Generalist or Specialist?






From time to time, I receive photos, descriptions, or even audio recordings from friends who ask for help identifying an unusual bird. Sometimes I’m pretty confident of my answer. At other times, I simply don’t know for certain. Recently, a friend sent me a grainy picture of a heron. To her, it appeared unusual and she wondered if it might be one of the few sightings in the U.S. of a Grey Heron, a European species.

In most cases, the easy answer is, “No.” The probability of finding a Grey Heron here is remote. But that is the fun of birding. You never know what might show up. Every fall, birds lose their way or are blown off course.

In the case of the heron in question, the photo was from a distance and grainy. Had I seen it, I would have called it a Great Blue Heron and not given it a second thought. Then again, I’m a generalist when it comes to birds. I know a little about a lot of birds but there are some birds that are a bit more complicated. Herons go through a variety of molts and plumages. These include juvenile, formative, second pre-basic, third pre-basic, and definitive plumages. They also go through molts which may look different than the picture in the field guide. So, the challenge is that you need to rule out all of the variations before you can definitively call it a rarity like a Grey Heron. (Photo by  Savithri Singh), and that’s beyond my skill level. I do not have the patience and attention span to learn all of these plumages and molts. For this type of birding, you need to be a specialist.

Shorebirds, sea birds, ducks, and hawks are similar in this way. They all have complex plumages and molts. In the case of hawks and gulls, it takes several years to reach their adult plumage. I know people who can tell you every detail on these species. They are fascinated by each nuance, by each feather and they know when even one is out of place and could represent a rarity. These specialists are impressive.

I, however, am a generalist. So, there you have my true confessions as a birder. Regardless, what is so cool about nature is that when you take the time to slow down and really observe what’s out there, you see all of these nuances in creatures you’ve never seen before. And whether you decide to settle with being a generalist like me or become a specialist in heron morphs, molts, and plumages, it opens a whole world of things to learn and see. So, get out there and enjoy.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME. To contact James, send your emails to [email protected].

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