How do you make certain you're seeing the birds you think you're seeing?
One look — or two — and you're certain it's Anderson's Sparrow (fake name). You've never seen an Anderson's Sparrow. You've always wanted to. And now you have.
Except you saw what you wanted to see. It wasn't Anderson's Sparrow. It was Peterson's Sparrow, similar but different.
It happens all the time. It's bad enough if you're alone. It's uncomfortable if other birders correct you.
How do you avoid that kind of mistake?
Look closely at the common birds, the ones you see every day.
Experience counts, says guide and author Alvaro Jaramillo. "And the key to getting lots of experience is looking at common birds," he said in a recent conversation.
"It doesn't matter that you've seen them again and again. Your powers of observation are sharpened each time you study a house sparrow or house finch," he said.
"What you have to do is really look," Jaramillo said.
"And," he added, "common birds are always available.
"You'd be amazed at how many birders have been birding for years, without learning how to really look, to see and focus," Jaramillo said.
Alvaro Jaramillo is author of the field guide "Birds of Chile." He writes the "Identify Yourself" column in Bird Watcher's Digest, and operates his own birding tour company, Alvaro's Adventures (www.alvaros adventures.com).
You cannot glimpse and move on if you expect to have sharp identification skills. Drink the bird in, and think about it, he said.
Ask yourself questions about what you're looking at, he said. Does the bird have streaks? Where? Is there a pale eyebrow? Are there bars on the wings, stripes on the head? Is the tail long or short? Does the bird hop or walk?
Question yourself on anything that gets you to look at the bird in detail. This helps you learn to quickly process the look of a bird, and give it a name.
Bird identification is accomplished by assembling a set of details. Learning to see the details can be force-feeding at first. But it can build to an automatic assessment of what you are watching. Your eye will see what you need to know.
When seeing a species you don't know well, in life or illustration, think about the name while you look. Help your brain associate appearance with name, he said.
Flash-card training, identification books or Internet images help. Looking at photos or field guides can take you a long way toward fast recognition of what you see. Birds often don't give you a chance to think things over.
It takes time to build this skill, but the skill is worth the effort, according to Jaramillo.
"Most of us already have a list of birds that we instantly recognize," Jaramillo said. "You just don't think about those as much. Your brain quickly processes what you see.
"So the more you look, the more you focus, the more birds you will instantly recognize. You won't be thinking of field marks, because you're no longer using them one by one. You'll just know what you are looking at.
"It takes time and lots of birding," he said.
And it keeps you honest.
Lifelong birder Jim Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Join his conversation about birds at www.startribune.com/wingnut.