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Check each flocking bird

Although the first birds we notice here are likely the Snow Buntings, we don’t want to overlook the Common Redpolls. There is value in checking each individual bird in a flock. photo by Paul Nicholson.

It’s easy to be lazy. If I’m out birding and see a flock of birds that are all about the same size and shape, I’ll get my binoculars on a few of the birds to make an identification. Sometimes, in fact too frequently, I will then decide that all of the birds in the flock are the same species.

Here’s an example. I might be birding on the gravel roads outside of London where I could see a dozen birds flying around together. If there isn’t a lot of white on the birds, I might quickly rule out Snow Buntings and put Horned Lark at the top of my list of candidate species. After checking for traffic and pulling over, I’ll get my bins on one or two birds. If, as expected, I am looking at Horned Larks, I’ll watch and admire the birds, decide whether or not I want to snap a photograph, then carry on. It all sounds pleasant enough, but that’s me being lazy. It’s also an example of “confirmation bias.”

Through 2022, I was listing species sightings and as of Christmas Day, Lapland Longspur was one of the birds that I had not yet seen. My eyebrows therefore went up when I read in one of my “Needs Alert” emails that Sawyer Dawson, a top London birder, had posted one on the 24th. His sighting had been north of London.

On Boxing Day, I studied images of the Lapland Longspur in basic plumage, and then headed out. This bird was one of my two target species. I found myself just north-west of Strathroy and spotted a flock of small birds foraging on a corn field. There were Horned Larks, but this time I looked at every bird. I could almost not believe my eyes when I saw a sparrow-like bird in with the Larks that seemed to have the field marks of a Longspur. And then I saw another and felt good about the identification. After snapping a few quick photos of the birds, I continued observing the flock as they fed. I also excitedly observed other birds on the road closer to my car.

I found myself wondering, not for the first time, about how many Longspurs had been in front of me before, but that I had missed identifying. The lessons that this underlined were many: look at every bird; listing makes me a more successful birder; guard against “confirmation bias”; eBird is a wonderful resource; do a little homework; and get back out there.

There are many other examples of how it is important to check every bird.

Most active bird watchers will frequently see large flocks of Canada Geese. Again, I’m guilty of sometimes simply deeming all of the birds in a flock to be Canada Geese. I’m improving however. Occasionally there will be a lookalike Cackling Goose or perhaps a Greater White-fronted Goose or an interesting duck in with the Canada Geese.

Other flocking birds to check include American Tree Sparrows, Common Redpolls, Snow Buntings, and also Black-capped Chickadees. Kinglets and other species will often consort with Chickadees.

In the spring or fall, an American Golden Plover might be mixed in with a large flock of Black-bellied Plovers.

I am particularly lazy when it comes to gulls. To be sure, many gull species are difficult to identify, but if I simply saw a cloud of gulls that included a few identifiable Ringed-bills, and then posted all of the birds as Ringed-bills, I would be doing sloppy citizen science. Furthermore, I would be robbing myself of an opportunity to learn and perhaps to count new species.

My bottom line is that I should check each bird that I see, even if there is a big flock. And also, thank goodness for birds like the Belted Kingfisher because they are never in flocks and their field marks and vocalizations are so darned distinctive and identifiable!

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