Do you recognize this duck species? Photo taken in May in Wyoming 

In middle school, I participated in a number of seasonal bird counts at Fountain Creek Nature Center near Colorado Springs, Colorado. Birding the area in spring, summer, fall, and winter familiarized me with basic local patterns in birdlife. In spring we found warblers and vireos, the peak season for rarities like parulas and redstarts (try not to laugh if you’re from the east). In summer, certain breeding species and their fledglings were easily found: a nest crowded with wide-mouthed Barn Swallows or Bullock’s Orioles chattering in the tops of trees. In fall, Wilson’s Warblers dripped off every bush and the occasional shorebird could be found on the edge of one of the mucky ponds. And in winter there were ducks.

    A birder on one such winter bird count once commented “I just don’t do female ducks, I gave up awhile ago.” Left to the task alone, I lifted my bins and stared at a lone brown duck floating in the middle of a pond. Just hearing those words made me want to give up, too. How could I even begin to ID this nondescript brown mass of feathers?

    I’ve gotten a little wiser since and, looking back, my frustration seems silly. Female ducks are a piece of cake compared to Empidonax flycatchers! The trick is to step back and allow oneself to forget the fine details. Art instructors advise their students in the same manner: quit obsessing over details and examine the big picture. So you can’t see a speculum or facial pattern. So the tail is not dipped in black. So the beak is indiscernible even through a scope. Try looking at the whole bird and its mannerisms. In this way, I learned to pick out Gadwalls and the varieties of teal.

    Empid flycatchers are hard, and it’s the fine details that clinch an identification: tail length, primary projection, orbital size, mandible color. But all these details together give the bird a look characteristic of that species. For example, I recently heard a very sharp and experienced birder describe Hammond’s Flycatcher as having an overall “hunched appearance”. No doubt a longer primary projection and shorter tail contribute to this overall impression.

    I guess I’m talking about GISS*…but I’m also talking about the importance of the bigger picture. Don’t give up on female ducks or flycatchers. Both are identifiable with experience, though it may help to blur your eyes and, rather than belaboring color details, give yourself a chance to see the general character of the bird.

    I would be interested to know how some of you tackle the frustration of Empid identification (especially in migration when habitat becomes irrelevant).

*For birders, general impression of shape and size (GISS)