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Second-guessing yourself in the field

Posted Sunday 27th April 2008 at 20:33 by Terry O'Nolley
Updated Sunday 27th April 2008 at 20:37 by Terry O'Nolley
I had a couple of very similar identification second-guessing incidents happen to me within about a week.

The first incident was last weekend when I saw a Green Heron (first of the year). I didn't get too good a look at it, but it was the right size, I noticed the shorter legs which rule out other herons and egrets except for night herons, bitterns and cattle egret. It certainly wasn't all white, it is too early for juvie birds and I saw the greenish back and dark neck. Easy ID. So then a few minutes later I round a bend and see an American Bittern (first of the year). Because the Green Heron flew towards where I am now seeing a bittern, I began second-guessing myself. Maybe it was an American Bittern and not a Green Heron... Maybe it was a shadow that made his neck look so dark..... darn - now I am going to have to remove the year tick for the Green Heron (but so what - I'm getting an amazing showing from this bittern - less than 50 feet and he is standing out in the open!). Anyways, I later saw 3 Green Heron's and I got to add them back to my year list.

The second incident was this morning. I was in a meadow that is always good for warblers and quickly spotted a mostly yellow warbler in a treetop. The day was quite overcast so field marks were not easily visible. Anyways I got to watch him long enough to spot what I thought were the black cheek/eye crescents and breast streaking to identify him as a Prairie Warbler (and I was hearing Prairie Warblers). Cool - my first Prairie Warbler of the year. He then flies off and I continue walking in the direction he flew. When I reached the tree line that followed a small creek I saw another yellow-colored warbler in a tree. I assumed it was the Prairie Warbler again, but when I looked at him I saw it was a Yellow Warbler! You guessed it - so now I am mentally taking the Prairie Warbler off my year list. I spent the next half-hour trying to find another Prairie Warbler to no avail.

I got tired of that because it wasn't the enjoyable feeling of why I like to bird so I just made myself relax and continue on with enjoying the morning (I'm glad I did because I got year ticks for Gray Catbird and Wood Thrush).

OK, so I get back home and download the photos I took today and was very pleased to see that I did, indeed spot both a Prairie Warbler and a Yellow Warbler.

But that got me to thinking - what if I didn't take photos? I would have "lost" a perfectly good year tick. I then began remembering previous IDs where I may have made the same mistake.

So I came up with a firm rule: I asked myself "If you never saw the American Bittern or Yellow Warbler, would you have felt good in ticking Green Heron or Prairie Warbler?" the answer should always be "Yes". I realized that I never consciously list a species that I am not 100% sure of (as wrong as I might actually be - I need to be sure in what I [b]believe[/b] the species to be).

So I will never let the pleasant surprise of seeing another species sow doubt about any previous ID I have made.
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