Keep an open mind when identifying rare birds

rare birds

One of the hardest challenges in bird identification (as in life) is keeping an open mind to all the possibilities. We all have a desire for certainty. We want to know the answer, unambiguously yes or no, and once we settle on an answer, we resist any challenge. We tend to focus only on evidence that confirms our answer and ignore or discount evidence that refute it.

As we learn to identify birds – building a mental library of what birds look like in different seasons, lighting, postures, etc. – we must ensure that these birds are correctly identified. Some aren’t, that’s a given, but we should be wary of drawing conclusions based on uncertain observations and constantly testing, confirming and reconfirming every ground mark we think we know.

I can illustrate this with an experience I had last August near my home in Massachusetts. Looking into a thicket I saw several Veeries and a different looking thrush. It was in juvenile plumage, darker and duller brown above, with much heavier dark patches on the breast and dark flanks – all Grey-cheeked Thrush field markings. It was cooperative, and I watched it for about two minutes, confirming all the field marks.

This would be a remarkable, unusually early record for a fall migrant and possibly the first time a Grey-cheeked Thrush in juvenile plumage has been recorded in Massachusetts! But I was sure of the identification and thought that the arrival of this bird might be related to the ongoing drought in the area.


Later researching the subject for some illustrations, I found photographs of Veery in juvenile plumage that appeared dark with heavy blotches. This gave me some momentary doubts, but I was still convinced it must be a grey-cheeked thrush, now based entirely on the darksides.

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It took a few more days, and a conscious effort to think about it objectively, to conclude that it was almost certainly a juvenile Veery, no matter how dark I thought the flanks were.

Mistakes are inevitable, and our natural tendency to resist admitting them will lead to more mistakes. On the other hand, our misidentifications offer great learning opportunities if we are open to it, and I think it is a way of thinking that can be learned and practiced. Beware of claiming absolute certainty and train yourself to step back and think, “What else could explain this?” Your bird identification skills will be better for it.


This article originally appeared in “ID Toolkit” in the November/December 2022 issue of BirdWatching magazine.