Corey over at 10,000 birds recently posted a nice piece on a mystery Calidris sandpiper he saw in August here.
The identification problem he encountered received a lot of attention and even made it onto David Sibley's new blog, as can be seen here.
Corey's main problem was not that he was quite understandably puzzled by the bird out in the field and wasn't able to put an ID on it (like food on his family), but that he reacted to this situation like everyone else today: he digiscoped the bird and tried to identify it later, at home surrounded by all the resources available through today's identification literature and the Internet.
This approach however backfired because many important field marks are not visible on the pictures and it isn't even possible to agree upon the bird's size, a rather crucial first step in the identification of quite a few species.
I found this discussion so interesting as the very same thing happened to me a few years back.
I was out visiting the salt marshes of Karrendorf on the German Baltic sea coast when I chanced upon a strange small Calidris sandpiper amongst a flock of Little Stints and Dunlins. It looked very much like a Little Stint only very much paler and greyer with pale tertials. As I didn't consider the bird to be within the normal range of Littles and as it also was not a Temminck's stint, it had to be a very, very unusual guest that needed to be documented thoroughly.
As time was limited and I had a scope and digital camera with me, I took a few pictures and thought these would be enough to later come to a certain identification.
Well, if Corey thought his images were poor, I hope he does me the favour of NOT commenting on mine, seen below.
Back home I noticed just how excessively lousy my images were, but they still showed the unusual field characters of the bird to a degree I deemed enough to forward them to wader/shorebird specialists, and they even made it all the way to the computer screen of Kilian Mullarney.
Yes, THE Kilian Mullarney of Kilian Mullarney birding fame.
I won't tell you here what he thought of the pic's quality but after a few email exchanges, it turned out that I may have very well seen a juvenile Red-necked Stint, a bird just about as rare in Germany as wild Andean Condors are in Nunavut.
But of course, these pictures were so extremely lousy that there was no way of knowing for sure what the bird's identity was (might have been a strange Little Stint after all), and there was no way of even dreaming to report it as a Red-necked Stint.
Had I not entirely relied on the pics but also taken a pile of field notes with the pictures only as supportive material, who knows, it might have been enough.
But just the pictures?
So where is the problem with taking pictures and why doesn't it seem to work in so many situations to just take a few pictures and identify the bird later?
There is a very interesting post on the Birdchaser blog here that addresses this problem by discussing the "Birding photo quiz".
I find the comment by Jeff Gyr (he's got a blog as well, here), the first one to Rob Fergus' post, very accurate, and I have taken the freedom of copying one of his sentences here word by word (hope he or Rob won't mind):
"You have to learn how to interpret photographs before you understand how they correspond to reality, just the way you have to learn the way words correspond to things, whether in Spanish or Kiswahili or English."
Pictures don't lie, they always tell the truth: the truth of that particular fraction of a second they were taken in.
But to translate this moment's snapshot into a broader, more generalized truth takes much more because - and this may sound like a simple or childish saying- things are not always the way they seem. They need to be put into a wider context than that which is shown on the picture alone.
Here is an example, a few pictures of a bird taken last May at Ohio's Crane Creek.
The situation is this: we see a somewhat strange warbler hopping through the branches ahead of us, aren't quite sure what it is and just manage a quick snapshot of it taking off.
At home, we analyze the image and note the following field marks:
The tail shows a white centre and a black rim.
The undertail coverts are pale, probably whitish.
The belly appears pale greyish/yellow with a few stripes.
The underwing coverts are dark greyish, leaning towards black, as can be seen clearly by comparing them to the white/pale undertail coverts.
It is a tough bird and we scan through our field guides vigorously and repeatedly but after a while get to the conclusion that the field marks (especially the greyish dark underwing according to the Sibley guide) fit nicely if this bird is called a first spring female Cape May Warbler. A few things don't feel right, but hey, we have the proof right there, don't we?
So this is what we do, we call it a Cape May Warbler, nice bird, we are satisfied and everything is fine.
Well, in this case I was able to take a few more pictures and the next one shows the very same bird a few seconds later:
Oh oh, we were fooled by the light! The underwing sure looked dark under the particular light conditions when the first picture was taken, but this was only how they appeared in that split-second. The true colour is actually a bright white, and by this field character and a few more, we come to a completely different identity: a female Cerulean Warbler.
This is - to most, and my apologies to Patrick - an even more special bird than a Cape May Warbler and a heck of a miss had we stuck with our initial identification as a Cape May.
But as it is such a nice bird, a few photos from last May, also at Crane Creek:
Today's birding community has raised the bar of expectations to prove a rare or unusual sighting quite high by almost demanding photographic evidence. This surely is a good thing and I am certainly not an old-fashioned fart who condemns the possibilities of digiscoping.
In the last few years however, with the possibility to digiscope, I had quite a few potentially "large fish" hooked but then did not manage to pull them onto land (we use that expression in German, not sure if it works in English but presume you know what I am trying to say).
Because I put more faith in the images I took than in my ability to write a protocol out in the field of what I was seeing.
Or quite possibly, I was just being too lazy... and got punished.