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Advice for someone who has a hard time ID’ing birds ... (2 Viewers)

melisande

Well-known member
My husband and I have been birding seriously for almost 10 years now. By seriously, I mean: travel, sometimes to foreign countries, specifically for birding; maintaining and caring about various lists; birding every day — my husband, if not me, has birdied every single day for the last 3 years; etc.

However, my husband still has a hard time ID’ing birds. Up until yesterday, I just kept biting my tongue and reminding him (more or less patiently) about fieldmarks and what species are expected for the place, season, time of day etc. But last night, he asked me point blank why I am “so good at ID’s” (I don’t think I am, I think I am merely normally competent) and how he could get better at it. I told him that actually studying the expected birds ahead of time would help him. I also suggested always trying to make an ID in the field, instead of relying on me, or taking a photo and attempting to ID it later, or relying on some bird ID app. So, instead of saying: “I see a bird. It’s there ...,” he actually make a stab at the ID. However, I don’t think this last piece of advice is going to help that much, because he does indeed often try to call a bird in the field, but doesn’t always have a lot of success with it. I also suggested studying bird anatomy (more than he already has) and when he doesn’t know what a bird is, write down the description of what he sees and then try to look it up in the guide book. I think writing it down might help him form more of a memory of the bird.

He does get our common, easily identifiable birds (like Tufted Titmouse, Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Northern Parula, etc., etc.), but he has a horrible time with sparrows, with warblers when they are only partially seen, any drab songbirds, shorebirds, uncommon & unexpected birds, etc.) and sometimes he makes huge mistakes that I just cannot fathom. The last biggie was mistaking a American Black Duck for an American Flamingo. Yeah, the bird was pretty distant, but still, how does one do that? My husband, scanning the horizon (at a local wildlife refuge where a flamingo has been reported): “I see it!!! I have it!!! It’s over there!!! (long description as to where the flamingo supposedly is). I don’t see it. He keeps insisting, then qualifies: “It’s really dark!” Me: “You mean really dark pink!” Him: “No, dark dark. Just really dark.” I am still scanning an not seeing the flamingo and he says: “And it’s really, really tucked in and it’s like really small.... oh, wait ... I think it’s a Black Duck. Sorry.” I mean, WTF?

The most recent ID fail was less outrageous and perhaps more indicative of where the problem lies. We were looking for sparrows this past weekend and seeing a lot of Swamp Sparrows (a common sparrow here). I was hoping for something a little more interesting when I heard my husband say that he had a White-throated Sparrow. I was skeptical since the habitat wasn’t great for WTSP and they are rare where we were looking (we had been looking for them the previous weekend a couple of hours North of us where they are not rare). He got me on his bird and I told him it was another Swamp Sparrow. Then a few minutes later, he came back to where I was and said that he had gotten a shot of what he thought was a real White-throated Sparrow. I looked at the phot and told him he just had another Swamp Sparrow again. Him: “But it has a white throat!” So, I explained the difference between SWSP and WTSP, emphasizing that the WTSP is a much larger, chunkier sparrow than the SWSP, discussing the different field marks, distribution, etc.

He also has a hard time describing a mystery bird he has just seen. My favorite, I think, was: “It was a really interesting-looking blue, green and yellow-striped bird.” I had no clue, but it turned out to be Blue-headed Vireo. (To my husband’s credit, he can ID Blue-headed Vireos now.)

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I am really at a loss. My husband loves birding, has been birding seriously for 10 years, is incredibly intelligent (has an international reputation in theoretical computer science, got his doctorate at the best program in the US, etc., etc.)

I think the problem is actually partly motivation. He says he loves birding, but I think he mainly loves photography, listing and being out in the field with me and other friends. I just don’t think he has a natural interest in ID’s but won’t admit he doesn’t really care. Well, he cares somewhat because he doesn’t like feeling embarrassed when he doesn’t know what he’s seeing. Also, I know that when I first started out, I wanted to learn how to ID everything because that was the only way I’d even get the bird. I didn’t go out with a camera and frequently went by myself, so I didnt really know the difference between a Swamp Sparrow and a Lincoln’s Sparrow, say, I would never get a Lincoln‘s (not saying that I never made mistakes, but I tried really hard not to). And he doesn’t have this motivation, because he has me to tell him what everything is, plus if I’m not there, he can just get a shot and look the ID up later (or ask me later).


And finally, I have to admit that I would like him to get better at ID’s in the field. There is little more frustrating than chasing a rarity onl to waste time having him try to get me on mystery birds that he thinks are interesting and promising, but quite often turn out not to be ....

So, advice?
 

Deb Burhinus

Used to be well known! 😎
Europe
A couple of things

First, well done for at least getting him to go birding with you - it seems to be more your passion than his perhaps. The important thing isn’t to ID everything in the field but to primarily enjoy the general experience of birdwatching. People have different levels of engagement by which they achieve that. If your husband is happy just to accompany you without feeling the need to ID every bird you guys see, it would be a shame if his enjoyment was made less by being under any kind of pressure to be a better birder or any suggestion he is doing something wrong by being less motivated than you. At the end of the day, he presumably is enjoying just relaxing in the outdoors and spending quality time with you. I get it’s frustrating to go out birding all the time with someone less skilled so I would strongly suggest you find other birders who you can learn from and go birdwatching with also to balance your own enjoyment in the hobby.

As for tips to improve ID skills and general advice, you may find more help on the Tips for New Birders forum (this forum is for ID queries of specific birds). However, remember that you can lead a horse to water .... 😏

 

tconzemi

Tom
Supporter
Europe
It may be interesting for your husband to find his own way, you are much emphasizing the 'in field' identification, why not let him be the photographer (nowadays you can achieve great pictures with bridge cameras or digiscoping or even get the real gear); so even if he is less skilled (less gifted?) he can do a different job and as a team you will be unbeatable. A complete new approach to birding is sound recording, another path to build up a team.
 

TringBirder

Well-known member
I think if the motivation isn't there then it will be difficult for your husband to improve his identification skills or for you to improve them. I can say this from my own experience. I have been bird watching for more than fifty years and am probably better than average at bird identification. I am also interested in mammals, dragonflies, moths and butterflies and am not too bad at identifying them as well. However, while recognising the ecological importance of plants, I have no motivation to identify them and consequently I can identify a few flowers and trees but not that many and this state of affairs is unlikely to change any time soon.

I agree with the previous two posters and would say enjoy the fact that he comes out with you and takes photographs of what you see etc. As you say he is clearly very intelligent and accomplished in other areas so I would let him go at his own pace and one day the motivation might come of its own accord and then his knowledge and expertise will improve of its own accord. For some people, like yourself, that spark comes quickly but for others it can take a while so the main thing is to be patient and enjoy the fact that he does accompany you and take some interest. One thought is to get him to describe what he sees on a bird when he is looking at it and maybe tell him which of those are the important features.

Cheers

Roy
 

melisande

Well-known member
A couple of things

First, well done for at least getting him to go birding with you - it seems to be more your passion than his perhaps. The important thing isn’t to ID everything in the field but to primarily enjoy the general experience of birdwatching. People have different levels of engagement by which they achieve that. If your husband is happy just to accompany you without feeling the need to ID every bird you guys see, it would be a shame if his enjoyment was made less by being under any kind of pressure to be a better birder or any suggestion he is doing something wrong by being less motivated than you. At the end of the day, he presumably is enjoying just relaxing in the outdoors and spending quality time with you. I get it’s frustrating to go out birding all the time with someone less skilled so I would strongly suggest you find other birders who you can learn from and go birdwatching with also to balance your own enjoyment in the hobby.

As for tips to improve ID skills and general advice, you may find more help on the Tips for New Birders forum (this forum is for ID queries of specific birds). However, remember that you can lead a horse to water .... 😏

Actually, in many ways he is more into birding than I am. If he had his way, that is all he would do, while I need a break sometimes. He has discussed doing a US big year and I would never, ever want to do something like that. (I think I have successfully talked him out of it.) He is also more of a twitcher and a lister than I am. One of my pet peeves is when he begs and pleads for us to drive hours and hours to chase a certain bird, then once we get there, he doesn’t seem to know how to ID the bird he wanted to see. I guess I don’t really understand that.

But you are right. That is a lot to be grateful for in our birding relationship and I should probably just work on acceptance at this point.
 
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Sangahyando

Well-known member
Actually, in many ways he is more into birding than I am. If he had his way, that is all he would do, while I need a break sometimes. He has discussed doing a US big year and I would never, ever want to do something like that. (I think I have successfully talked him out of it.) He is also more of a twitcher and a lister than I am. One of my pet peeves is when he begs and pleads for us to drive hours and hours to chase a certain bird, then once we get there, he doesn’t seem to know how to ID the bird he wanted to see. I guess I don’t really understand that.
Well if that's the case, I understand why you want him to become more competent at identification. IMO systematically taking field notes when encountering anything you're not familiar with is a key component. Whether that's done with a notebook or some other way is less important.
 

melisande

Well-known member
It may be interesting for your husband to find his own way, you are much emphasizing the 'in field' identification, why not let him be the photographer (nowadays you can achieve great pictures with bridge cameras or digiscoping or even get the real gear); so even if he is less skilled (less gifted?) he can do a different job and as a team you will be unbeatable. A complete new approach to birding is sound recording, another path to build up a team.
Thanks. He does a lot of sound recording too.
 

dantheman

Bah humbug
Think that your local community has a lot to be thankful for that he has you - he would make a brilliant stringer! ;-)

Lack of concentration, coupled with over-enthusiasm and maybe some kind of mental/brain thing (that sounds impolite but we don't know how our brains really work/are wired)?


There are plenty of bird quizzes out there (or maybe there aren't) to hone decision making skills. Jizz and going back to basics with local birds? Some people just aren't as 'good' as others. Maybe he should bird with someone else for a bit if too reliant/fallen into the lazy trap with you?
 

melisande

Well-known member
Well if that's the case, I understand why you want him to become more competent at identification. IMO systematically taking field notes when encountering anything you're not familiar with is a key component. Whether that's done with a notebook or some other way is less important.
I think he just also needs to study the birds — you know — sitting down with the guide book, pencil and paper ahead of time and really studying them. Its. It isn’t enough to have a more or less vague idea of what your target bird kind of looks like, you also have to know what else you might expect there and what your target bird is not. It takes works. And frankly he has admitted that his worst character flaw is laziness ... so maybe just insisting on the positive benefits of this kind of invest,ent might help.
 

melisande

Well-known member
Think that your local community has a lot to be thankful for that he has you - he would make a brilliant stringer! ;-)

Lack of concentration, coupled with over-enthusiasm and maybe some kind of mental/brain thing (that sounds impolite but we don't know how our brains really work/are wired)?


There are plenty of bird quizzes out there (or maybe there aren't) to hone decision making skills. Jizz and going back to basics with local birds? Some people just aren't as 'good' as others. Maybe he should bird with someone else for a bit if too reliant/fallen into the lazy trap with you?
I know what you mean about the stringing. He is actually really honest and careful about the claims he makes to the larger birding community (we both learned the hard way that I need to review everything before he posts it on-line or to eBird) and he would never string on purpose. But I feel like there is a lot of interpersonal stringing going on on our outings. He is always seeing a great bird that is not a great bird, except in the rare occasions when it actually is, so I really cannot just tune him out. Besides, he is a much better at actually spotting birds than I am. I know that it’s because he definitely has better hearing and vision than I do, but maybe it’s also a matter of brain wiring.

Speaking of which I am wondering whether it is precisely the way he thinks that makes him bad at IDs. He does do a ton of quizzes and bird ID tests, but it doesn’t really seem to help him. I think part of the problem is that he is too logical and pays too much attention to little details (often not the right ones) and doesn’t rely on his intuition enough. For the longest time, he had a hard time really “getting” that any individual bird is not going to look exactly like the drawing in the guide book. There are always going to be little variations. The important thing is that the bird looks more like the illustration in the guide book (or photos on-line) than it does any other species.

I see this same phenomen when we plays games. If we play chess, he will always win because it is logical and he can think ahead precisely, but if we play Go, I almost always win because it is just so incredibly complex that you wind up needing to use a lot of intuition. And I think there is a actually a lot of intuition that goes into ID’ing fields in the field — some instantaneous awareness of a combination of habitat, visual cues, behavior, focalization, probabilly, etc. that allows one to come up with the call.

So, I think it may be that way of overly logical, precise thinking coupled with lots of confidence, optimism & more than a smidge of laziness that leads to the interpersonal stringing.
 

nartreb

Speak softly and carry a long lens
I suspected from your initial post that your husband might have a not-so-typical process of visual recognition /cognition (it would not be too surprising in a theoretical computer scientist -- the profession is known for attracting neuro-atypical people) and your latest post seems to confirm that.
If I'm right about this, he can learn to ID birds much the way you do, but it will take a combination of a longer time (larger number of bird IDs attempted) and some different, specific hints about what he needs to look for. Not just "study the bird in advance" but "white-throated sparrows have darker caps than swamp sparrows." That may be obvious to you from the pictures in the guide book, but he is actually not seeing that, partly because he doesn't know how to look for it.
That doesn't explain the flamingo... there may be other things going on here, maybe something about language or memory. I can't tell from just an anecdote or two.

PS if he is actually beating you at chess using logic, I am very impressed. Most players rely heavily on intuition, honed over long practice. Beginners get exhausted trying to foresee the consequences of so many possible moves, but good players see which few moves are worth considering, without any conscious thought.
 

melisande

Well-known member
I suspected from your initial post that your husband might have a not-so-typical process of visual recognition /cognition (it would not be too surprising in a theoretical computer scientist -- the profession is known for attracting neuro-atypical people) and your latest post seems to confirm that.
If I'm right about this, he can learn to ID birds much the way you do, but it will take a combination of a longer time (larger number of bird IDs attempted) and some different, specific hints about what he needs to look for. Not just "study the bird in advance" but "white-throated sparrows have darker caps than swamp sparrows." That may be obvious to you from the pictures in the guide book, but he is actually not seeing that, partly because he doesn't know how to look for it.
That doesn't explain the flamingo... there may be other things going on here, maybe something about language or memory. I can't tell from just an anecdote or two.

PS if he is actually beating you at chess using logic, I am very impressed. Most players rely heavily on intuition, honed over long practice. Beginners get exhausted trying to foresee the consequences of so many possible moves, but good players see which few moves are worth considering, without any conscious thought.
Thanks. I started this thread partly to help my husband, who expressed frustration last night and partly due to my own frustration. So far it has helped me think more deeply about the problems/challenges involved. I think there is more than one thing going on. I think we might be able to chalk the flamingo/duck thing up to something else besides cognitive processing style. I think here it is more a question of optimism & intense over-anticipation. Since he doesn’t plan the trips and doesn’t study the birds, he just focuses of the potential rarities/targets and sees everything through this lens.

Here is another example: We were looking for a Snail Kite in Northern FL, where they are uncommon. Early in the outing we came upon an Osprey perched out in the open, not more than 100 feet away, in good light, entirely visible and my husband turned to me and asked excitedly: ”What is that bird?!?!? Is that the Snail Kite?” I couldn’t believe it. I mean, it was an Osprey! Right there! We have seen Snail Kites many times before and Ospreys many, many times before. They look nothing alike (OK, both raptors).

But just today, I realized that this has happened to me once, so I think I can understand. A number of years ago, I got in email contact with a well-known birder and bird guide who had a rarity at his feeder. For some reason, I got into the I-am-in-so-and-so’s-special-magical-yard-where-all-the-rare-birds-are mode of thinking (I.e. not dispassionate and objective) and I saw this really cool entirely, small black bird with red wings and I actually blurted out: “What that black bird with the red wing patches?” before I realize what an incredible fool I had just made of myself. I believed in magic and all of a sudden the banal Red-winged Blackbird had morphed into some kind of magical winged thing. Of course, I realized right away what my mistake had been whereas it took me some time to convince my husband that what was obviously and Osprey was an Osprey.
 

nartreb

Speak softly and carry a long lens
By the way, did you rule out the possibility that he needs new glasses? (as in spectacles) I mean, an osprey and a kite look very similar when they're both just bird-shaped blurs... His being able to spot birds quickly doesn't rule that out: your husband may have gotten very good at picking out movement but that doesn't mean he's seeing shapes or color.
 

njlarsen

Gallery Moderator
Opus Editor
Supporter
Barbados
With regards to knowing what to look for in a given group of birds, I would try to get him the old first version "Peterson guide to advanced birding" (second version might be equally good, I don't know). It has chapters on more difficult id fields such as the genus approach to sparrows. It opened my eyes to different things about US birds that I had not considered before. https://www.amazon.com/ADVANCED-BIRDING-Peterson-Field-Guide/dp/0395535174

Niels
 

melisande

Well-known member
By the way, did you rule out the possibility that he needs new glasses? (as in spectacles) I mean, an osprey and a kite look very similar when they're both just bird-shaped blurs... His being able to spot birds quickly doesn't rule that out: your husband may have gotten very good at picking out movement but that doesn't mean he's seeing shapes or color.
His eyesight is excellent, better than mine.
 

MJB

Well-known member
We were looking for a Snail Kite in Northern FL, where they are uncommon. Early in the outing we came upon an Osprey perched out in the open, not more than 100 feet away, in good light, entirely visible and my husband turned to me and asked excitedly: ”What is that bird?!?!? Is that the Snail Kite?” I couldn’t believe it. I mean, it was an Osprey! Right there! We have seen Snail Kites many times before and Ospreys many, many times before. They look nothing alike (OK, both raptors).
Reading through this thread, I was trying to recall memories from the back of my mind, but the passage above succeeded in doing so. In my time in the RAF, I worked a couple of times in the Ministry of Defence, where one of my friends during the 1960s worked for the Photo Interpretation Branch, which analyses reconnaissance imagery. One of his responsibilities was for managing the selection criteria for people undergoing aptitude tests before they could become Photo Interpreters. He was always looking for people who had abilities well beyond the norm in object and shape recognition (a rare gift), but he also established criteria below which candidates would fail the test. He was surprised to find that extreme failures did not appear to be related strongly with inarticulacy, poor literacy or poor education. Highly intelligent candidates could be shown a range of good illustrations and photographs of tanks, ships, aircraft, installations and buildings before they took the tests, but consistently failed to identify them from the range of airborne imagery on which they were tested. As far as I am aware, this was simply regarded as part of the expected range of abilities, but no research was done at the time as to why this should be so.

One reason for why this interested me was that in an earlier posting overseas, I had a colleague who also, like me, headed a team that loaded freight on to aircraft, but had to rely on his sergeant because he was very poor at recognising which of the dozen or so aircraft to be loaded in his shift was the correct type and correct tail number.

It wasn't until many decades later that, having met quite a few others with similar problems, our family doctor happened to mention at a party that he had several patients that had visual agnosia.

"Individuals with visual agnosia demonstrate normal recognition of objects through modalities other than vision (touch, audition, and verbal description of objects function). Agnosia does not necessarily impair the recognition of all visual stimuli, but can selectively affect certain categories of percepts (objects, faces, colors, written words, body parts, environmental scenes), leaving others intact."

Object or shape recognition ability is hugely variable for a significant minority of individuals. I'm mentioning this not as any kind of diagnosis, but merely to point out that there are quite a number of related conditions that have taken the interest of researchers, all being conditions that are part of being human that have not been widely recognised before. Perhaps more important is that the effects of these condition can be alleviated for many by systematic and patient efforts as you have so tellingly described above: "There are always going to be little variations". We're all on your side and on your husband's side!
MJB
 

nartreb

Speak softly and carry a long lens
Reading through this thread, I was trying to recall memories from the back of my mind, but the passage above succeeded in doing so. In my time in the RAF, I worked a couple of times in the Ministry of Defence, where one of my friends during the 1960s worked for the Photo Interpretation Branch, which analyses reconnaissance imagery. One of his responsibilities was for managing the selection criteria for people undergoing aptitude tests before they could become Photo Interpreters. He was always looking for people who had abilities well beyond the norm in object and shape recognition (a rare gift), but he also established criteria below which candidates would fail the test. He was surprised to find that extreme failures did not appear to be related strongly with inarticulacy, poor literacy or poor education. Highly intelligent candidates could be shown a range of good illustrations and photographs of tanks, ships, aircraft, installations and buildings before they took the tests, but consistently failed to identify them from the range of airborne imagery on which they were tested. As far as I am aware, this was simply regarded as part of the expected range of abilities, but no research was done at the time as to why this should be so.

One reason for why this interested me was that in an earlier posting overseas, I had a colleague who also, like me, headed a team that loaded freight on to aircraft, but had to rely on his sergeant because he was very poor at recognising which of the dozen or so aircraft to be loaded in his shift was the correct type and correct tail number.

It wasn't until many decades later that, having met quite a few others with similar problems, our family doctor happened to mention at a party that he had several patients that had visual agnosia.

"Individuals with visual agnosia demonstrate normal recognition of objects through modalities other than vision (touch, audition, and verbal description of objects function). Agnosia does not necessarily impair the recognition of all visual stimuli, but can selectively affect certain categories of percepts (objects, faces, colors, written words, body parts, environmental scenes), leaving others intact."

Object or shape recognition ability is hugely variable for a significant minority of individuals. I'm mentioning this not as any kind of diagnosis, but merely to point out that there are quite a number of related conditions that have taken the interest of researchers, all being conditions that are part of being human that have not been widely recognised before. Perhaps more important is that the effects of these condition can be alleviated for many by systematic and patient efforts as you have so tellingly described above: "There are always going to be little variations". We're all on your side and on your husband's side!
MJB
Yep. One of the more dramatic forms of agnosia is prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces. The most famous person I know to have had prosopagnosia was Oliver Sacks, author of "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat". (The subject of the title story had an even more dramatic, yet still fairly specific, cognitive impairment.) As far as I know, Sacks' skill at facial recognition never improved at all, despite access to the best neurologists in the world (of which, arguably, he was one). The OP's husband's prospects will vary depending on diagnosis, which is not likely to emerge from this forum.
 

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