Birding the Chaff

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Put it simply, I do not know European birds.

Which is why I saw this one and sighed. Its vagueish eyebrow indicated its membership of that hated family: leaf warblers. A brief history – I have seen several in the Himalayas, probably some in the Western Ghats, and a total of nil have been identified. Their song is beautiful, but their bodies themselves are far from as colorful as it might make them out to be. All are the same oliveish tinge and the glances I get are usually not enough to figure out is the venting yellow-olive or more creamish?

That’s why it’s always nice to go somewhere new with someone who knows the area. When travelling, however, that luxury is ill-afforded; the next best thing – research. Research, research, research.

And that is how we ended up wandering down a road in the middle of (semi)rural Spain in the middle of the morning, searching for birds. A series of coincidences had led us there – some happy and some not so, but the end result was our arrival at a place knows as the Llobregat Delta. Every site I had visited had pointed newbie birders to Barcelona there, citing its proximity to the airport and diversity of waterfowl and, well, I rarely turn down an opportunity to bird, even if what I end up birding are birds I haven’t the faintest clue what they are, because all the field guides are in Spanish. My most likely chance of any identification was to meet a fellow birder.

Unfortunately, all the birders were also Spanish – and extremely apologetic about it, too. Through a series of hand-gestures and monosyllabic phrases that are the stock of any tourist in a foreign land, however, I managed to communicate my sighting of the above bird, at which point frantic nodding ensued and this (Spanish) field guide opened to the appropriate page. I backed up five meters to photograph it with my long lens, having forgot, as usual, to bring a notebook.

Then I went home to Singapore, because that was our second-to-last day there, and when processing my images, I stumbled across the picture of the field guide.

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I duly googled the scientific name, and I duly realized how little I know European birds.

It was a chiffchaff – as in a common chiffchaff, as in resident/migrant to most of Afro-Eurasia, as in not some obscure species of leaf warbler I had no chance of identifying.

And I suppose my severe overestimation of the bird is simply just the unbearable optimism any birder possesses – that any day might be the ‘lucky’ one, the thrill you get when leafing through a field guide. And I suppose that’s the reason I bird in the first place – for that optimism, and for the chance to encounter new species, common or not, for the thrill, and for the hoping, and for the song of a warbler on a sweet, sweet afternoon.

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Two Birds Diverged

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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.