Observing  crucial starting point

In the autumn of 2002, Michiel van den Bergh and I spent a few weeks in Peru. Birding till we dropped, we covered a wide range of habitats, from coastal deserts to high mountains and tropical rain forests. An endless stream of lifers – species we had never seen before – was our reward, including icons like Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin, Andean Condor Vultur gryphus and Andean Cock-of-the-rock Rupicola peruvianus. More than once, our observational skills were put to the test, particularly when we bumped into large mixed-species flocks moving quickly through the forest’s canopy. Surprisingly, we often found ourselves puzzling over even the most colourful species, not to mention the many nondescript ones. A scarlet rump here, a yellow belly there, an orange crown somewhere, a bluish um?… Our brains just could not keep up. By the time the flock had disappeared and we had a chance to look in the field guide, our short-term memory had usually already let us down. Lengthy discussions followed about which combinations of features we believed we had noticed on which birds (and why these were not in the book). And yet identifying birds was what we had done for most of our lives… 

I have always been interested in the way we observe. Attention seems like a spotlight, playing a major role in what is noticed and what is missed. It is not just minor details that easily go undetected. So-called ‘invisible gorilla experiments’ demonstrate that even major things can be missed when focussing on something else (Simons & Chabris 1999). And when we do notice something, then the way we perceive it varies considerably. The same goes for the way we remember it later on. Finally, convincing ourselves and others of the accuracy of our observation is yet another interesting process. Perception is shaped by learning, memory, expectation (or even trickier: the wish to see something) and attention. Birdwatchers are confronted with this all the time. What have I learned?... To bring a camera on my next trip to Peru!

Eurasian Hoopoe intobirding.com

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Published 6 March 2018