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“What’s so difficult about this quiz,” one might ask. “There are adult males in there, and adult male Surf Scoters do not exactly present an ID challenge when seen well, as in static photos.”

If you thought that, you are mostly right. However, identifying moving birds, particularly flying birds, is not a challenge that all are up to, as correctly identifying flying birds is enabled by experience with the species. Even then, such identifications require the ability to see the bird as individual parts, rather than a sublime organismal example of nature in motion, until enough experience with that species is gained as to simply recognize it. Non-birders, if they see it at all, will see a bird. Beginning birders will see a bird and may see a waterbird (but no guarantees!).

Frequently after explaining how I identified a bird that flew by us, my mom will ask a question something like, “How did you see all that?”

I’ve answered that question in different ways, but people that have not developed the ability to parse large amounts of visual information presented by a flying bird in a short period of time cannot truly understand how birders skilled at flying-bird ID do what they do. Those that cannot pick the secondaries out of the moving blob of bird… or the ear coverts, or the feet (even if they are pink!), or the shape of the interface of bill and facial feathering, have very much less chance of identifying a flying bird correctly than the birder that can manage those non-trivial challenges.

But I digress.

Many will see this quiz photo as presenting little challenge. One can stare at those ducks for hours searching for a White-winged Scoter or anything else that isn’t a Surf Scoter, because the birds are not actually in motion in this quiz photo. Unless one’s laptop battery calls it quits or one’s wireless system goes down, one can study those ducks to one’s heart’s content.

However, those ducks, perhaps unfortunately, are not the quiz.

I expect that some quiz-takers immediately spotted the true quiz bird, as would any experienced waterbird counter, both here in this photo and in “real” life. [I imagine that if Ted F. reads this, he might construct an essay about birding and “real” life.] Perhaps it would have been the different wing action. Perhaps it would have been the big gob of blazing white plumage. Perhaps it would have been some combination of factors, including previous experience of watching tens of thousands – if not hundreds of thousands – of scoters flying by, the experience that enables such birders’ abilities to pick Waldo out of a sea of scoters.

Yes, that bird behind the scoters… that bird with the extensive white plumage… that bird with the feet obviously extending well beyond the tail… that is the quiz bird. Many will immediately recognize from which avian family the bird hails, others will have to figure it out. Some will latch onto the extensive white, look through the ducks in the field guide, and respond with “Long-tailed Duck.” Or “Bufflehead.” Or something else.

In most field guides, ducks come before – usually well before – the family that houses the quiz bird. If one finds at least a somewhat reasonable facsimile of an answer within the first order of birds presented by the field guide, why keep paging through the thing? In my experience, that failure to keep going is the failing that most-often trips up beginning and inexperienced birders. In bird ID, it is not finding a single character in the field guide that matches what you saw that enables correct ID, it is ruling out ALL OTHER species that share that character, even a semblance of that character. As an acquaintance said to me decades ago, if one uses just a single character, one cannot distinguish Red-eyed Vireo from Common Loon, Hairy Woodpecker, and Mississippi Kite [or something like that, anyway; it has been decades]. That statement made a large impact on me and my birding abilities. It clarified, for me, the task of bird ID. Learn birds, don’t just watch them. Look at the whole bird, or, at least, whatever parts the bird presents to your vision. Learn the characters of the bird that are not highlighted in the field guide. Even if those characters do not allow definitive ID in and by themselves, they may be able to rule out the only other species or two that a mystery bird might be.

If you are still reading this, perhaps, overly-long introduction to a quiz-bird photo, having had to wade through the dross of editorial and fancy words, and you are not yet sure to which family the quiz bird belongs, you might start by looking for bird families exemplified by particularly short tails.