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In 2023, Don't Sweat the Small Stuff Unless…

The saying goes, don't sweat the small stuff. If you get hung up on every little detail, your life will be miserable so just let the little things go and focus on the more important, more noticeable details of life. Unless, of course, you are identifying birds, then as I have recently learned, you really need to pay attention to the small stuff. It has been challenging as someone who has always been partial to furry critters over feathered ones. Luckily Patagonia is the perfect place to reach out to just about anyone for bird identification advice.

For example, do you know that we have two species of raven in our region that are hard to tell apart? The Common Raven and the Chihuahuan Raven. One way to tell them apart is by looking closely at their rictal bristles. Rictal bristles are hairlike feathers that run along the upper beak and the gape of a bird's mouth in some bird species. It is thought that they function similarly to whiskers in mammals by providing sensory information such as speed and orientation. According to local bird lover and indispensable Borderlands Restoration Network volunteer John Hughes, the rictal bristles on a Chihuahuan Raven extend three-quarters of the way down the bill, while the Common Raven's rictal bristles only extend halfway down the bill. Small stuff, for sure.

Common Ravens at one of the Borderlands Wildlife Preserve wildlife drinkers.

A second challenge arose for me in identifying what I now know is a female Western Tanager. At first glance, I thought it was a kingbird. My eyes could see that it was not entirely accurate, so I reached out to Borderlands Restoration Network's recently hired Program Director, Melissa Fratello. Melissa claims not to be a serious birder, but I noticed her eyes light up at the sight of most birds, so I suspected otherwise. Again, I was in luck as she explained that it was a female Western Tanager due to the dark upper and orange lower bill mandibles and the yellow rump and grayish/yellowish underparts—all small differences from the kingbird to the untrained eye.

A Western Tanager captured by the trail camera while flying in the preserve.

The small stuff could become overwhelming with so many birds and small details like these. However, I have found the opposite happening in my case. These small details make each bird so much more intriguing, like a puzzle with a thousand different shapes suddenly falling into place towards the end, creating a complete image. So, to start 2023 right, my New Year resolution is to embrace the small stuff, at least when it comes to identifying birds, and to appreciate the big things like having a community of bird enthusiasts at my fingertips.

Happy New Year, and enjoy all the small stuff, especially the birds!

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