How important is it to label what you see?

Peep sp. isn’t the same experience as Least Sandpiper isn’t the same experience as “those little birds Kaitlyn chased at the beach” even though they might all be the same birds. Oftentimes, specificity in labeling is useful; it’s very hard to get “those little birds Kaitlyn chased at the beach” listed under the Endangered Species Act or create a conservation plan for them (although teaching Kaitlyn to appreciate and interact more respectfully with wildlife as she grows up might be a start.)

But birders, and especially listers, are often accused of being obsessed with labels to the detriment of both their own personal Zen and their grasp of birds as part of a holistic system. Being a person who thinks in words, I often worry that I may be particularly prone to this error. And for myself or anyone else who wants to take a step back from bird labels, fall migration is the time to do it.

There’s the aforementioned shorebirds of course. I believe I have made my feelings on the difficulties of shorebird ID abundantly clear, but I have to admit that there is something about the birds themselves that invites quiet contemplation (although not so much contemplation that you forget to watch your step).

Fall warblers do not lend themselves to being objects of meditation so much, on account of all the moving around, but they can be equally humbling. Take this sighting:

It’s around three pm in the Vale of Cashmere at Prospect Park. A small bird jumps out of a bush and into a more open area, allowing me a brief but relatively close look.

It’s warbler-shaped, and warbler-sized (although the beak strikes me as on the chunky side for a warbler. It’s a warm brown above (no hint of a bluish, grayish, or greenish cast) and yellow below. Legs pink, beak dark. No strong marking of any sort – no eye ring or facial stripe, no wing bars, no streaks (I do not get a good look at the tail) – with one exception: it has a collar, a single thin but distinct and unbroken black line, around its throat. It does not vocalize. After a bit it gets sick of me looking at it and disappears.

Of course, there is no such bird. But I saw it anyway. I can speculate (Hoodie in extremely odd transitional plumage? Common Yellowthroat that poked its head through a charcoal-grill grate?) but I’m never going to know.

Fall is like that. Birds change outfits and contexts. They confound birders and then move on. It certainly isn’t their problem. The immature Chestnut-sided Warbler near the Ambergill didn’t have a single trace of chestnut anywhere on hir body, and the Worm-eating Warbler I was lucky enough to spot in the Midwood was five and a half feet up in a small tree, which is about three feet further up a tree than I’m used to seeing Worm-eating Warblers (last year around this time I saw a Waterthrush five and a half feet up in a tree, which is a good five and a half feet further up a tree than I’m used to seeing them!) Baltimore Orioles bounced around in all sorts of scaly, half-in plumages. The world is also full of strange insects (notably cicadas and dragonflies), fruiting plants (it’s a great year for the jewelweed, which is good because there’s nothing like a plant that explodes!), and all sorts of other things which are awesome. And the weather is progressing nicely towards that stage where it neither bakes nor freezes the unwary wanderer.

Of course, my newfound personal Zen didn’t keep me from noticing that I’d just added Chestnut-sided Warbler, Worm-eating Warbler, and Great Crested Flycatcher to my year list. And it doesn’t mean I won’t be listing like crazy a week from now….

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