Wednesday, August 1, 2012

On Comparisons of Sandpiper Size and Tea Tasting: Lessons From Kaufman's Advanced Birding

My girlfriend Kelsey recently gave me a present, the newer edition of Kenn Kaufman's book "Advanced Birding". I'm finding this book has a lot of universal relevance to my life, including to the subject of tea tasting.

It's shorebird migration season, and the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge has been filling up with migrating shorebirds, including an abundance of Least sandpiper, Killdeer, and Lesser Yellowlegs, as well as smaller numbers of Semipalmated plover and a lone Pectoral sandpiper, which I have now seen twice. Identifying these birds is tough, and in many cases, size is an important clue.

One thing that Kaufman, widely respected as an expert birder, points out, is that without a size reference, it is impossible to accurately gauge size. Want an example? Look at this bird, which I photographed in the refuge recently:

How big is it? The photo alone gives no size reference. If I tell you that it is a Least sandpiper, and you know how big that is, then you have a reference. Let me give another example. How big is the same species, the least sandpiper (the smaller bird) in the following photo?

This photo was taken near Las Vegas, by Lip Kee Yap, and is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

The bigger bird on the left is a Killdeer, a bird, common across much of the US, which can be found both in open, grassy areas like lawns, gravelly areas like railroad beds, and on mudflats alongside sandpipers. Seeing the two birds side-by-side gives us a size reference.

Size is an important clue in bird identification, especially when comparing visually similar birds, like the greater and lesser yellowlegs, or pectoral sandpiper, which is visually similar to the least sandpipers pictured here. Just how similar, you ask? Look for yourself:

This photo is by Andreas Trepte, and is licensed under BY-SA 2.5.

Is this bird bigger than the first bird? Yes, it is significantly bigger, and if you saw them side-by-side, you'd be able to see this very clearly. But looking at one bird alone, with no familiar objects for comparison, the size is impossible to see. And without a size reference, anyone other than an expert would have a tough time knowing that this is even a different species from the sandpiper in the first two photos. Both species have essentially the same plumage pattern, and both have yellow legs, and very similar bill shapes and sizes, and body shapes as well.

But check out these photos of a pectoral sandpiper alongside a Killdeer, or two pectoral sandpipers near a least sandpiper, and you'll see that it's hard to confuse these two species of sandpiper when you see them with a clear size reference, such as side-by-side, or near another species of familiar size. The pectoral sandpiper is much larger!

Back to tea:

I've lost count of the number of times I've described a tea as being "more bitter than" or "sweeter than" another tea, or having more of this aroma or that aroma, when I was only tasting one tea, and comparing it to memory. Do I really know this for sure? In a coarse sense, yes. I can probably tell that a stronger-than-average Irish Breakfast tea is more bitter and robust tasting than a lighter-than-average Darjeeling First Flush, just how, in the field and without a size reference, I can probably tell that a turkey is larger than a sparrow, even if I am only seeing one bird.

But for subtle differences in taste, I'm not sure we can know these things with much certainty, without actually tasting teas side-by-side. I wrote about some time ago, about how mood affects how we perceive taste. When comparing to memory, there is the possibility of remembering things in a skewed fashion. Our memory of an earlier tea when we try a new tea and make a mental comparison may be clouded by our expectations of how we think the new tea is going to taste, and tainted by how favorably we feel about the companies selling both the tea we are drinking and the tea we are comparing it to in our mind.

I'm not convinced I have the ability to be particularly accurate when it comes to these sorts of things.

What do you think?

How much do you think you can tell about how a tea you are drinking compares to a tea in your memory? Do you think the subtle tastes and aromas of tea is easier to compare without direct reference than the size of a lone sandpiper on a distant mudflat? Or do you think we can sometimes be a little over-confident with our comparisons of a tea we are drinking to another tea in our memory?


  1. Yes, I also believe memory is a difficult thing to use for comparison, especially where the senses are concerned. Taste, sight, smell, hearing, touch...all are pure sensory experiences that are challenging to compare the more time passes. Which color was more blue? Which year's roses were more fragrant? Not easy to answer...

    Bird watching is also an interest of mine, although I haven't yet begun my journey. Not quite sure where to start, although I know it will happen some time soon. I've always had an interest in birds, now that I live in a rural area, I can finally

  2. Memory is, by its very nature, skewed, as well as illuminating. We are not video recorders, but then, video recorders don't produce anything else beyond what they record. Memories, for a person, are just another aspect of the ever evolving art of life.