Confessions of a Mistaken ID

“You are never as good as your best bird I.D.  And you are never as bad as your worst mistake.” – Greg Miller

My Keyser Soze bird!
My Keyser Soze bird! Red-breasted Merganser.

I have a confession to make. In a recent post, MIA: Winter in Wisconsin, I made a wrong ID on a relatively common bird.  While the non-birders out there will just shrug it off and move on, really not knowing the difference, us birders take it much more personally. Any birder worth their weight in feathers strives to make accurate IDs and when we make a mistake, whether it be in the field with a group of our peers, on social media while weighing in on an ID, or posting it on a blog, there is a sense of failure and humiliation. Thankfully we can take solace in one key fact – everyone, let me repeat, EVERYONE who birds makes mistakes!

“Mistakes are still humiliating.  But I realize now that most of the embarrassment merely comes from me focusing on myself and what I think other people are thinking about me. ” – Greg Miller

In his excellent post On Making Missteaks, Greg Miller discusses a situation where he mis-ID’d a Canada Goose, and a decoy Canada Goose at that, for a Blue-winged Teal. Greg is no slouch of a birder either – he is a birding tour leader, lecturer, and lifelong birder – his name is recognizable by most birders as the character played by Jack Black in the movie The Big Year. When I make a gaff like my recent one, I like to re-read Greg’s article and remind myself that these things happen, they are part of birding, and inevitably it will happen again.

“If you are at a place where you never make mistakes then you are at a bad place.  If you really do know it all, then you have nothing left to learn.  And that is a sad place to be.” – Greg Miller

I know I’m more disappointed with my mistake than anyone else. It’s a mistake made on a bird I should know inside-and-out. To make matters worse, it was basically a stationary bird on open water, within 20 yards, and one which I could have watched and studied for an hour. My mistake was identifying a female Red-breasted Merganser as a female Common Merganser. I’m not going to get into my reasoning behind it – to me those are just excuses to try and justify my error. Instead, when I make a mistake I want to figure out what went wrong in order to learn from it. I like to believe what we do after we make a mistake is what’s important. There is a vast gulf between shrugging off a mistake and saying “Next time I’ll be more careful, it was just a one-off and I don’t usually make those errors” and someone who takes a more critical approach to see not only where they went wrong, but what they can do differently in the future to learn from and ensure it doesn’t happen again.

So what did I learn from my mistake?

  • Don’t make assumptions. This is birding 101, but I dismissed other species of merganser since the Commons are in the area in the largest numbers. I took it for granted and didn’t really look at the bird.
  • Spend more time watching the birds and less time worrying about getting the perfect photo. I readily admit I spent more time with my camera to my eyes than my bins. To a birder this can be one drawback to a camera. On the plus size, without having the photographic documentation I wouldn’t have realized I made a mistake and would have missed out on this learning opportunity.
  • Moving to fast. I easily could have spent more time watching the birds here; instead I wanted to get onto the next locale and see what else I could find.
  • And finally, not scrutinizing the photos once I got home. My mistaken ID should have jumped right out, but I had already made up my mind about what species I had. And this leads to perhaps the most important lesson:
  • Question everything.

“What does define you is your resiliency—your ability to bounce back.” – Greg Miller

I made a mistake, I spent some time figuring out why I made the mistake, and now I want to remedy it – to make sure I don’t make that mistake again in the future. Don’t get me wrong – I’m sure in the future I’m going to rush from bird to bird, make some assumptions, or not spend enough time really watching the birds. My goal is to make sure I do those less and less and instead spend more time focusing on the birds. This action plan I’ll put into effect this weekend when I serve my self-inflicted punishment – spending quality time with both the female Common and Red-breasted Mergansers so a mistake like this won’t happen again. Spending time bird – it’s the best punishment I can think of to dole out to myself! Bird It Up!

“No new challenges are without mistakes along the way.  But no great achievement ever occurred without a good challenge (AND mistakes).  Now, instead of beating yourself up on your latest mistake(s), try swallowing some pride, learn what you need to, and then pat yourself on the back for at least trying to make a difference. ” – Greg Miller


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