@lies, I have some questions about birdwatching, and about Merlin’s Sound ID feature.

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As your #1 birding cheerleader this all makes me really happy. Go you!

#1: Flicker silhouette. The thing about IDing a bird based on only a single characteristic (like by only seeing its silhouette, or only hearing a brief vocalization) is that it’s like doing a trapeze act without a net. You really want to have a solid-enough basis of experience to assess the likelihood that your ID could be wrong before you rely on yourself to get it right with just that one piece of evidence. If you can get additional confirmatory evidence your confidence can go way up really fast, but until then you’re relying on yourself to have a complete and accurate enough mental map of the possibilities that you can say “yup; this possibility is the ONLY one that makes sense.”

I’ve seen a lot of flickers, and their silhouette is pretty distinctive. You probably should feel comfortable that you saw a big woodpecker, and one that likes to perch up in the open at the top of a tree, and from what I know about the birds in your area that sounds a LOT like a flicker. I guess another possibility (that would be a lot less likely) would be a Lewis’s Woodpecker. I don’t know if you ever get those around there.

Being overconfident about one’s ID skills is a common pitfall of birders at pretty much every level of experience. You will always be wrestling with it. I wrestle with it. Birders much better than I am wrestle with it. Over time you’ll wrestle with it for harder IDs, but it never goes away. It sounds to me like you’re engaging with that problem in the right way. Keep questioning yourself. Whenever you can, try to follow up on your initial, single-data-point IDs to see if they hold up when you get additional evidence, and file the results away for future reference.

#2: Merlin Sound IDs White-throated Sparrow. Merlin Sound ID is amazingly good, but it does have a significant false-match rate. When they were tuning its machine-learning algorithm they had a choice of how “aggressive” to make it. They could make it super conservative, where it only suggested an ID if it was virtually certain. But then it would only make suggestions a small percentage of the time. Or they could make it super permissive, and it would be making lots of suggestions all the time — but many of those suggestions would be wrong. They basically tuned the dial to get a lot of suggestions with a small but acceptable number of false suggestions. My sense from playing around with it when it first came out is that it had a false-suggestion rate around 10%. Maybe that has improved since then, but I’m not sure.

For me, I’d want to get a look at the alleged White-crowned Sparrow to confirm that’s what Merlin was really hearing. You absolutely could have a lone White-crowned Sparrow hanging around, either by itself or with the local White-crowns. But it could also be the case that Merlin misheard one of the hundreds of local White-crowns working out its song (which doesn’t sound THAT different from White-throated) and made a mistake.

So I’d say it’s an intriguing possibility! But you should verify.

3: duetting Great Horned Owls. This one sounds pretty solid to me. Great Horned Owl hooting is pretty hard to mistake for anything else. Two of them duetting, with one being on a slightly higher pitch than the other but both having that same basic Great Horned Owl pattern, to me sounds like a lock. I’d probably report it.

In conclusion: Yay for your awesome birding! 🙂👍

Thank you, @lies! That was all very helpful. I will say, in defense of my probable northern flicker silhouette, that I did also hear what sounded like a northern flicker both before I saw it and after I saw it (though I did not hear it while I could  see it). My memory for birdsongs I haven’t heard in a long time isn’t very good, but the app also suggested it. I have also seen a northern flicker (in the spring) in that particular tree. And I’ve never seen a Lewis’ woodpecker; they’re rare here, though this is the most likely time of year for them (according to Merlin).

I didn’t report the white-throated sparrow, which I still think is pretty iffy, but the great horned owl duet does seem pretty solid, and your approval of that one makes me feel more confident about it. I wish I could’ve seen them. If you hear a great horned owl (or two), where do you look to try to see it? Up in the trees? Would it be … perching on a branch? close to the trunk? at the top of the tree? I didn’t even know where to look–though I doubt I could’ve found it anyway, in the shadowy light at that hour… but it would be good to know where to look in case it happens again.

So, on re-reading my comment I see that I said “White-crowned Sparrow” (twice) when I meant to say White-throated Sparrow, but it sounds like you figured out what I meant to say. Sorry for being extra-confusing.

Since you heard a flicker I think your flicker ID sounds pretty solid. But everyone gets to make their own call on how certain they want to be before they round it up to “confident” and actually report the bird. Whatever works for you.

A Great-horned Owl hooting: I guess in a tree, or on a building, or a light post? I’ve seen them perched in all those places. Owls are good at making themselves look like not-owls to hide during the day, and they will roost in foliage where it’s hard to see them. But Great Horned Owls hooting sound like they might be more out in the open.

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