Great black hawk  (Photo by Don Reimer)
Great black hawk (Photo by Don Reimer)
A spirit of optimism can be useful when aiming to identify birds. After all, without some optimistic prospect of success, who would ever have the courage to begin? 

I recall a field trip where a non-birding spouse accompanied his birder wife, just for the experience of participating in a field session. As our group scanned a swampy wooded section, the husband announced the eventual highlight species of the day with a whispered question: “What’s that little owl over there?” The novice then pointed out a skulking saw-whet owl peering from a tree cavity!

Whether it’s by novices or seasoned birders, bird identification is really a blend of art, science and, sometimes, dumb luck. But the power of suggestion also makes any field guide a double-edged sword. Occasionally, thorny issues of ID skepticisms arise, creating uncertainty among birders. In a best-case scenario, puzzling or confusing IDs should serve as constructive opportunities for deeper knowledge of a species by all parties involved. But, let’s face it: Anyone doing lots of birding will periodically make missed calls. This includes birders of considerable skill levels. One redeeming factor is if/when they freely recognize the error and reconstruct their first impressions. That’s how learning occurs.

Reports of rare birds that were initially misidentified or delayed abound. In January 1975, two members of the Brookline Bird Club (Massachusetts) stood fifty feet from a Ross’s gull, a smallish pink-breasted gull that was previously unrecorded south of Alaska. Not expecting this vagrant species in Newburyport, the pair was stumped at first. Paging through field guides that evening, they eventually concluded it was a Ross’s gull. Next they phoned a representative of the local birding hotline, who wrote down the information but, not believing them, declined a hotline posting. Other nearby birders showed little interest in pursuing such an unrealistic sighting.

On March 2, six weeks later, the gull reappeared — this time on the CBS Evening News; its iconic image had also found its way into Time magazine. In the hubbub, the two men who initially reported the bird were generally unmentioned and forgotten.

But this plot deepens. Back on December 28, 1974, a man named James Nash had observed the same gull at the Newburyport mudflats. At that earlier date, its breast color was a vibrant pink, far pinker than the March sighting. “The possibility that it was a Ross’s hit me pretty quickly, but I was all alone, and I’d never heard of anyone reporting a Ross’s gull, and no other birdwatchers were around to verify it with me.” That night when he arrived home, he told his wife, “I just saw something that couldn’t be what it was.” “She and my children wanted me to report it, but I didn’t want to be taken for a fool,” he said. Nash mentioned the gull to a non-birding friend at work. Two months later in the office hallway, the friend stopped him to say, “That thing you saw at Newburyport has been confirmed.” “What are you talking about?” Nash asked. “That Ross’s gull. It was on television last night.”

Remember that vagrant great black hawk first seen in Biddeford and later in Portland in 2018? The original discovery was made by a curious lady, who  photographed the “strange-looking hawk” and posted her sighting on Facebook. Her simple query: “What is this bird?” As more people studied her posting, speculation about a possible great black hawk began to emerge. Soon thereafter, the errant tropical hawk’s true identity was confirmed. But, even then, there were temporary suspicions that the bird in question had been photo-shopped into a green background of Maine foliage. Subsequent live sightings quickly dispelled that rumor. The take-away message here: In nature, expect the unexpected.