Friday, 6 August 2021

Identifying Birds

My fellow blogger Steve Gale recently published volume one of his natural history memoirs. Steve is only a few months older than me, so his wonderful account of discovering birds and serving a birding apprenticeship through the 1970s resonates powerfully. It doesn't matter that my own journey didn't begin in earnest until a few years later, Steve's descriptions of Beddington, Staines Reservoir and Dungeness take me straight to these places, in all their sepia-toned glory. And it is to the Dungeness of Steve's memory that I would like to travel now, one August day in 1977...

Steve's account relates the discovery of a Hippolais warbler in the Dungeness Observatory moat. Upwards of a dozen birders are gathered, trying to decide whether it's a Melodious or Icterine Warbler, and among their number is the late Peter Grant. Steve justifiably describes PJG as a 'birding god' of the day. The Dunge Hippolais crowd awaits PJG's judgement and, after ten minutes watching it, he pronounces the bird a Melodious Warbler. Which obligingly then enters a Heligoland trap and reveals itself to be an Icterine Warbler, a fact which PJG takes in good part, and uses to teach a salutory lesson to the gathered young birders...

I shan't say what that lesson was - though likely it's pretty obvious - rather I'll recommend you download Steve's book (find it HERE) and discover for yourself. But I'm going to nick Steve's anecdote to illustrate a bird identification truism: even the best can get it wrong.

On Twitter just lately I've come across a couple of interesting ID conundrums which bear talking about in this context. The most recent was a set of flight shots of a juvenile gull. The identification came down mainly to a choice between Yellow-legged Gull and Great Black-backed Gull, with votes in favour of both, but even Lesser Black-backed was mooted. In the end the correct ID was GBBG, but it was very refreshing to see a number of birders get involved in the discussion and offer their opinions. Hats off to them all, because on a public forum like Twitter I think it takes bottle to do that. The risk of getting it wrong is very real, and though few have a reputation like the late Peter Grant's to 'worry about', no one actually enjoys being wrong.

For the second example I first need to reference a photo I posted on Twitter last year. Back in May 2020 I spent a lot of time peering at the sky from my garden. On a day which produced a few Red Kites I also had a rather tatty falcon. It wasn't close, but through bins I identified it as a Peregrine. I got a number of tenth-rate photos, but reviewing them later made me change my mind about the bird's ID. I decided it was actually a first-summer Hobby...

If your reaction to this photo is, 'What was he thinking?!' well, yes...exactly.

No doubt my reasons for revising the identification were clear at the time, but anyway... Very quickly a birder on Twitter put me straight, kindly and tactfully suggesting it was a first-summer Peregrine. And of course, he is correct. Somewhere on my Twitter page that faux pas still lives, and it's a lesson I've not forgotten. So, when a Devon birder named Jo King posted the following on Twitter just recently, I felt I ought to grasp the nettle...

I believed Jo had made the same mistake I had, and been hoodwinked by a young Peregrine. Obviously I could have simply thought my thoughts and kept them to myself, saying nowt. But I've learned lots of useful ID stuff through Twitter which I feel has helped me develop as a birder, and saw this as an opportunity to reciprocate. So I did. Unfortunately I hadn't anticipated one or two other experienced birders endorsing Jo's original identification, and giving some reasons why it was indeed a Hobby. Suddenly unsure of myself, I backed off and looked at the photo more carefully...

The Hobbygrine  © Jo King

I really couldn't reconcile the broad-based wings and fine, dense streaking on the underparts with Hobby, but it's quite easy to doubt yourself sometimes, especially when presented with a seemingly confident alternative view. One thing I will say though: it did make me get the books out and do some online research! Thankfully, before I got too despondant about my evident inability to ID falcons, some other experienced voices joined the discussion. The bird is indeed a young Peregrine after all, and there are several good reasons why. One interesting point which came out is that Peregrines on sandstone cliffs (as is frequently the case in Devon) often wind up with a rusty-stained vent area. In a nutshell, I learned stuff, and was glad I'd got involved.

I've wanted to write a post like this for some time, and Steve Gale's wonderful anecdote about Peter Grant and the Hippolais warbler helped crystallize my thinking. Bird identification is not easy, and in some cases very tricky indeed. We all get it wrong sometimes, and every one of us is still on the learning curve. Despite that, there are some brilliant teachers out there. Peter Grant may have been a one-off, but there are many birders whose particular interests (or should I say passions?) make them relative experts in their field. It's brilliant to see some of them willing to share that expertise online.

My recent experiences on Twitter are very heartening. It's lovely to see birders responding to ID queries, willing to stick their neck out, willing to give reasons for their opinion. And it's lovely to see a bit of humility too. And when someone like me (or Jo above) posts an incorrect ID it's great to see tactful efforts to put us right. In the end, we all gain I think.

Finally, because the photos posted so far depict only Peregrines, I thought it might be useful to post a collage with some Hobbies in the mix. Apart from Jo's photo they're all mine, and therefore pretty dire. Even so, hopefully they illustrate that when seen side by side, the two species aren't really too difficult to tell apart. But then you remember that both species show considerable variation in size, have age-related plumages, and generally come one at a time. And that Merlin is a thing.

L to R: er, um, er, yeah right...

With grateful thanks to Steve Gale and Jo King for inspiration.


  1. If you guys struggle so much, what chance has the likes of me?

    1. You think that's bad? What about the birds that can't be identified without a DNA sample?! I've come to the conclusion that some bird ID stuff is just silly. I'll happily enjoy them anyway, in a state of blissful ignorance! 😄

      And with gulls, the simplest way to peace is to look away.

  2. Or guess that the raptor chasing down a House Martin is most likely not a Peregrine.

    1. Ric, a survey of Peregrines breeding in Bath, Bristol and Exeter over the ten-year period 1998-2007 revealed that House Martin comprised just 0.11% of their diet by number of items, or 0.01% by biomass. So, no, most likely not. 😄