The Mysteries of Bird Identification


I photographed this Greater Yellowlegs last winter sometime.  I don’t remember the exact date.  I do remember it was in “K-mart  Creek” doing some foraging.  I edited and filed it away, printing myself an 8×10 before doing so.  I claimed it was a Greater Yellowlegs and I still do.  Click image to enlarge.

Greater Yellowlegs

My previous post was about identifying Sandpiper type birds.  So before publishing that post, I carefully went over each of the six images that I had culled to put in the article.  I compared all the markings, colors, etc., with the information  in my Sibley’s guide book.

I checked out the Greater Yellowlegs.  Everything went fine, until I noticed that according to Sibley, the bill should be slightly upturned.  Oops!  The bird in my picture showed a straight bill, and matter of fact, there is a slight downturn on the tip of the bill..  Hmmmm.  Must be a trick of light.   I pondered a bit, didn’t think much of it.  After all, I am a novice birder and I probably wasn’t looking at the picture right. 

Then I noticed a little note at the bottom of the next page.  It said that the Greater Yellow legs rarely had bright orange legs.  Oops again!  My bird has bright oraange legs.   I then started looking through all of the sandpiper pages and couldn’t find any thing else that resembled my picture until – uh oh!  What is this??  A Spotted Redshank.  Right on the next page to the Greater Yellow Legs.  Bright yellow legs - check.  Straight bill with a tiny downturn on the tip - check.   But no!  It simply cannot be.  Spotted Redshanks are thousands of miles away.  Not a chance that this was one. 

What to do.  What to do.  After all, I am a novice birder.  Us novices simply don’t have the knowledge about these things, so it had to be something else.  I have embarrassed myself a few other time by jumping to conclusions and I am not jumping to conclusions here.  But I also didn’t want to mis-identify any picture in my post.  So, I simply swallowed my pride, and even though I KNEW it was a Greater Yellowlegs (what else could it be?) I opted to confirm it with the experts. 

First I e-mailed the picture to three local people that I knowwould know, and they probably wouldn’t laugh too hard at me for asking such a preposterous question.  Then for good measure, I e-mailed Mark Lockwood, with the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department, and is a darned good bird expert.  I got a prompt back from Mark, who confirmed that it was a Greater Yellowlegs.  Of course, I should have known that!  Before I heard from the other three, I promptly e-mailed and thanked them for their time.  Therefore, I didn’t have to read their e-mails, telling me that  I erred again and were stifling their snickers. :-)

So I KNOW that it is a Greater Yellowlegs.  How do I know??  Because the experts told me so, and by the way, I am not trying to discredit these people.  They are all friends of mine and they are experts in their field.  And it is too far-fetched to believe a Spotted Redshank would ever show up here.  I am definitely not saying it is one of those.  I would be laughed out of town and not get asked to the Annual Birders Ball.  :-)

But how do they know it is a Greater Yellowlegs?   No slightly upturned bill that I can see.  Bright yellow legs.  The mystery deepens.  (cue eerie music here)  What have I missed??  Danged if I know.  So the mystery is, how in heck do they know??  :-)

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2 thoughts on “The Mysteries of Bird Identification

  1. I haven’t heard from my friends, the experts, but I am sure they will give me a hard time. In fact, when I wrote the post, I think that I was secretly hoping that I was giving them the hard time. :-)

    I think that one of my best virtures, is my sense of humor. And i love it when I can put a smile or a chuckle on someone’s face. I’ll even accept a few snickers. :-)

  2. They ‘know’ by the process of elimination, I suspect, just as you eliminated the Spotted Redshank for it unlikelihood, territorially. Or…they would be so upset not to have been the ones to have discovered this rarity in their own backyard, that they just couldn’t accept the possibility. :)

    This was a very enjoyable read, by the way. Your sense of humour and humility are very refreshing. :)

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