[Originally appeared in the Sierra Wave newsletter, Vol. 28, No. 4, Mar-Apr 2010 – click here for original with photos]

He was right. We were wrong!

Thirty years ago in an Ecuadorian forest, we were complaining about how difficult a group of greenish, seemingly unmarked flycatchers were to identify. At that same moment, down the trail came a new friend we had not yet met. He looked at what we were looking at and said, “Oh boy, an obscure flycatcher!” We both burst into spontaneous laughter at the epiphany that he had the right attitude. That was only the first of many lessons we learned from him that week.

As beginning birdwatchers, we’ve all encountered the dreaded LBJ, that is, the “little brown job,” that totally befuddles us. As beginners we prefer an adult Red-tailed Hawk, a male Red-winged or Yellow-headed Blackbird and may have even wished for a pair of binoculars that would flip up the bird’s name every time a bird was focused upon! There were groups that we avoided, like sandpipers or sparrows, because they were little brown birds that seemed to look all the same. But as days turned into years, we began to enjoy looking at a bird that we couldn’t name because the challenge invigorated us.

The three most important factors in identifying a LBJ are 1) seeing the bird really well, 2) knowing what parts of the bird need to be scrutinized, and 3) seeing the bird really well. OK, so there is one really important factor…seeing the bird really well. If you can’t tell if the lores are light or dark, you are not seeing the bird well enough to identify it. The second factor is equally important but if you can’t see the bird well, it won’t much help to know that you are supposed to be looking at the lores.

What’s a ‘lore’ you ask! Those who already know are well on their way to collecting LBJs on their lists. In the introductory section of all field guides is a drawing of the topography of a bird. Even a fisherman/hunter/skier knows some of the parts of a bird such as crown, cheek, chin, throat, breast, belly, sides, flanks, back, rump, etc. This leaves a shorter list that includes lores, median crown stripe, superciliary, postocular eyeline, auricular, malar, vent, scapulars, etc. With these new tools, LBJs will learn to fear your identification skills!

Three species in our area that are full-fledged LBJs are sparrows all belonging to the same genus, Spizella. The Brewer’s, Clay-colored, and Chipping Sparrows are small, slender sparrows with long tails and muted brown and cream patterns. But each one has a combination of a couple of marks that the other two don’t have. Brewer’s and Clay-colored have brown rumps and Chipping has gray. Brewer’s and Clay-colored have pale lores and Chipping has dark lores. Obviously, Chipping can be quickly distinguished from the other two Spizellas, given a good view. If the rumps are brown and the lores are pale focus on the median crown stripe. Is it an obvious light, white to buffy, line down the center of the skull or is there no or a very short dull colored line in the forehead only? If it is obvious you are looking at a rare Clay-colored Sparrow and need to begin writing a description! If you aren’t sure it has a median crown strip, you are looking at the common Brewer’s Sparrow. The most confusing plumages of these three look-alikes are fall and winter dress, especially that worn by immatures. Given very good looks and knowing which parts of the bird to focus on, you, too, can make a confident and correct identification.

If you embrace the difficult LBJs and the challenge they offer, impossible tasks turn into the possible and the pursuit becomes more and more enjoyable. Let your mantra become, “Oh boy, an obscure …!”

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