The recent Ames-area Audubon Christmas Bird Count held a couple of surprises for our Nevada count area. We had stopped by the old tile plant pond next to the Story County Animal Shelter early in the morning to check out the variety of waterfowl that were there. We expected to see lots of Canada geese and a few mallard ducks, but closer looking with our binoculars revealed several ring-necked ducks, a relatively common diving duck at least during migration. Ringnecks feed by diving rather than “dabbling” in shallow water like the more common mallards.
We were ready to split up and head for other areas when one last scan with my binoculars revealed a lone northern pintail drake. Four sets of binoculars had thoroughly scanned the area for several minutes, but we’d have missed him without that final look.
We split into two “search parties” as we left the pond. The lead counter from our group, one of the most experienced birders in central Iowa, spotted a small raptor perched on a tall power pole not far away. He photographed it for later reference. Four knowledgeable birders looked at his photo during a mid-morning coffee break. We all marveled at how good the photo was even though taken with a simple digital camera without a large telephoto lens.
All four of us agreed that it was a juvenile sharp-shinned hawk. It appeared to be the right size and color. We all knew that “sharpies” are a fairly common migrant and winter resident in our area. They are a bird we’d expect to see. Case closed — or so we thought.
Some of the Ames area counters were comparing notes later that evening and studied the photo of the small hawk on the pole. One of them noted that the little hawk had dark eyes, something we all had overlooked. A young “sharpie” should have yellow eyes. That little detail changed our sharp-shinned hawk into a young merlin, a small northern pine woods falcon that sometimes visits us in the winter. I think it was the only one seen that day.
Four experienced birders had jumped to a conclusion without considering all the details. The dark eye was the only clear difference in the photo and we had missed it. Closer scrutiny, once we knew it was a merlin, revealed that the facial patterns, though faint, weren’t right for a sharp-shinned hawk, either.
Thinking about our mistake several days later, I came up with another clue that might have made us look closer at our assumed sharp-shinned hawk if we’d thought of it then. It was perched in the open on a tall power pole. A sharp-shinned hawk would far more likely have been perched lower down amidst tree branches and brush where they prefer to wait in hiding to ambush small birds.
Had the bird flown we’d have seen another more distinct identification feature. Falcons have pointed wing tips and accipiters, including Coopers hawks, sharp shins and northern goshawks, have rounded ones. I was describing our mistaken identity to another birding friend a couple of days later just up the road from where the merlin had been seen. Low and behold, even as I spoke, there the little merlin was racing along at high speed as falcons usually do, its pointed falcon wings easily seen.
All birders want to find that unusual or rare bird that no one else has seen. It’s as much a “trophy” as the big buck deer that a hunter bags and comes with all the bragging rights for which trophies are known. The desire to see that special bird sometimes leads a birder’s mind to add a detail or two that aren’t really there in order to make the sighting something more exciting.
Many birds share enough identifying features to allow the common and expected to become a rare and unexpected prize. Juveniles, females and birds in their winter non-breeding plumage often have less distinct features that can confuse even experienced birders.
Groups like the Iowa Ornithologist Union now request photo confirmation of unusual sightings. That’s much easier to do than it used to be since almost anyone’s digital camera or smart phone can zoom in and capture photos that only a well-equipped wildlife photographer could have taken a few years ago.
Bird identification includes the common details of size and color patterns, but other clues such as behavior and sound, and habitat type and season when seen, also can be important. Whether it’s a missed feature or an added one, accurately identifying birds is all in the details.
Steve Lekwa is the former director of Story County Conservation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.