Misidentification is a problem all birders (and, indeed, any naturalist) will know. Birds – to put not too fine a point – are complicated. The tiniest speck of brown in the venting (i.e. the space under their tails) can mean an entirely different scientific name.
Perhaps I’m overexaggerating. But when most sightings of birds last for no longer than a couple minutes (at most) it’s pretty hard to differentiate in the dense foliage whether it had a red cheek or a red cheek with a speck of orange. Photographs often serve to confuse more than correct.
This is especially a problem for – well, amateurs (amongst whom I count myself). In the ridiculous over-optimism that characterizes beginning birders, we tend to assume the best. In birding, this often isn’t the best course of action. It’s far more likely you saw a juvenile yellow-vented bulbul than a species that’s entirely new to Singapore, especially if you spot it within an urban condo.
I arrived in Kullu armed with a 100-400 lens, Birds of the Indian Subcontinent, and an almost-depressing optimism that I would surpass my goal of 25 different bird species. The Himalayas – the home of the migrants that were then gracing Singapore, somewhere deep inside I had a vindictive delight in spotting common birds here that were rare-beyond belief there. One example is the White Wagtail, whose presence in Tampines recently sparked a Facebook avalanche.
When I saw this bird on the banks of the Tirthan, I was convinced that I had spotted the self-same bird. I knew it had come from the Himalayas. When I saw this wagging its tail in the characteristic manner of… you guessed it, wagtails, I was a convert. I even wrote it down in my little book of birds I’d seen. I cross-checked it with the numerous variations of wagtails in my guide!
Then disaster (of a kind) struck. I showed my photograph to some birders there, and they smiled and told me I was mistaken. The only wagtail found here during the fall – they said – was the yellow, which made appearances that were few and far between. The white wagtail lived much further up. That bird, they told me, was a Little Forktail (Enicurus scouleri).
A common mistake? Probably not. Maybe next time I’ll learn not to rely on misplaced optimism and blind faith. Yellow-vented bulbuls, sometimes, are just yellow-vented bulbuls; white wagtails are sometimes just another fork in the bewildering labyrinth of bird identification.