Tuesday 3 May 2016

Gestalt - Ringer's/Bander's Guides

Field-based bird identification has essentially been approached from two directions.  Gestalt or 'jizz'-based identification draws on the aspects of a bird's morphology and behaviour that make it distinctive.  In the mid 20th century early bird guides described a fairly rudimentary approach to field identification.  This became increasingly revolutionised until, in the early 1990's The NEW APPROACH to Identification (Grant & Mullarney) delivered a more focused approach, based on finer details, including morphological and topographical features, fine feather detail and field marks.

Whereas the intimate study of fine feather detail was once the reserve of the ringer (bander) and those with access to skins and museum collections, the rise of much better field optics has given birders more options, allowing us to embrace 'the new approach'.  For many it has become 'the normal approach' to bird identification in the field today.  That said 'jizz-based' field guides have also continued to co-exist and many birder's favour a balance between these two approaches.  Modern field guides cram in an awful lot of detailed information, stressing a combination of a bird's morphology, field marks and vocalisations.  But it's not practical or often helpful to include every known identification criterion for every species.  For those looking for a little more detail however there are some very specialist identification guides, focusing perhaps on rarities or on particularly difficult species pairs or families.  Then there are the ringer's (bander's) guides, which are very specialist indeed, intended primarily for those who trap and ring (band) birds for long-term population or migration studies.

In 1970, more than 15 years before the late Peter J. Grant and Killian Mullarney first published The NEW APPROACH to Identification in the Journal Birding World, Lars Svensson had already published the first edition of his ringer's bible, Identification Guide to European Passerines.  Meanwhile, in North America, promoted by Svensson's work, Peter Pyle with the assistance of Steve Howell, Robert Yunick and David F. DeSante took on the same great challenge and in 1987 published their Identification Guide to North American Passerines: A Compendium of Information on Identifying, Ageing and Sexing Passerines in the Hand.  This has since been followed by Peter Pyle's Identification Guide to North American Birds Volumes I and II.

In many ways 'the new approach' significantly bridged the gap between contemporaneous field guides and a Svensson or Pyle compendium.  But even to this day few field birders would try and incorporate a ringer's guide into their birding tool bag.  For most, the level of patience and luck required to be able to observe the finer identification pointers referred to in one of these books on a bird in the field simply doesn't justify the effort required.  And yet birding has continued to evolve.  When the digital camera emerged in the late 1990's bird identification began to take another giant step forward.  Through digiscoping and the proliferation of digital SLR's birders can now capture details relatively easily which wouldn't have been considered possible in the past.  Birders can now start to consider identifying bird's based in part on manuals intended for those who identify birds more typically in the hand.

Leafing through a Svensson or Pyle one will find references to ageing, moult and detailed biometrics in addition to the more standard field marks one might expect to find in a standard field guide.

Springtime brings large numbers of Chiffchaffs and Willow Warblers from their southern wintering grounds to the shores of Northern Europe.  Adults at this time of year can be more similar than juveniles in Autumn, particularly in terms of their subtle colours.  Freshly arrived they can be a bit tamer than usual.  I was recently afforded the opportunity to obtain really close views and photographs of this newly arrived Willow Warbler.  With longer wings than Chiffchaff, Willow Warbler migrates much longer distances from Southern Africa to Europe.  Leafing through my copy of Lars Svensson's 4th edition I was guided through some of the more subtle details revealed by this bird's wing.

You may note I have chosen to caption this blog posting under the Gestalt series of postings.  I could have just as easily chosen the Field Marks series.  However it is in terms of Gestalt that I am considering aspects of morphology and it seems to me that much of the ringer's (bander's) treatment of birds in the hand is about a detailed look at morphological traits that separate similar species including, in particular biometrics and wing structure differences.  I am sure I will be writing more about this area in the future.  For now this has been a taster. 

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