I've been thinking quite a bit, lately, about how birders identify birds. Well, actually, by "lately" I mean the past few years--but more so in recent months.
Two blogs discussed this topic in June. A post by Blake Mathys on the ABA blog (How do we identify birds?) and by Ann Nightingale and Dave Irons on the BirdFellow blog (The Recognition vs. Identification Gap) provide an introduction to this topic.
My thoughts ponder the following types of questions.
Why can one person accurately identify a distant and poorly-glimpsed bird, while the person next to him, with the same view and apparently equal field experience and desire to identify birds, has no idea what the bird might have been?
Everyone does it; it's not just beginners who misidentify birds. Why do some experienced birders, who know all the correct field marks, sometimes badly misidentify a common and well-seen bird?
Why does a bird photo sent to the local bird discussion list generate so many diverse (and strongly held) opinions about what it is--even though it is unambiguously identifiable?
I think the answer to these questions comes down to two different reasons.
One reason is that some birders recognize birds based on clues in addition to the standard "field marks" listed in the book. Besides the plumage description (color pattern, wingbars, etc.) in the field guide, each bird comes with a certain shape, a set of behaviors, a certain habitat and specific niche within that habitat. Flying birds have a characteristic flight pattern. And most birds are not silent. And we're seeing them on a certain date, a specific season or time period during the year. (Birds in photos lack these supporting additional clues, thus why they sometimes fool even the best birders.)
Of course, each birder brings with them their own unique set of experiences with the birds they've seen in the past. Certainly, the more time in the field each birder has, the more opportunity they have to form patterns of bird recognition. Thus, to get better at bird ID, spend more time watching birds. (Duh.)
But to a large degree, shape, habitat, niche, behaviors, flight style, songs and calls, and status and distribution can be precisely described--they aren't totally subjective. They can be taught and can be learned--even without direct field experience with the bird under consideration. [See the series of posts: Seven methods of identifying birds.]
Oh, and the second reason some birders have trouble getting to the "advanced" level (meaning quickly and accurately identifying nearly every bird they see)? A future post ("Advanced birding means learning the basics") discusses this.