Birds and More | All Blogs


By Nic.Korte

Maybe birders aren't better voters, but they should be. In this election season, there is more comment than ever about voters being immune to or uncaring about facts. Indeed, psychologists have shown that oftentimes, the more contrary the fact, the more a person will cling to their entrenched position. It's crazy, but we all do it. It's called confirmation bias, and birders have to work hard to guard against it.

Two years ago, I hooked up with a group of birders in Costa Rica who were going to see the rare Masked Duck. Two or more of the ducks had been hanging out in a small, natural pond on private property. Our leader was the dean of local birders. As we arrived at the pond, she quickly said, “there’s one…over by the shore.” She put her scope on it and we followers dutifully took a look one-by-one, and agreed we had now seen a Masked Duck. I am not certain who finally asked, “Are Masked Ducks usually so motionless?” Our leader looked again. “Hmm, maybe that isn't a duck after all.” Fortunately, about that time, two Masked Ducks paddled out of some nearby reeds. “Oh, there they are,” she said, and all of us had long and satisfying looks both through her scope and our own binoculars. Later we walked over and had a good laugh at the floating shell leftover from a long dead large turtle. What had happened? No doubt, her expectations were so high that we would see a Masked Duck, that the first floating lump she saw confirmed her hopes.
(This juvenile Cooper's Hawk, as photgraphed by Jackson Trappett, can be a difficult identification.)

I saw something similar once when on a field trip at a birding convention. Our group had roused an owl from a low-to-the-ground perch. Someone immediately blurted, “Short-eared Owl! I saw the buffy patch on the wings!” A Short-eared Owl would have been a remarkable sighting for our location. The person shouting the identification probably dearly wanted to see one. Well, the owl landed nearby, and remained perched when we found it again. There were no buffy patches. It was a different species altogether, and one that was expected in this habitat.
(This is definitely not a short-eared owl.)

As I’ve gained experience as a birder, I have become more wary of my identifications. For me, I have learned that I am especially susceptible to seeing the bird I expect. I don’t look close enough and I can miss a rarity. And, I also will admit, there have been a few times I have been like the guy with the owl. With only a fleeting look, I have decided I've seen a much desired species, only to learn that with a closer look, the fieldmarks I “wanted” to see were not really there.
(Scoters in winter, such as this Surf Scoter photographed by Carol Ortenzio, are rare in the Grand Valley and easy to mis-identitfy.)

Maybe these types of experiences make birders better consumers of political theater. Maybe, maybe not. There is a big difference. For the past decade or so, most birders record their sightings on a public database ( The database is configured to notify everyone else who might like to see the bird. Others will be in the field trying to see what you think you saw, possibly within minutes. They will let you know if you are wrong—probably with photographs. The database also notifies an expert reviewer who contacts you and requests a detailed rationale for your identification. If you can't do it, the bird is not officially counted. Maybe if our voting rationale was subject to as much oversight, we really would be better voters.

This post provided by Nic Korte, Grand Valley Audubon Society. Send questions/comments to [To learn more and to participate in the activities of Grand Valley Audubon, please see our website at and “like” us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.!]