Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Early Spring Misidentifications

"Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others."

― Brandon Mull

"It takes guts and humility to admit mistakes. Admitting we're wrong is courage, not weakness."

― Roy T. Bennett

Broad-winged Hawk

Over time, experienced birders develop a mental calendrical model of avian phenological arrivals and departures, or when migratory bird species return or leave their neck of the woods. Upon observation, they instantly know whether a bird is early, late, or right on schedule.

Back in my early days of birding, I envied those who had this knowledge and skill because it can be an invaluable aid in the identification process. If it’s a month too early for Broad-winged Hawk, perhaps it’s a Red-shouldered Hawk, or something else. This doesn’t necessarily mean a rarity (by timing) should be outright dismissed, because there can be unusually early birds.

For the most part there is little year to year variation when it comes to overall avian migratory patterns and timing. However, as our winters have gotten shorter birds tend to arrive a little earlier and stay a little longer. Some species have been unaffected by changes to climate and use the photoperiod for migratory timing. These species can be so predicable you can practically set a calendar to them, returning to southern Wisconsin, almost to the day, year after year. Every year there are a few astonishing record-early observations during spring migration.

Here are Wisconsin's record arrivals and departures.

Here are a few recent case examples. These birds have been reported in Wisconsin this year, but as you can see from the eBird maps, it’s quite possible they were misidentified.

Broad-winged Hawk 

There have been a couple of Broad-winged Hawk observations in Wisconsin this spring, but nobody else has reported them north of Tennessee. Are the birders who reported them wrong? Maybe. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If they can document and prove the observation is legit, it will go down as a confirmed record-early. Ornithological societies love documenting this sort of thing. If no evidence is provided, often times such eBird reports are invalidated by an eBird reviewer.

Bird was: Sharp-shinned Hawk 

Short-billed Dowitcher 

When I see an unusually early bird reported in Wisconsin by someone I know, I'll often ask them about the sighting. One of the more frustrating responses I receive is "I know what a ________ looks like" or "It definitely wasn't a ________" at a suggested alternate species. To be sure, experienced birders need to be sensitive and patient when confronting someone about a potential misidentification. By the same token, though, birders receiving such feedback should listen generously and be humble.

Bird was: Wilson's Snipe

Eastern Wood-Pewee

No! There are no Eastern Wood-Pewees anywhere near Wisconsin right now. Phoebes! They're Eastern Phoebes, damn it! Look at the bill color. And just because it isn't bobbing its tail doesn't mean it isn't an Eastern Phoebe. Bird the whole bird and not a single ID point! So much for tone, right? I'm kidding.

Bird was: Eastern Phoebe

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

This Michigan Ruby-throated Hummingbird is legit! Photographs were obtained. This is an example of a bird that may have overwintered further north than its cohorts or really got the jump on migration.

Update from Kyle Lindemer: That hummingbird has been held captive in a heated conservatory since November with flowering plants and a hummingbird feeder.


In conclusion, if you're using the eBird app while you're birding to enter in your sightings, you might not see the bird on the common list because it's unusually early. This should serve as a cue to take a little more time in the field to be sure of what you're observing. Perhaps try to obtain a documentation photograph of it. Sometimes even a poor quality cell phone photograph might settle an identification puzzle. If you enter your eBird sightings once you get home, a flagged report won't give you an opportunity to make an extended observation. But if you don't want to use the eBird app, then I suggest honing your mental calendrical model of avian phenological arrivals and departures!

Broad-winged Hawk © 2018 Mike McDowell


  1. A couple weeks ago, an Eastern Wood-Pewee was reported at Fish Camp Park as "heard only." I had been there the day before and can tell you that I believe the birder heard exactly what he claimed, because I heard it, too, loud and clear the day before he did. It was, of course, a European Starling doing an excellent imitation of an Eastern Wood-Pewee. The difference between my eBird report and his isn't a difference in skill (we both heard the same thing and recognized the sound), just a difference in recognizing the timing. I looked for a Starling and found it, he looked for a Wood-Pewee and didn't see one.

  2. Timothy,

    Recognizing the timing is a skill, just like recognizing a field mark, habitat, GISS, or the recognition of any other characteristic or diagnostic feature that assists the identification process. A super-skilled birder can often tell when a European Starling is at work given that their renditions aren't necessarily perfect!