There’s a certain sensation I think every birder is familiar with: the bugging eyes, the pounding heart, the sharp inhalation when your lenses sweep across some unexpected avian, the adrenaline that surges when you’re not quite sure whether you can believe your own eyes. Is it really? Could it be? Quick, grab your field guide! Oh boy, it IS a [RARE BIRD]!
These are the moments that birder stories are made of. You would know a birder story if you heard one. It’s like a fish story, only with hard-to-believe birds instead of enormous trout.
A few years ago, when I started getting pretty good at birding, I went out early to an icy bay on a chilly January morning. Back in those days, I carried a nifty pair of compact binoculars—8x25s—and considered them more than adequate. In fact, I prided myself on what I could see through those little lenses right up until that day. I walked across the narrow beach, sipping my coffee and enjoying the view through my lenses until something large and white flapped down to rest on a distant island in the middle of the bay, just out of range of my bins. I could barely make out the faintest of features. The mysterious bird was white from head to tail, standing tall with a raptor’s upright posture. It basked in the morning sunshine, steady and still beyond the endurance of any gull it might have been.
You know where I’m going with this, right?
I stared at that blur so long my fingers froze stiff, but I could not get the bird to resolve into anything definite. The water radiated a hazy humidity that only intensified the effect of the distance. My poor little binoculars couldn’t cope. Even still, I maintain that I saw my lifer snowy owl that day, though I know better than to officially count the bird.
Since then, I’ve upgraded both my life list (snowy owl scored for real last winter) and my optics. My current binoculars are pretty sweet, and so’s the nice big scope I treated myself to, just in time for my favorite season down at the bay: winter. Waterfowl ga-LORE. And some other treats maybe? The ducks are pouring in now, and I’ve spent every spare moment sweeping my new big glass over the water and the wetlands—including today, when my scope provided me with another too-long view: Across the bay, something upright and white perched in a distant shrub just beyond the range of my optics.
Well. I’ve been hearing the rumors. One in Connecticut. One on Staten Island. I let myself believe that maybe, just maybe I’d scored the first one of the season for Long Island.
You know where I’m going with this, right?
If I was right, if, in fact, I’d landed the first Long Island snowy owl of the winter of 2014-2015, the tale would became part of my legend. It’s a story I’d tell for years, probably right up to the day I keel over (preferably while leading a bird walk when I’m 89½ years old). I watched the distant blob for way too long, hoping it would launch into flight, or drop onto some prey, any movement at all that might confirm its identity. As far as I could tell, it didn’t budge an inch. A pair of crows bombed it from above. It didn’t flinch. A helicopter touched down on the nearby landing pad, picked up its passengers, and buzzed off. Nothing from the blob. Typical owl, I thought. Regally unconcerned.
This is the part of the story where I tell you about confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is when you interpret the evidence in such a way that it supports what you already believe. Shaking off confirmation bias often involves a change of perspective. Sometimes a distance of five feet is enough to do the trick.
After a while, it occurred to me that I could maybe tease out some more information if I was just a little closer to the subject. So I hoisted the scope and inched up to the edge of the water. When I found the bird again, it was in the exact same pose, as far as I could tell. But it was no longer perched in the shrub.
Instead, the tall, white, raptor-shaped blob was perched on the end of a black lamp post. Exactly where a streetlight belongs. Crows notwithstanding, I’d been staring at a light fixture all along.
So now that I’ve spilled my beans, I’d love to read other people’s stories of mistaken bird identities. Share yours in the comments below, please!
About the Author
Erin Gettler is a writer, photographer and naturalist living on Long Island, New York. She likes long walks in the woods, but she's too slow for real hiking on account of stopping to look at every little thing. She travels with a sketchbook, and keeps a spare pair of binoculars to share. Learn more about Erin by visiting her website at thefamiliarwilderness.com.