Sooty vs Short-tailed and other ID discussions

To: Mick Roderick <>
Subject: Sooty vs Short-tailed and other ID discussions
From: Chris Corben <>
Date: Tue, 31 Jan 2012 00:19:32 -0600
Hi Mick

Sure flight style is important - it's often how we pick up something different. But even ignoring human subjectivity, flight style is obviously not a fixed character. See how much wind strength can affect it!

So should it be relied upon to identify a rarity? I'm a skeptic. It doesn't constitute any useful evidence in my view. It may be the bird is genuinely different in flight for some perfectly rational (but unknown) reason, or it may just be that people think it looks different due to some illusion, or worse, because someone else said it did. Often it comes down to the question of whether a bird looks different because it is a different species, or for some other reason. It might be just hungry or fat!

If you had a conflict of identity between what a photo showed and what people said a bird looked like in the field, who would you believe? The photo of course! Which is why digital cameras are so great. For the first time in the whole of history we have a situation where there is a very good chance that a rarity will be very well documented, and it raises the bar away from the subjectivity of the past.

As for those pesky Shearwaters, the best way to learn them is to do it yourself and totally avoid being led by others. Listen to the experts because you can learn a lot, but stay skeptical and you will learn even more! Even if the experts are right, which they usually are, everyone sees things in different ways, and you have to work out what works for you. Very good birders can see the same bird, but describe it quite differently. This may not be contradictory, as it can be just a question of how words are used.

The good news is that most birds will be agreed upon by everyone if they get a good view. When it comes to Sooty and Short-tailed, there may be lots of disagreements (if you can get over the tendency to follow the leader), but that's because these species are genuinely very difficult. There are differences, which may be obvious in the right situations, but many should go unidentified. And isn't that the nature of nature? Some species are always easy to identify, most are usually easy, some are only identifiable if seen very well, and for a few you need DNA.

Cheers, Chris.

On 01/30/2012 06:26 PM, Mick Roderick wrote:
Hi all,
Yes a great discussion and timely for me too, as I was sitting next to Nikolas on the way out on the weekend's Wollongong pelagic and commented how the Port Stephens trips were going well...but that I was still not on top of the Sooty vs Short-tailed identification thing! It has always fascinated me how it seems to be something many observers take for granted but I have always grappled with it. Chris's comments below make me feel a lot better! I have been on pelagics where some of the most experienced sea-birders around have argued the ID of a shearwater that was confidently called as "Sooty" or "Short-tailed". Unfortunately I didn't see the bird in question but I do have to back-up what Nikolas said about flight pattern etc being important. Sometimes being there on the day can make all the difference and I think that the filtering-in-the-brain that Chris talks about is more likely to be confused by lighting than behavioual traits observed in situ. Maybe I'm wrong? Identifying from photos can be fraught with danger I guess is my point (not always, but I've seen numerous birds misidentified in images, especially Jaegers and Terns). I'm just not sure if I would agree that photos provide an unbiased view but I know what you mean by that Chris. But often any comparisons can be useful, even if the birds aren't necessarily very similar. Currently a few of us are sorting out Swifts and Swiftlets from Christmas Island and I have to say that although it is a daunting group, being in a situation where there are clearly 'different' species above you flying around, having the luxury of comparing relative sizes and flight patterns etc gives a big headstart, ahead of what can often be picked up in photographs of birds like that.


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