Have you ever wondered why a large group of birders can look at a bird and all misidentify it? Why do certain people consistently find a high number of rarities? How do some birders have a ninja-like ability to identify birds at great distance or on the briefest of views? Why are many bird artists equally renowned as field birders? All these questions can be answered by examining the psychology of how we look at birds and the subconscious workings of our brain, and more specifically, how it can fail us.
Birding, for all its differences across skill levels and myriad geographical and socio-economic boundaries, has one common denominator: we are all unified by the core process of labelling everything we see. However, that process can sometimes have unpredictable and unexpected outcomes.
Authority bias is the process by which we tend to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an expert, so a group of birders is likely to 'see' what a guide points out – but even the most knowledgeable expert can make a mistake (Julian Hough).
Seeing is believing
In early June 1988, a Paddyfield Warbler, a very rare autumn vagrant in the UK, was caught and ringed at Landguard Point, Suffolk. It was the first spring record and attracted a large crowd that defined the 1980s/1990s twitching scene.
The bird was released and remained for almost a week, allowing upwards of 600 people to add it to their lists. Spurred on by the positive reports, I hitched down from Bolton to be greeted with a rather dull, scruffy-looking warbler. As a tenacious teenager, I had memorised all the key identification features to prepare for this mega-rare 'Acro': pale supercilium; short primary projection; pale legs; and a dark tip to the lower mandible. It didn't seem to check all those boxes. The 'maths' didn't add-up; hundreds of the UK's most experienced birders had endorsed the identification over the preceding a week and it had been pointed out to me by the person who had held that very bird in his hands.
I hitched home, feeling confused by the whole situation. Even in my inexperience, I wasn't sure that I had seen a Paddyfield Warbler. The puzzle was resolved the following day when the bird started to sing. It was a Common Chiffchaff. How did a species not even in the same genus fool hundreds of people?
There's a lot to unpack here. There was a real Paddyfield – there are indisputable pictures of it in the hand. After release the bird was never seen again, but this worn, and admittedly strange-looking, doppelgänger was found in the same area and, in hindsight, that's when it all started to fall apart. Already mentally prepared to see a Paddyfield Warbler, a combination of circumstances and psychological biases aligned to set birders up for a 'mass hallucination' event.
Lapland Bunting in flight is a typical 'stealth migrant'; birds are frequently first detected by clued-up birders due to their somewhat distinctive and often Snow Bunting-like, 'rattle' and 'chew' calls (Julian Hough).
But how did it happen? It's likely some authority bias was at play, which is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an expert or authority figure – such as an experienced ringer – and be more influenced by birders with solid ID expertise. In addition, birders travelling to see rarities are susceptible to expectation bias, which occurs when an individual's expectations about a particular outcome influence their own perceptions.
Birders are tribal by nature, and on some level, people want to conform, or seek to derive information from others. The uptake of ideas and opinions generally increases the more they are adopted by others, so once the idea that this was a Paddyfield Warbler gained momentum among more experienced birders, everyone wanted to share in the success of a correct identification and jumped on the 'Paddyfield Warbler bandwagon'. It was game over at that point.
This in no way casts shade on the skills of the birders that saw a chiffchaff and went with the flow. Had I been there on those first few days, there is no doubt I would have had ink in my notebook too. All these psychological biases enable people's personal opinions to be sacrificed in the face of conformity. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc, offered some advice when he said: "Don't let the noise of other people's opinions drown out your own inner voice."
Black and white issues
In the USA in the early winter of 2012, presumably after a bumper breeding season, Snowy Owls exploded from their Arctic homes and headed south to find open, less competitive feeding territories. It was the biggest irruption of these ermine-clad hunters in almost 50 years. New England was blanketed by Snowy Owls.
In New Haven, Connecticut, I saw two birds right next to my house which spent their nocturnal hours hunting rats and ducks in the lights of the city harbour wharf. It seemed that any visit to a coastal marsh would yield one of these fantastic beasts. It's no surprise that the number of distant Snowy Owls that turned out to be plastic bags and 'owl-shaped' snow mounds – that you swore you saw move – increased exponentially during these expectant searches in 2012.
The brain can easily trick you into seeing an owl-shaped mound of snow, or even a carrier bag, as a Snowy Owl, if that’s what you expect to see (Julian Hough).
You can substitute egret or any other white bird in the above example. We've all done it! The brain is a very plastic but powerful tool, reshaping your perception, and making you see what you want to see. The phrase 'my mind is playing tricks on me' exists for a reason.
To add a different context, eyewitnesses in criminal cases are a perfect example of how flawed testimony can be in this regard. In 1984 Kirk Bloodsworth, a former marine from Maryland, USA, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death – an outcome that rested largely on the testimony of five eyewitnesses. After Bloodsworth served nine years in prison, DNA testing proved him to be innocent. Broadly speaking, eyewitness misidentifications can be characterised as failures of visual perception or memory. It's the same pitfalls in birding, but without the serious threat of incarceration or death.
Chance favours the prepared
After doing my apprenticeship of working a local patch, travelling to look at rare birds occupied all my waking hours growing up in the UK. In the much-anticipated British Birds Annual Report on Rare Birds, certain familiar initials could be found credited next to top rarities: C D R Heard. Chris Heard, to our band of young Turks starting out on the twitching scene in the '80s, was a bird-finding legend.
In January 1987, while birding near to his home in Datchet, Berkshire, Chris saw and heard a bunting in flight. Essentially a flight silhouette of a small blur, it could easily have been passed off as one of the more common species expected as such an inland location. But to Chris, the tsick call suggested Little Bunting – a rare autumn visitor from Asia, often found skulking in coastal, weedy fields and offshore islands, but not inland, overwintering in a built-up suburb.
He was able to return the next day and – to the delight and incredulity of local birders – confirmed it as a Little Bunting. To add more context, two weeks prior, while birding at nearby Slough Sewage Farm with Bill Stacey, Chris had noticed a small lark flying with the expected Eurasian Skylarks and correctly identified it as a Greater Short-toed Lark, an exceptional bird inland, let alone in winter. Both records remain the only ones for Berkshire.
These are the avian equivalent of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Chris's ability wasn't magic – it was honed from the '10,000-hour rule': to truly excel at something, you need to spend hours in the field, studying local species, building up a mental image library of what species occur in which habitat at a given time of year, listening to and memorising calls and songs. All this to prepare for the possibility of finding something rare and recognising the moment when it happens.
Sherlock Holmes said: "You see but you do not observe – the distinction is clear." Learning the diagnostic field marks of certain species, and what separates them from the commoner ones, is important in making quick and confident identifications. This is key when species are very similar in plumage and structure.
When I first visited the USA in autumn 1987, I saw lots of juvenile Semipalmated and Western Sandpipers, two rare vagrants to the UK that were hard to tell apart in juvenile plumage. Separating them didn't happen by osmosis, it took targeted study: looking at specific feathers and patterns and comparing and contrasting to arrive at a point where I could articulate how they were different. It takes work, effort and dedication to go out and actually 'look' at birds and not just 'see' them. But it's worth it – doing so will increase your bird identification skills exponentially.
While gestalt is often an important clue, tricky confusion species, such as Western (left) and Semipalmated (right) Sandpipers, benefit from targeted observations of plumage minutiae (Julian Hough).
If you bird a local patch or visit the same habitats year round, the birds will start to become familiar. When something unusual turns up, you brain subconsciously processes all the information to let you know that something is 'wrong' or 'out of place'. The ability to unconsciously 'know' is the brain's ability to 'thin slice', as described by author Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.
Gladwell writes: "There can be as much value in the blink of an eye as in months of rational analysis." World War II fighter pilots, in a life-or-death dogfight situation, when split-second decisions need to be made, learned to recognise enemy planes by their 'general impression size and shape' (GISS). This is close to the word 'jizz' as coined by birders for split-second identifications where the holistic impression, not minutiae, forms the basis for identification.
One skill that is helpful to bird identification is drawing. Not all artists are great birders, and not all great birders are good artists, but sketching brings a different perspective to the identification process. In order to draw a bird, it has to be deconstructed bit by bit, concentrating on each feather tract in isolation, and their colours and patterns.
An artist experiences the whole bird during the drawing process and retains more information than someone passively looking at it. The end goal is not to produce an artistic masterpiece, but to engage your eyes and brain. Some of my favourite artists are Ian Lewington, Killian Mullarney, Lars Jonsson and David Sibley. I don't think it is a coincidence that these fantastic artists are also respected field birders.
The topic of psychology and the subconscious workings of our mind and how we perceive the world around us brings another dimension to the subject of bird identification. The plasticity of the brain and how it can inform us, as well as fool us, is a fascinating subject to ponder and be aware of when trying to remain objective in the field.
The author began sketching birds at the age of six, and drawings of rarities accompanied by long, precise descriptions adorned his notebooks – sketches and notes document what you actually saw rather than what you think you remember.