I recall with a mixture of chuckles and embarrassment some of the “cool”
bird sightings I thought I’d notched when I started birding. Over the years, I’ve learned more about the complexity of bird identification and realize how easy it is to error. Hopefully, I can spare you some of my ignorance and embarrassment.
The most common mistake I hear is the assumption that the mottled dark-brown eagles that soar over our shores are Golden Eagles. We all recognize the common Bald Eagle with its distinctive white head and tail. But you might not know that for the first four years of their lives, young Bald Eagles have a mottled dark-brown plumage. And these can be confusing.
Golden Eagles are quite rare on the west side of the Cascade Mountains. So most of the Golden Eagle sightings turn out to be juvenile Bald Eagles.
Another easy-to-make misidentification is the Anna’s Hummingbird. These year-round residents are becoming more and more common on Whidbey. They sport an iridescent green body and a flaming red gorget, those shining feathers on the bird’s chin.
Unless you see the red gorget feathers reflecting the sun, they appear black. A quick look in a bird book would indicate that a hummer with black chin feathers must be the Black-chinned Hummingbird. But there has never be an authenticated sighting of one on Whidbey.
I’m not saying that there will never be a Black-chinned Hummingbird here on our island. Birds fly. They travel long distances and occasionally veer off course. Still, the chances of seeing one here are in the realm of winning the lottery.
Another common misidentification is between the Spotted and Barred Owls, which look very similar. Both are mid-sized, brown and white speckled owls with dark eyes. Barred Owls are very common and often seen during daylight. The endangered Spotted Owl has been reduced to pockets of remote old-conifer forests.
Several years ago, my friend Steve Ellis received a report of a Spotted Owl hit by a car here on Whidbey and figured it was just another misidentified Barred Owl. But when he went to pick up the carcass, there was no denying that the bird was, in fact, a Spotted Owl. Likely one of the few of that species to wander our way in the past 50 years.
Not all reports of rare birds are misidentified, and that keeps me chasing around the island hoping to see rare species. One of the fascinating parts of birding is that almost every year a rare vagrant shows up.
A couple years ago, a friend reported seeing a Blue Jay at her feeder. (Not our common Steller’s Jay but the Blue Jay of the Eastern United States.) Photos confirmed her correct identification.
The most unlikely sighting for me was the report of an American Dipper. That bird spends its entire life in and near fast-rushing mountain rivers. It gleans food from the river bottom. Yet last fall, one settled into a stream and pond system off Campbell Road. Only when I saw it with my own eyes did I believe that report.
Please don’t think me unkind if I don’t drop what I’m doing to confirm a sighting of a Golden Eagle or Black-chinned Hummingbird. And if you think you’ve seen an Ivory-billed Woodpecker, don’t even bother to call (as one person did). Check out photos of the Pileated Woodpecker in a bird book or online.
A good source for rare-bird observations is the Whidbey Audubon Web site. Click here.
and you’ll see the heading “Unusual Bird Sightings and Special Points of Interest.” While there, check out our field trips and programs. All are welcome.
Frances Wood is the author of “Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.” To see her Web site, click here.