Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane?

Wallowing in frustration with my bird-identification skills and despair at the complexity of things to learn, I am brought up short by the memory of good advice I gave to a then-young son (but have steadfastly refused to take, myself).


A foot-high ridge of overturned soil spans a green field filled with something that is, presumably, a tasty treat for the cattle at the adjacent barns. Atop said ridge, about halfway across the field, is a hawk-shaped lump, a bit blurry across the intervening hundred-plus yards.

This lump sighting isn’t accidental: I was watching for a hawk in this field, having seen one near the road as I drove up. Scanning the field, I have my right hand cupped around the binocular eyepiece to reduce the glare. At not quite 0900, the early-morning sun is just on the edge of warm enough to make me wish I’d worn my desert vest (light-gray nylon) instead of my mountain one (black fleece), but well into the range of too bright to look at or anywhere near. Seemingly unbothered by the glare, though, the hawk-shaped lump is facing south, watching for its own tasty treat of the moveable feast variety.

I wait for a few minutes to see if the gods of bird watching will grant me a better view for identification purposes, but today, as so often when hawks are involved, they find me not worthy. Sighing, I tug my point-and-shoot camera out of my vest pocket and prepare to zoom.

Stopping first at the advertised 10X optical zoom capacity, I check the screen. Nope. I can hardly even see the lump. Up we go into digital zoom, all the way to 20X magnification, where the camera is highly sensitive to any motion. Of course the subject has none, so it’s really all in my hands, as it were. Trying not to think of larger pixels, lower resolution, and the likely futility of what I’m doing, I gently depress the picture-taking button thingy twice. Now it will be up to the gods of photography.

Two hours later I download my shot and mutter about gods in general.  Yup, there it is: definitely a hawk-shaped lump, facing south. The photo shows exactly what I saw, darn it, and not a smidgeon more. How am I supposed to identify a hawk from this? Mutter, mutter.

My frustration is not new. As long as I’ve paid any serious attention to birds — three or four years now — hawks have consistently defied my efforts at identification. More, perhaps, than for any other bird group (genus? family? OK, so maybe the attention hasn’t been all that serious), hawk characteristics exhibit an inverse relationship between visibility and usefulness in identification. The streaky white breast that is the only obvious feature of the hawks hanging out on freeway light poles is, it turns out, completely useless in their identification. Conversely, the red tail that unequivocally marks the, umm, red-tailed hawk, is visible only in flight and only then under certain lighting conditions and from certain angles of view.

And so it is that, a few years into this hobby, I can identify several desert birds by their call, and a few by their habit of flight, but hawks I knoweth not. My birding mentors, by contrast, identify hawks soaring at heights at which I can’t quite be sure there’s even a bird in the air. I squint in the general direction they indicate. Is it a bird? I dunno. Is it a plane? Sigh.

As I stare glumly at this lousy photo — and that’s a whole other blog — I think, ‘I’ll never learn hawks. This is impossible.’ And that little bell goes off in the back of my head.

This is impossible. The speaker is Younger Son, aged six, gradually blue-ing on the swimming pool edge as I stand in front of him in torso-high water, none too warm myself. It’s the early 1980s and he has failed two introductory swimming classes, each following the same pattern. The instructor asks him to try something; he demurs. Reluctant to push, the instructor moves on to the next kid; after several weeks of this, Younger Son does not move on to the next class. Rather than paying for a third go-round, I have decided to try it my way. When he demurs in response to my request that he try something I don’t argue, I just reach for the edge of the pool.

Let’s get out.

He knows I mean it.

OK, I’ll try.

Minutes later, he has tried, completed, repeated, and mastered the skill under consideration. In the space of the next half hour, he masters all of them.

Face in the water? Check.

Duck and surface? Check.

Dog paddle three feet? Check.

Float, front and back? Check, check.

It’s an impressive series of successes, as viewed by me. But each success notwithstanding, we start the next skill the same way.

This is impossible.

On the fourth time — or is it the fourteenth? — I suggest, with my usual mild delivery and my typical parental wisdom, that he shouldn’t say something is impossible when what he means is just that he doesn’t know how to do it yet.

Now, what on earth made me think of that?

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14 Responses to Is It a Bird? Is It a Plane?

  1. Gary Cerantola says:

    I get it.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Gary – Whew! (That’s for the blog. As for the life lesson, I find that my problem isn’t getting it, it’s keeping it.)

  2. Alison says:

    You need to come to Alberta for hawks! perhaps they are less shy here? I know that we see lots of them, even more when we lived in the country, and I can identify at least 4 kinds – and I’m NO bird watcher. However, that being said – I’d LOVE to go bird watching with you sometime, it’s an aspiration for my future, and as you say, nothing is impossible!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – Add “joint bird-watching” to the bucket list! Maybe there just are more hawks in Alberta than Arizona – something about a treat-rich environment? For sure it helps to have regular viewing opportunities of any kind of bird – that’s the way I’ve learned the ones I do know down here. I mean, there’s only so many times even I needed to hear or see the curve billed thrasher before I remembered it, first, and then learned to recognize it. And every walk in the desert provides a viewing/hearing opportunity of that very common bird.

  3. You write, “My birding mentors, by contrast, identify hawks soaring at heights at which I can’t quite be sure there’s even a bird in the air. I squint in the general direction they indicate. Is it a bird? I dunno. Is it a plane? Sigh.”

    It’s their vitreous floaters…

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – If only! This is a pastime for which far-sightedness is a definite advantage. Even my vision correcting lenses don’t seem to offer a comparable, umm, correction. Maybe I could get glasses designed only for bird watching . . . I mean, people get reading glasses, so why not hawk-identifying glasses? But sight aside, I’m amazed at how much more some of these folks see. Some of it, I expect, is (subconscious?) pattern recognition, and some of it is knowing what to look for.

  4. Ralph says:

    I have to guess I have been looking at birds out of interest, including the specific interest of identifying them, for about 60 years. I am no expert, to be sure, but my ID system has a fair bit of experience. So now some (tentative) IDs sometimes come in the same instant that I become consciously aware of the bird. As I drove home from work one day last week, in rather quick succession I saw (and IDed) a mockingbird and an adult peregrine falcon. In both instances, the initial ID (subsequently confirmed) arrived coincident with my awareness of the bird in my peripheral vision. I think those IDs were based on a combination of flight style and appearance/pattern. In each case I then turned my head to get a very few seconds of binocular vision of the bird (I *was* driving, after all) that confirmed my initial (“subconscious”) impression. All of this is a long-winded way of suggesting that our visual processing system *can* get better at this sort of thing, especially when egged on by interest. On the other hand, I never really learned how to swim…..

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – Yes, you have a few years head-start on me, but it’s encouraging to hear that the processing, visual or otherwise, can improve. I’m already surprised by how many more birds and bird sounds I am aware of than I used to be – and just from starting to pay attention.

  5. Dave says:

    Great article!

    Perhaps it was too technical for me, though … I’m still working on identifying the gods of photography (Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc …) and figuring out the button-thingy myself! As for birds, they’re the flying things I see in the Saturday paper, right? 😉

    I figure that once I get the deity & technical stuff figured out, then I can try to figure out the birds. Some of them come to my back yard, but they’re not the ones you are talking about, so I will have to open up my horizons a bit on the cruises.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – I think there might be a cross-over god dedicated to bird photography. Based on my initial practice results with my new SLR camera, I should offer up some sort of burnt offering! Just another thing to gradually work from top-of-mind awareness to automatic reaction . . .

  6. Two days before Christmas a bald eagle settled in the top of a tree halfway up the hill that rises behind our house — about 200 yards away. The snow was too deep for my husband to shorten that distance much; his photo only just proves the enormous bird had graced us with its presence. Apparently, there are so few of these they have names; watchers report on their flights, which can cover distances from southern Ontario to northern Quebec and back in a 24-hour period. Corrects the human perspective.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Laurna – Lovely! (And I’m glad to know that someone else has a raptor-shaped-lump photo.) I saw many bald eagles while working on a project in Alaska in 1998, but don’t see many “down here.” That was in my pre-bird-watching days – so I have no idea what they look like through binoculars or a camera viewfinder. Here’s to finding out!

  7. Hyla Mayfield says:

    Bendires v. Curved-billThrashers
    Who is this Bendire of beady eyes
    with piercing, discriminating vision
    Noticing the difference in millimeters
    of beaks, with such precision

    If I only had a long zooming lens,
    a tripod and steady hand to guide
    And perfect vision and stationary birds,
    then I’d know which Thrashers to find

    The Thrashers with long tails and beaks
    Can tell the difference I’m sure
    A small mark here, a dark feather there
    and pheromones to give an allure

    Or where would we all be?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Hyla – Fabulous! Another poet in the circle! And yes, I suppose it is a good thing that they can tell the difference. Now we just have to figure out how all those pesky sparrows do it . . .

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