May 20, 2011

The brain knows – New England warblers

Bird watching in the spring is an act of snap judgments. Dozens of warblers representing dozens of species flit around the full green leaves snatching bugs on the wing and giving the patient, neck-bent bird watcher only brief glimpses from below. Learning to identify the thirty plus species of wood warblers is a daunting task to the new bird watcher who is made even more humble standing next to an advanced birder who rattles of species as if making it up. But the advanced birder is not making it up, nor do they have supersonic eyes. The advanced bird watcher is using sound, habitat, and the accrued experience of viewing warblers to make snap decisions, faster than they can even edit their commentary. Consider the photo to the right; most people are able to identify the individual in the photo without hesitation based solely on a few blocks of color. This kind of eye to brain connection is complex and reactionary, occurring seemingly without effort. The same is true in bird watching. It only takes a few tiny blocks of color, a patch of white, a wing bar, or grayish crown, one or two good field marks to identify the majority of the new England warbler species. This process is not quick but by studying books, photos, songs, and spending time in the field this body of knowledge will accrue and will be accessed effortlessly.

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is an educator, bird watcher, and writer fascinated by the intersections of place, people, nature, and culture. He works for Mass Audubon and lives in the heart of Massachusetts. For questions or comments please contact:

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