowing "who" the bird is can actually increase our sense of wonder about the species we see; more importantly, without a correct identification, we cannot keep track of which birds are abundant and which species are in decline. Apparently some people have assumed that house sparrows residing in the mission at San Juan Capistrano are instead the famous swallows.

When it comes to misidentification of a bird before one's gaze, White ties the problem to two of the "demons of disappointment" of Buddhist thought, one which could lead someone to identify a common bird as a rarity, and the other to identify a rare bird as something common. The former "demon" is the result of "desire for a big list," while the latter comes from "fear of being wrong."

As I suffer from both problems simultaneously, fall warbler season can be a bit nerve-wracking at times. How can we ever be certain, absolutely certain, that we saw what we thought we saw, that our experience truly is as we interpret it? This might be a giant personal issue, but in the meantime, I just want to look at birds. For the rest, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Until then, we can sit together and look for warblers.

And instead we'll see black-capped chickadees.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! This is a great post! It really hits home. I must read "Zen Birding." I would have guessed that being "zen" about birding would have meant just being happy to see a bird, and not caring whether or not one knows what KIND of bird it is. What the author said about birds would apply to any living creature. I, too, suffer from the two demons of disappointment. Dad asked me once if I ENJOYED talking myself out of my bird IDs, and I had to restrain myself from bopping him with the Stokes. Mom