(Archive: Laws of Birding)

18 October 2009, Sunday
The Laws of Birding, an introduction

All good, and esp. great lessons are delivered with a sense of humor. The punchline to the joke is that memorable catch phrase or moral to remember the story by. This exercise is all a playful look at human tendencies when it comes to observing, and it applies to everything we look at. Even when you're not looking at hawks.

I started these 'Laws' by accident with a cadre of 11-year olds (like Groundhog Day, it happened over and over). While birding with them through their high school years, this handbook evolved and took on a life of its own, but was never nailed down, in writing (and there in lay some of the whimsy, as I could twist and turn on the fly for even a bigger laugh at our tendencies to misidentify). My adult apprentices, have enjoyed and gravitated to all of the same lessons that interest kids, go figure.

For example the First Law of Birding recommends, "The shorter the look, the better the bird will be." Limit the information part of an observation and it's just plain old human nature to bulk up the results. We do it everyday. Again, you are making an observation and gathering information, but as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry once said, "A man needs to know his limitations." Go ahead, repeat after Clint, in a whispering scientific snarl, "Need to know your limitations..." Identifying the limits of your study is nearly the first law of science.

Each time you look at a bird it's always observation, information, and assessment of the limitations. Interpreting anything is that, and knowing the universal tenancies of the beginner's mind is a skill that can be practiced while birding, to improve your birding. Sounds easy enough, but one can't go out to a hawkwatch and not see this first Law stomped to death on any day of the week (unless it's raining). Combine it with the Second Law and you've a real typical day out hawkwatching. These laws are heavily in play at a hawkwatch or seawatch because the birds are moving and therefore will be gone, shortly.

Second Law of Birding: "The further away it is the better it is." Now, what is far away for one is perfectly identifiable for another. "How do you know that's what that is?" Common question for a distant raptor in view that might come closer. My stock and trade answer: "Okay, I've told you what it is, now you watch it come in and let me know when you know it too... today, that might be as it's right overhead (or even a bit behind us)... but soon, you'll get it just out front, and then out there far enough that someone will ask you, 'How'd you get that bird way out there!'... and hopefully you'll tell them just what I've told you."

I not only watch hawks, but I watch people watch hawks. Eight out of ten observers lower their optics to ask the above question and don't raise them again, even though I've engaged them with some casual sounding, but direct, direction. One observer in ten gets it and reengages the bird, while there's that other watcher who asks the question from behind their optics having never broken the hawk-hawkwatcher connection. I saw that.

We get to the element of experience and its best uses in later laws... when you have some... tempered by a comfortable grasp of observation, the info gathering, and knowing your limitations and those of the day's conditions. In the meantime it's observation, information, limitations and the first two Laws of Birding.


3 November 2009, Tuesday
Third Law of Birding: "The newer the birder, the better the bird."

To recap:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.

The next laws — all, also known as the Laws of Thermal Dynamics — get into the application of experience to reining in our human tendencies for making the worst of an observation situation, while expanding our precision and enjoyment in the moment. The worse part in the situation, with young or new birders, is when finally a new species is seen well... it's disappointing to check the life list and see the thing already checked off.

I've always liked this quickie definition of knowledge: knowledge is information plus experience. "She's a knowledgeable birder." Like the sound of that? Read on...

Picture a thoroughly suburban bird feeder, say on Long Island, with a sparrow-sized reddish bird at it. The phone rings and the new feeder watcher wants to 'alert the birding media' that they have a Cassin's Finch in their backyard. We go from there to Purple Finch and begrudgingly arrive at House Finch after much debate and disappointment. It's a familiar tale for those of us who have spent any time at a nature center or on-call with a bird club — both in my case. It's just human nature: "the newer the birder, the better the bird."

In the field, for birders who have a full year's adventuring and are not new to birding, new also means, new to that species, or even new to that whole group of species. Working through the newness presents a unique puzzle each time a new bird is encountered, until. Until the information and the experience become knowledge. Each birder is different when it comes to crossing this threshold in building up a knowledge base. Legendary ecologist Robert MacArthur, who with EO Wilson, wrote The Theory of Island Biogeography (1967) put it this way in Geographical Ecology (1972), a book about detecting patterns in the face of complexity:

The only rules of scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic.

Wow. Keep the first two Laws in mind and be honest with yourself about what is possible, probably and therefore likely.

Okay: hawks. With size being one of the most talked about but misleading indicators of identity, you can imagine the fun there is to have with accipiters — Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper's Hawks, and Northern Goshawks. A visitor of the accipiter persuasion is my calling lately, but I also seek out images online. I look at a lot of accipiter (mostly) picts annually, a lot, and provide lengthy comments to hopefully enlighten... and a lot of decent birders have trouble with this little North American complex. I mostly point out things that are apparently new to the perplexed. A while back I finally made a composite illustrating how different the immatures of the three species really are (click to enlarge): while you can find this one's tail too long or too short or that one's too round or square or purple, the pattern of breast streaking is very different in these birds, so I guess you could say it's the key to this new door.

And from my little survey, guess what, many people are sure they have a Goshawk — the least common accipiter — at their feeder, or along the roadside. And guess what, it basically never is. Of course, the Cooper's Hawk has become a very common yard accipiter, with its delicate streaking that is concentrated on the upper breast and then thins and fades downhill from there. The Sharpie and Gos are thickly and thoroughly streaked. By the by, seeing an image or actual Goshawk shocks most seasoned observers. It is a distinctly spotted beast in its markings. I'll have a flight shot of a Gos, here on Friday accompanying the bad ID hall of fame post. I'm not going to put up hundreds of words here and now about this complex, just check out the crystal clear hard work of Wheeler and Ligouri.

Some hawkwatchers never lose their new car smell (that's a bad thing in the context of the Third Law). A fleeting glance at a perched hawk while going around the sharp curves of a highway off ramp by a fellow in eastern Mass caused me to hawk-up a big web loogey called Wintertails. Started in '02, it has careened across twentysomething pages and several years.

Concluding, the 3rd Law of Birding — the newness of someone else — comes into play when deciding whether to chase a sighting or vouch for the reporting of others. Inexperience with a species or its kin, enters into ARC decision-making. Of course, it should factor in when it comes to announcing, your own observations!


5 November 2009, Thursday
Fourth Law of Birding: "Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself..."

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.

This 4th Law continues, "Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself, but when in the presence of others never seems to do so."

Circa 1975 in the North Country (NY), the kids were driving me nuts with birding reports from a certain bird club member — for whom this law was created. So, no this is not all about the guy considered the North American type specimen for this fakery... from Massachusetts.

Back in the '70s, especially during shorebird migration over Lake Ontario, my young charges would clamour about going to see what this area birder was seeing. Now, I could have been direct and said I thought the guy was a poser, mediocre birder, and I wasn't up for a wide goose chase, so to speak. But I had a better idea, a teachable moment of perverse proportions... send the boys out on a long, half day field trip to the local shorebird site with Mr. Birder. No Ginger or Mary Ann on this four-hour tour. After the field trip, I quizzed the kids nonchalantly, but endlessly, about what he had showed them, how well they must have seen these interesting species, etc. They were disillusioned and I made it as hard as possible for them to get that across to me! Because, there is learning the birds, but there is also a need to learn the birdwatchers, starting in your own backyard. And ultimately, learn not to be that guy, in whole or in part.

The psychology of how someone becomes a nature faker is like any need to ring a false alarm. It's about attention and esteem. The really great ones are the stuff of case studies, imprisonment, books and/or international lectures...

A Rum Affair, is a book I liked as a botanist and observer of what makes modern day nature fakers tick. But if you are any sort of natural history buff, this is a fairly well written case study in deception, bluster, and sadness. The faker at the core is a lot like the infamous Massachusetts birder. For another tall-but-true tale involving birds, I attended British Natural History Museum curator Robert Prys-Jones' talk about "The Ornithological Frauds of Robert Meinhertzhagen" at the Cornell Lab last year. The program is available for viewing anytime online as a QuickTime movie. Unraveling this one involved the invention of forensic ornithology, and Prys-Jones was the inventor.

Very good birders are believed when solo, as they've earned it by being the one who is the first to pick out the rarity in a crowd of their peers; repeatedly being right at what seems to be the limit of optics. For the rest of us, the road to this recognition begins with not being wrong to the limit of patience with our finds around the very good. From there, working up to discovering birds that others would like to see too is heading in the right direction, reputation-wise. Whatever, strive to not being that birder, you know, the one who only sees good birds when by yourself.


13 November 2009, Friday
Fifth Law of Birding: The rule of 100

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.
Fourth Law of Birding: Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.

So. You read about a shiny new fieldmark, or better yet, you hear about one from your buddy and, "Boy that baby works bigtime." Want to run out and try it out, right?! Go ahead, but be guided by "The Rule of 100"...

It is prudent and a great way to follow and focus on a bird* when you tryout a fieldmark on that species (sex, age, morph, etc.) one hundred times before you consider it safe/approved-by-you to use... out loud, and for your records.
(* bird, around here, means hawk)

Of course, you'll first need to ID the bird using an amalgam of other fieldmarks, if someone else hasn't called the bird out already. Next, can you make it work for you on bird-one... then #2, bird C, and so on. That was easy enough, so why 100? Neatogrooveykeen fieldmarks are often subtle little suckers, and you do need to try them out: incoming and outbound, in bright light and on overcast days, early-late day vs. midday, windy/calm, think about it, there are many more situations for testing. You've been doing this with most of your ID work to-date, right?!

In addition... what(!) there's more(?)... in addition, you need to discover conditions under which the fieldmark does -- not -- work. And trust me, there will be... there had better be a few, or one of you has to go.

Now I couldn't make this stuff up... I have watched people announce fieldmarks that confirmed a bird for them when:

  • They just heard about it yesterday,
  • Someone else had already ID'd the bird,
  • That feature didn't show well (for anyone under field conditions), or
  • It was the wrong species, and they were guessing/bluffing.

So don't be that "tomato can." Or as I've beckoned before... please bring cash to my hawkwatch, as I don't take American Express ... for a little "Hawkwatcher's Poker."

Parenthetically, this is what hawkwatchers who practice the Laws of Birding are doing a lot of the time when they seem to be staring thru optics off into the distant sky: working with "The Rule of 100," trying to find the exceptions to the rule, but are actually applying the rule to find flaws in a rule, by applying the rule, get it?


18 November 2009, Wednesday
Sixth Law of Birding: The one-mile limit

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.
Fourth Law of Birding: Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.
Fifth Law of Birding: The rule of 100

I asked the same question of the best hawk counters (professionals), in the field, on their counting grounds: On a given day could you be two miles from a concentrated movement of hawks and not know it? I had two problems in mind: driving around in search of a hot spot for watching and the issue of detecting migration. Not only was their answer, "Sure," but the two was easily narrowed in the mind of the young pros to one. These young eyes had worked out the paradox of seeing birds several miles away from their current vantage, at the same time knowing full well what else might be had surprising nearby. Ah, the buddha in the birder. Zen and the art of hawkwatching™.

Sullivan and Liguori looked into this at Derby Hill way back when and found what others have also confirmed: a mile is a long way and it makes a difference. At sites like Derby Hill and Braddock Bay, along Lake Ontario, observers have moved farther still to observe the moveable feast, some unofficially. Dave Tetlow is truly having fun with this idea over at Braddock Bay, we haven't talked in a while, but I have a sense he's onto this idea and knows that the weather patterns are on the move so, so is he! These are not the only sites to change up the point of view. Back to you and the practice...

Is it science or a sin to move around to find the spot? That's up to you. But the mistake hawkwatchers make in mind is the creaky presumption that the world comes to them and, all is visible from here. And it's my view that the integrity of the point sample has been taken around the bend and off a cliff to the exclusion of soft and flexible, considering all the other variables that enter into that sacred data set.

I've watched hawks all day from the venerable sites, started two hawkwatches from scratch that are popular decades later, moved one site to the other side of a (big) parking lot, and while intensely watching at all of the above, appreciate the other of that hawk flight. Enigma? I'm counting on it.

In Bulworth (1998), where going rogue meant something, Warren Beatty's character receives this equivocal advice, "You got to be a spirit! You can't be no ghost." One mile might be the distance... between ghost and spirit.


23 November 2009, Monday
Seventh Law of Birding: ID is not a democracy

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.
Fourth Law of Birding: Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.
Fifth Law of Birding: The rule of 100
Sixth Law of Birding: The one-mile limit

Majority does not rule in matters of bird identification; taking a vote doesn't make it so. But we reached a consensus, you say, but it does change the substance of the organism, I retort... you (all) could be wrong. Calling out a name does not transform a single molecule, or feather. The alchemists are now voting with their feet.

You say, avian records committees do it all the time. With a records committee, they weren't there, so they're like the jury system: not direct witnesses to the crime, but will take in all the evidence and render a verdict. The good news is that more and more reports of rarities are coming in with supporting digital images and many ARCs are both requesting and actively seeking the photo documentation.

Back to the scene of the crime: six hawkwatchers concur on the ID of an accipiter and someone marks the sheet with a pen, a seventh birder says nothing. Content with the vote five of the original six move on to other matters... other birds, local sports team highlights, lunch, but knowing this Law of Birding the sixth turns to the seventh. The Seventh (not their real name), waiting patiently for the look, returns a rye smile and the vote is overturned, at least in the mind of Mr. Six, who heard the silence (it's that zen thing again).

The hawkwatch might be a social activity, might be science, but like gravity, you can't overrule the science with a potion of friendship (friends don't let friends make bad calls). This is another one of those laws where knowing the birders is as important as knowing the birds. And you want to be the birder who knows enough to look for help beyond your peers, even if they give you your own vote!

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30 November 2009, Monday
Eighth Law of Birding: The UFO conjecture

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.
Fourth Law of Birding: Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.
Fifth Law of Birding: The rule of 100
Sixth Law of Birding: The one-mile limit
Seventh Law of Birding: ID is not a democracy

"It couldn't have been anything else."

When I hear a declarative like that, I'm pretty sure the bird was "anything else." The observer has stopped trying to explore and learn and gone into the bunker. Good news, bad news: it's a temporary condition for some birders who are having a reoccurring bout with the Third Law; for others, it's a lifestyle choice.

Ask yourself this — for your report or the one you're hearing/reading about — is the evidence better than a basic UFO sighting? About the same? Less? Usually, this will elicit a smile and snap one out of it... just hearing the questions. If you fail to see the humor, well.

In addition to the alien spacecraft-report UFOs... and yes, I know unidentified flying/feathered objects can be birds... they fly too, I get it (I use it)... I often illustrate this law with Sasquatch sightings or even New England mountain lion glimpses, where laws 1, 2, & 3, plus a dash of No. 4 all combine to make it so. And yes, I used to call them cougars, but that's another species all-together (see ABC TV, Wednesdays). For now, we can add Ivory-billed Woodpecker, not just for the UFO-grade grainy video, but for all the other sightings coming in over the years, with more intensity than ever recently, but w/o additional documentation (see any number of the Laws above).

"If that's not a Rough-legged Hawk, what else could it be?"

That's the actual discussion point offered (that links to a second image... of an actual, albeit dark morph, Roughleg). But this original rhetorical should quickly set flying an 8th Law of Birding red flag, and I sent a couple of emails, one containing a light morph Roughleg image to compare to the full-frame, pictured juvenile Redtail:

I sent [you] a brief note stating that this bird was a Redtail, not a Roughleg. Here's why...

This buteo has a straw-colored eye, therefore it is an immature bird. Focusing on differences between immie RT and RL, here's a couple of points...
1. Using any source field guide for immie RT/RL plumage... Note immie light morph Roughlegs have pale, almost blonde/white heads, your bird is very dark headed. Immie light morph RLs also tend to have a solid black belly band, no checker boarding with light markings and not brown, but black.
2. Focus on the underside of the tail... An immie light morph Roughleg has a very wide diffuse gray subterminal band and in light morphs, no other tail bands. Your bird has a narrow subterminal band, then many other thin bands above that, that's an immie RT.

Many young RTs have even more pronounced belly bands than your bird, but they are still Redtails. Since adult male Roughlegs can have essentially no bellyband (!), the belly band is an unreliable field mark for telling these two species apart.


9 December 2009, Wednesday
Ninth Law of Birding: The element of surprise

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
First Law of Birding: The shorter the look, the better the bird.
Second Law of Birding: The farther away it is, the better it is.
Third Law of Birding: The new the birder, the better the bird.
Fourth Law of Birding: Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.
Fifth Law of Birding: The rule of 100
Sixth Law of Birding: The one-mile limit
Seventh Law of Birding: The UFO conjecture
Eighth Law of Birding: ID is not a democracy

Never "small, reddish brown with soft gray areas on the flanks," no. If a bird appears unexpectedly and close it's always, "large and dark."

Ever notice that? The stranger, the dog that chased us as kids, the car coming out of nowhere... the hit and run, the snatch and grab... always the same, "big and dark." That's just the way we're wired, neurologically speaking.

And yet, some don't see it that way — the professional athlete and elite birder manage to see clearly and in color. When others are surprised and throbbing, they are calm and collected making cogent judgments... "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities. In the expert's mind there are few," Shunryu Suzuki from his work, and book: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind (1973).

So, training the mind through the body is the key. Of course we want to be surprised, but we don't want to black out at every new excitement. The key to this training is paying attention and testing/readying yourself. In the West we called it a feedback loop: as personal, honest and accurate as one can make it. In the East, it is called practice, again: personal, honest, aware. Laird Hamilton, big waver surfer, demonstrates the East-West meeting point.

In the Fall, after a couple of weeks of Broadwings, the first Redtails look like eagles. In the Spring, after adult Red-tailed Hawks push on by, the first young female Redtails get called Harriers, or Swainson's. Practice is ongoing; is-as life itself.

Another of the surprising surprises: take your skill set from an inland prominence with a treeline vista and go to the coast where the scale you judge things against is now dunes and Beach Plums (soaring upwards of ten feet into the air)... Sharp-shinned Hawks become Cooper's Hawks; Merlins graduate to Peregrine-class falcons. Your feedback loop has gone loopy. Conversely, after a week at Cape May, everything back on the mount looks tiny, dwarfed by the landscape, plus dark and dull after a week of harsh light overexposing every detail. Surprise! Jot it down. Keep a list.


18 December 2009, Friday
Tenth Law of Birding: The rarity necessity

To recap the Laws of Thermal Dynamics:
1. The shorter the look, the better the bird.
2. The farther away it is, the better it is.
3. The new the birder, the better the bird.
4. Beware of he who only sees good birds when by himself.
5. The rule of 100.
6. The one-mile limit.
7. The UFO conjecture.
8. ID is not a democracy.
9. The element of surprise.

I used to go out hawkwatching to see "something." Now I plan on seeing everything, with no need for a rarity to make my day... or report.

To illustrate, let me redact a recent email from Plum Island MA: "Gyrfalcon... Peregrine; Bald Eagle; another eagle... Golden Eagle; white Gyrfalcon... adult male Snowy Owl!" I think the Rolling Stones said it best, for the rest of us (1969):

You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
You can't always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need

Look, somewhere between the third and fourth laws, some of us get lost either in the moment, or in the need for celebrity. POV: our own or the bird's. Somewhere along the path from watching E! to 'here's me with [insert celebrity name here]' cellphone snaps to stalker and restraining order. The insatiable integer we multiply by varies to get our daily satisfaction.

How to be satisfied, hawk-wise?

I've talked about it: scan for it, color it in, know black when you see it, revel in the breadth and width of the Redtail complex, check out plumage in accipiters as a rethinking and sharpening exercise, think of all these things as seeing brushstrokes.

And then there's molt. Symmetrical patterning help us replace the Old Testament of Hawkwatching advisement that it's a damaged wing or gunshot, conversely a damaged wing is molt(!?). So, symmetrical, partial, active molt can be seen in the field and in images you might take home. Check out that big Redtail in flight in the upper righthand corner of this page ("Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009"). It's a Winter shot of a young adult bird flying across a local field. Common, I suppose.

Look along the trailing edge of the wing: notice the two shorter feathers with the tiny less than true black subterminal black band, compared to the rest of the secondaries? Those are an example of partial molt, where all the feathers were not replaced at the same time to the same specs. Look across to the upper surface of the far wing: right away you can see a similar feather in a similar position. It's shorter, and, it's pointy... another indication it is an immature plumage feather. Don't need to know all the ins and outs of Accipitridae molt to see and enjoy... wow, what a day, we saw several Redtails with similar molt patterns! Who cares if there weren't any Swainson's, Harlan's, Krider's (as is the case on most days, duh).

While the Rough-legged Hawk is a semi-rarity, there are fun things to look for as you sift through the birds of the year for something older. The image at the top of this post actually shows two Roughlegs when you click and expand it, one light and one dark morph, with partial molt. One is showing active molt in November. Active molt is fairly common at Spring sites in the Northeast if you linger (for Broadwing stragglers) into May and June (earlier for Redtails), but in the Fall here, the Roughleg is the best "place" to look for active molt, and likely by now the bird has managed to get all the feathers out and in place. The black primary tip coming in can even be seen in the thumbnail image above... and two other black-tipped fingers are up, along with the very plain and pale primary, looking odd and left out of last summer's latest molt.

All that to take in. Discover it. Now that's a rarity.


They've got the urge for going, and
they've got the wings so they can go.

— Joni Mitchell

Hawk•art•science blog
Truth and beauty. Art and science. Entries here will be on that flightline, although I will stray from the hawk-part on occasion, or will I? I aiming this beast at hawkheads and/or the young seasonal revolutionary biologists. It's for the flexible and young-at-heart too.
Comments, questions, excited utterances, and/or exasperated afterthoughts from you, dear reader, are welcome and will receive a reply. — Tom Carrolan
(Image above: "Recent self-portrait No.3, 2009")

Original recipe Hawksaloft.com
The Hawksaloft.com website was launched in 1997, following three years of printed handbills, plus numerous emails, all voicing my alt.hawkwatching ideas in New England. If you've been here before, the original site is archived in all its old-timey graphic glory. To navigate the old way, just click on Psychedelia the Hawk Owl and be transported back in time... trippy. Any bookmarks or links found anywhere online still work.

Not everything that counts can be counted and
not everything that can be counted counts.

— Albert Einstein