Monday, July 2, 2012

First Impressions Can Be Wrong: a Juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-heron

This post starts out talking about a bird, but if you are patient, it does relate to tea. Recently, this Friday, June 29th, to be specific, I was in Cobbs Creek Park, on the western border of the city of Philadelphia, near the Environmental Education Center at the end of Catharine street, and I spotted this bird:

People with only minimal knowledge of birds might recognize that it is a type of heron. The cryptic plumage is a clue that this is a juvenile bird; juveniles begin with camouflaged plumage, because birds tend to be most vulnerable to being eaten by predators during the first year(s) of their life. As the birds age, they become more experienced and better able to stay safe, and they take on their brightly-colored plumage that helps them to defend a territory and attract a mate.

First impressions can be wrong:

When I first caught a glimpse of this bird, my first impression was that it was probably a juvenile green heron, because, of the birds that look vaguely similar, that bird would be most common and likely to occur in this habitat. But then I realized that it was a night-heron, a primarily nocturnal species of heron. A tip-off is the bright red eye, adapted to seeing at night. Then I thought, oh, wow, it is probably a black-crowned night heron, something I would be excited to see in this city park, but would not think entirely out of the ordinary. But upon examining it in detail, I found that it was actually a yellow-crowned night-heron, quite an unusual find anywhere in Philadelphia, but especially in a city park like this, and, on eBird, never recorded in June. Click the photo to find a page where I explain how to tell apart the juveniles of these two bird species; the easiest clues are the long neck and legs.

I find that the process with which I progressed through different (false) impressions of this bird parallels the process with which I experience many things in life. Sometimes first impressions are spot-on, but in other cases, especially with things that I do not experience often, they can be way off. I've only seen a handful of yellow-crowned night herons in my life, and they have usually been adults in very bold, distinctive plumage.

What makes an expert?

Recently I spoke with an experienced birder who had once had the opportunity to bird with Kenn Kaufman, a famous naturalist and author of several well-respected field guides to birds. The birder I spoke with was struck by how Kaufman would look at very common birds extensively, often examining them for a considerable length of time before calling out what they were. Most birders (including, often, myself) will quickly call out: "Oh look, it's a such-and-such." whereas Kaufman was examining the bird in detail, ruling out all the possibilities of rare, unusual, and unexpected species that it could possibly be. Maybe Kaufman is such an an expert on birding because he suspends judgement until he has enough evidence to form an accurate opinion.

On tea:

Often, when I sample a new tea, I have a bunch of impressions about it. I see how the dry leaf looks, I see how it smells. If it is a tea that I'm familiar with, my impression of what it will actually taste like when brewed is often quite accurate. But, especially if it is a type of tea I am less familiar with, my impression can be way off.

The same is true of tea companies. Recently I wrote about grasping the aesthetic of a tea company, a process which can take considerable time. There are many stages of first impressions in this process, including looking at their website, reading or hearing about others' opinions of their teas, and tasting the first tea, and then later ones. But I find that it often takes extended sampling to really form an informed opinion. I can form an impression very quickly, but, like with the case of the heron pictured above, it might be wrong.

I don't particularly have a life goal of becoming an expert on tea (or birds), but I do feel inspired by this occurrence to suspend judgement and pay more attention, both to tea and birds.

How about you?

What are some times in your life, both pertaining to tea, and other matters, in which your first impressions have been way off?


  1. Alex - I love this post! I find that when I attend a professional development course, if my first impression is that "I already know this stuff" - I am not serving myself well. There is always something for me to learn when I am open, and the same holds true with each steeping of tea.

  2. I love this post too, Alex, and although my reply is not going to be very profound I will nevetheless answer your question.

    I am American and my husband is British. I have been an Anglophile as long as I can remember and so I felt I had a 'pretty good handle' on the British culture. I had my favourite British television programmes, singers, actors, books, etc., but of course, not actually BEING British meant that I only had a cursory introduction to these things.

    There is a very, very well known comedy actor over here - no longer living - and everyone loves him. I like comedy as much as the next person, but I just could *not* get into his films. I thought they were silly and stupid and for the life of me could not understand the attraction. I wrote him off.

    But yet there his name continued to pop up ... old television interviews, "Top 10" specials - anytime the history of British comedy was talked about, so was he.

    I started paying a bit more attention and actually watched some of those shows. Finally, I watched several documentarys about this man, the real man, who he was, his difficult childhood, his sad marriage and the penny dropped. Yes, the British people love this man's comedy but more importantly, they love HIM. As a person. And once I started to look at him as a real person, knowing what I now knew about the type of man he was, I totally - and I do mean totally - began to appreciate his comedy because I knew 'where he was coming from'.

    I'm sure there's a life lesson in all of this but as I sit here on a dreary, overcast rainy morning in Surrey, England eating my toast and drinking my first cup of tea of the day, I am at a loss to dig it out.

    Perhaps I need a Norman Wisdom comedy to lighten the mood.