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Depicted is a bird perched in a tree under conditions similar to looking into a sunset. Is it a blue jay? For the reveal see page 16. Photo illustration by Carrie Snyder/The Pioneer

Flight Lines: Careful observation only way to limit identification mistakes

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Several years ago, I was made aware of just how bound some photographers are to certain light conditions. Early on that day, a friend and I were wending through some lush grassland; I was looking for birds, he was aiming and firing his camera at rich golden landscapes. Once the full disc of the sun had cleared the hurdle of the horizon, it didn't take long for my partner to stow his gear and call it a day. He explained how the light was no longer ideal for landscape photography, that midday light was just too harsh. This is a fellow with many published photographs and numerous awards to his credit, so I took him at his word. From that day forth I've become more aware not only of the quantity of light, but its quality as well.

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I was reminded just last week of the cool-to-warm nature of lighting when I saw a fairly large passerine (perching bird) in my backyard right before sunset. Despite being buried in branches, the bird was almost fluorescent, with warm evening light bouncing off its reddish body. It appeared so red I initially thought it was a northern cardinal, a bird I've only seen once from my property boundary. Turned out it was an American robin.

There are numerous other environmental impediments to accurate wildlife study. On one occasion, some years ago, I was standing near the edge of a cattail marsh when a red-winged blackbird appeared from above and descended into the reeds. Before landing, rather ungracefully, the male bird knocked some leaves around. This was the time of year of blooming cattails and this awkward entry into his nest area produced a huge puffy cloud of greenish-yellow pollen. I trained my binoculars on the fellow and found his appearance startling. His once shiny black feathering was covered in pale pollen. Granted, this change in appearance was temporary, but what if that was the only glimpse someone had gotten? We might very well have heard a report of some unidentified green bird lurking around a cattail marsh in western Cass County.

During winter, house sparrows are one of the only species to hang around my yard. I'm not a big fan of these Old World invaders but at least they serve to enliven a typically slow time of year here on the northern plains. On more than one occasion I've seen extremely dark individuals in my yard. These could be pigmentation abnormalities but I doubt it. Instead, I believe these birds are finding some sort of heated exhaust area to warm themselves while roosting at night, perhaps even a chimney. In the morning these birds emerge covered in soot, another in a long list of visual "gotchas."

Very soon the trees and bushes in the Red River Valley will be filled with migrant songbirds. Some of these are so bent on staying in heavy cover it becomes problematic to get even a partial view of them. I'm not sure there is an honest birder in the area who hasn't been duped into an errant identification under such circumstances. I've found birds with odd hues only to later find the colors were actually leaves or flowers draping over the specimen. No one said this was a piece of cake.

Wind can also have subtle but revealing effects on critters. Downy breast feathers, when parted by a strong wind will often reveal darker patches beneath. Plus billowing body feathers can make a bird appear larger than it should. Take the bird pictured on this page which has been digitally altered for the sake of demonstration. It appears to be the silhouette of a medium-sized perching bird with an obvious crest. Given no other clues as to its identity, one might reasonably call this bird a blue jay. Its proper classification is revealed elsewhere in this paper.

These are just a few examples of myriad obstacles facing observers seeking accuracy. There are many more. Biologists of all stripes can attest to that. Identifications, especially rare ones, should be based upon the "big picture," where all elements of an animal's being are observed. Expert Pete Dunne calls it "building a case" for identification. You'll make mistakes surely. We all do, it's part of the process. Dunne says, "It takes discipline. It takes practice. And it takes preparation."

Corliss is a West Fargo resident, avid birder, and ND Game and Fish volunteer instructor. He serves as a corporate pilot for Forum Communications. kcorliss@forumcomm.com.

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