Birdist Rule #67: Prepare to Have Your Sightings Questioned

It happens, but it's also not the end of the world.

There’s a heck of a lot to learn when you first start birding. That field guide is one thick textbook, and it’s packed with tiny details that you’ll need to know if you want to be ready for anything. All this education is exciting, though, and so it doesn’t feel like learning in the same way that, say, math feels like learning. (Sorry not sorry, math teachers; this is my column.) 

It takes a lifetime to learn to identify everything, which, of course, is most of the fun. But it can also take a long time to feel comfortable identifying even common birds, especially in front of other people. I know a birder who said it took him seven years before he had the confidence to identify a bird in front of someone else. Now that guy leads tours for a major birding travel company. 

Most of us, though, don’t get to wait seven years to offer an identification—or, worse, have someone question it. Maybe you send reports to an email listserv or to eBird and get questions in return. You could be just minding your own business in some park and another birder will come up and ask you what you’re seeing.

Trying to identify birds to other people can be scary, in the same way giving your first piano recital is scary (or so I’ve heard—I can’t play piano): You’re putting yourself out there, and it might not go well.

You might be wrong, and someone might tell you. Some people might correct you gently and talk you through the identification. Some people might not be so gentle because they’re just like that. It might happen online, and so your error is reported in front of a bunch of people. The person correcting you might be wrong themselves, and then you’re doubly upset because you’re being unfairly called out.

Identification ability is perhaps an overrated skill among birders (it’s not like we have scorecards for each other), but no one wants to be wrong in front of other people. Making a misidentification or having someone question birds you’ve reported can be mortifying, but there are ways to prepare yourself for either situation.

First, and most importantly, know that mistaken IDs happen. All. The. Time. Birding is just really hard sometimes. Even if you have every page of that field guide memorized, the birds will never show themselves long enough, or they’ll be backlit, or something else. Even expert birders make mistakes.  

I’m a pretty good birder, and I make mistakes all over the place. I’ve got a long list of instances where reviewers questioned my eBird sightings. Just last week I responded incorrectly to an ID request on Twitter (grrr . . . shorebirds) and was overruled by none other than birding megastar Kenn Kaufman. That’s like trying to do long division in front of Einstein. (There’s no link because I deleted my tweet!)

And yet, the world keeps spinning. I just move on and try to learn what mistakes I made. People often make incorrect identifications, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter. You might feel mortified in the moment, but the moment passes, and then there are more birds to see.

The best way to handle people questioning your identifications is to be sure of yourself when you make them, and there are a few things you can bring with you into the field to help ensure you get the ID right.

It might sound obvious, but make sure you go into the field with a field guide. An actual paper field guide. A lot of younger birders feel like they need to prove something by heading out without one, like it’s training wheels or something, but having that book there to hold in your hand can make all the difference. I’m guilty of too often squinting at apps on my tiny iPhone screen when a big paper book would be much more helpful. 

Also, bring a good camera. Getting photos of the birds you see helps for a bunch of reasons: You can take your time working through the ID; you’ve got proof if anyone questions you; and if they’re pretty, you can frame them and give them out as gifts for Christmas. Everybody wins!

The most important thing you can bring into the field to help with identifications is other people. Specifically, other people you can be wrong with. There is absolutely nothing as helpful as someone else to talk over an ID with or who might remember whether it’s a Green-winged or Eurasian Teal that has the white horizontal white stripe on its side (it’s Green-winged). To make birding friends, just start talking to other birders you see, and all of a sudden you’ve got an identification back-up band.

What don’t you want to do when someone questions your sightings? You don’t want to be a jerk. I didn’t put this in the Don’t Be a Jerk column, but don’t be a jerk in this either. No one really cares if someone occasionally gets an ID wrong, but they do care if they’re a jerk about it. Don’t get huffy. Don’t get insistent without proof. Don’t be mean.

If other birders question your sightings, just roll with it. If you’ve made an ID and have been thorough about it, remain confident. If you made a mistake, you’ve learned something and are now a better birder. Above all, hang in there, and keep birding.