I've been watching birds for a long time now (as a kid I used to sleep with the full-sized Eastern Peterson's beside my bed -- okay, who am I kidding, in my bed) and I think I'm a pretty decent birdwatcher. That said, there are some pretty glaring holes in my repertoire. I've never met a small sandpiper ("peep") I could happily identify with complete certainty, for example, aside from the very small Sanderlings and Dunlin. Sparrows used to be a thorn in my side, except for a few very common and distinctive species. And gulls? There are only two gulls, right? Ring-Billed and Herring?
It's very easy to just dismiss these groups as being ridiculously hard to tell apart, and just be satisfied with my ability to ID the rest quickly and efficiently by sight and/or sound. But if I want to continue to consider myself a serious birder -- and I most emphatically do -- I can't keep being lazy about the groups I find hard.
So finally, over the past few years, I've started taking on these groups. Sparrows are actually pretty easy, now that I know where to look for the distinguishing characteristics. They're still the same small, brown, stripy birds, but I've worked on figuring out it over the years and rather than seeing a small, browns, stripy bird and going "Ugh, sparrow sp." I can look at it and say -- "Okay, it has a bright pink beak, and it's kind of grayish and boring on the face, huh, that must be a Field Sparrow." That was almost my exact line of thought when one turned up at the feeder last fall. I had to get out the book to confirm the pink beak diagnosis, but I was correct, and it felt great.
See, this is the thing. There's a certain amount of satisfaction in being able to see something flying by in a blur and say what it is immediately. But there's also a great amount of satisfaction in working at an ID and getting it right. Another case in point: gulls.
This past week someone tipped me off to the fact that someone we both know had identified Glaucous Gulls at a reservoir I regularly frequent for birdwatching purposes. Previously I'd just been looking at the mass of white and grey and black birds, catching the size difference, and being all "Ring-Billed and Herring, check" then moving on to look for ducks, which I have no trouble IDing and which I quite enjoy looking for. I told my friend that I wouldn't know a Glaucous Gull from a hole in the ground, and he said "Well, apparently there's no black on the wing."
Huh, I thought, that seems easy enough.
And it was. The lack of black combined with their size, there was nothing else those three big pale gulls could have been. I wouldn't have even looked for them if someone hadn't mentioned they were there and what their key field marking is. Gulls have a couple of things to differentiate them -- their wingtips, the colouration under their wing, their head colour, and, critically, their beak and leg colour. I have enough practice identifying that sort of marking in other groups of birds, it's just a matter of not being lazy and applying my skills to this group that I've previously deemed too frustrating to bother with.
It's satisfying on several levels -- puzzling it out and IDing to a level of certainty I'm happy with, adding birds to my life list, and feeling like I'm growing as a birdwatcher and expanding my skill set.