Here is the latest For the Birds column, which runs in several New England newspapers.
Persistence, practice and patience will often make things that seem so difficult at the beginning become relatively easy.
It can be said of just about any hobby, but it certainly applies to birdwatching.
I can remember struggling with differentiating great egrets from snowy egrets. It seems somewhat silly now. Great egrets are markedly larger, have yellow bills and black legs and feet. Snowy egrets, aside from being much smaller, have black bills, black legs and yellow feet.
Trying to decide if I was looking at a downy or hairy woodpecker was another early sticking point. It took me years to come up with an easy way to tell the species apart. Aside from size, downys and hairys are identical — right down to the difference between the sexes. Over time, however, I had seen enough of both to know that a hairy woodpecker’s bill, even without a size reference, is substantially larger than that of a downy’s.
Similar experiences occurred with wood thrushes and hermit thrushes; black ducks and mallards; house finches and purple finches.
Just when you think you’ve got this birding thing down, though, there’s something to knock you down a peg or two to show you how much more there is to learn.
Sure, wood thrushes and hermit thrushes are easy to tell apart now, but what if you throw in Swainson’s and Bicknell’s thrush? What about northern waterthrush and Louisiana waterthrush? Common tern and Forster’s tern? Least sandpiper and semipalmated sandpiper?
Unless you are an expert or have a special birding gift, there will always be something to learn. There will always be something to throw you for a loop just when you start feeling a little too confident.
It’s easy to get frustrated when that happens.
Semipalmated sandpiper or least sandpiper? Geez, I should know that by now, I’d think. And then I’d wonder what was wrong with me.
When frustration sets in, it’s important to look back on how far you’ve come, even though that’s not so easy when the frustration is at its peak. That’s good advice for anything in life, really.
I love watching egrets. I slow the car when I see them along the roadside, and take time to enjoy them when I’m birdwatching or simply taking a walk.
In inland New Hampshire, snowy egrets are a rare sighting indeed — in fact, they are rarely seen away from the coast. Great egrets are more common in the Monadnock Region, but far from a daily occurrence.
But I look forward to seeing these birds when I visit the coast, especially farther south. They are plentiful and fun to watch.
Besides, seeing egrets reminds me of how far my birdwatching prowess has come.
Sure, I’ll get knocked down a time or two, but I won’t forget the progress I’ve made.
Keep that in mind when you are confronted with having to make a tricky ID.