Weather Forecast


Flight Lines: Humbling lessons from quick assumptions

This barn swallow constructs a nest of mud, quite unlike that of a Say's phoebe. That didn't prevent an erroneous conclusion from the author, however. Keith Corliss

Out of my mouth came one simple query a week and a half ago, 'Hey, who wants to see a Say's phoebe on a nest?' What followed was a humbling lesson on every level.

For the third consecutive year I was asked to help lead tours for the Potholes and Prairie Birding Festival in Carrington. It's becoming my routine to set aside that June week, assisting the overworked but committed organizers of this wonderful annual event, its 11th year just completed.

I allow myself a few days of scouting various sites and potential routes, searching for those interesting prairie birds out-of-staters come here to see: Sprague's pipit, Baird's sparrow, marbled godwit, ferruginous hawk, and the like. If folks are going to travel here from, say, Chevy Chase, Maryland (as one couple did this year), it would be nice to be able to show them "our" birds. Plus, if I'm going to be leading them around, I feel I've got some skin in the game too. My reputation and my pride, on some level, are on the line.

One challenge that goes with guiding a busload of people in the middle of rural North Dakota is finding bathroom facilities. This year, though, it would be perfect. Just prior to meeting up with Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge Manager, Neil Shook, we would stop at the refuge headquarters where folks could stretch their legs and use the bathrooms.

A day prior to the official tour, I stopped and found a Say's phoebe gathering nest material next to one of the refuge buildings. This handsome western flycatcher of open habitats is most frequently found nesting on or in rural outbuildings. 'Ah,' I thought, 'that'll be a nice treat to show the folks tomorrow.' Everyone enjoys seeing nesting birds and this would be a good one.

By the time the bus arrived the next day, folks were anxious to use the bathrooms. We got out and dutifully took turns while casually strolling the grounds watching birds. I separated from the bunch, rounded the corner of the building as I had done the day before, and raised my binoculars. Tucked tightly under the eave was an orange-throated bird with a longish bill sitting snugly in a nest. Bingo, Say's phoebe. And I boldly announced it.

Several people gathered to view the nesting bird, so I left to take my turn in the bathroom, secure in knowing I had just gotten festival goers onto a pretty cool bird. A few short minutes later I exited and was immediately approached by a smiling familiar face. "Hey Keith," he said, "your Say's phoebe just turned into a barn swallow." 'What?' I asked, stunned.

Indeed, a series of hasty assumptions had led me down a simple and well worn path to an erroneous conclusion. I had seen a Say's phoebe the day before. Since I briefly spotted a similar looking bird on a nest in the same vicinity, I had assumed its identity. Only I was dead wrong.

One of the best and most readable treatments of this phenomenon comes from the blog of renowned bird expert, David Sibley. Questioning the identification of the ivory-billed woodpecker found in Arkansas some years ago, he wrote a poignant post entitled, Certainty of Sight Records. In it he recites the tale of his own misidentification adventure - how he morphed a great egret into a loggerhead shrike--before delivering this penetrating missive: "No intentional falsification or fabrication is needed, simply a subconscious selection of evidence supporting the favored conclusion, and a subconscious omission of refuting evidence. This generates false confidence. Once the perception is formed and "confirmed" it becomes nearly immune to question or revision."

In retrospect, I am amazed at how easily I had fallen into the trap, how effortless it had been to turn a barn swallow into a Say's phoebe without a second thought. Pride, haste, even my eagerness to please, all led to the error.

We're all familiar with a similar, more streamlined version of what Sibley described, that old maxim that asks, "You know what happens when we assume right?" Yes we do. And I just relearned it in front of a busload of witnesses