That "Piping Plover" the other day at Barnegat Light is providing some lessons in birding psychology. When we saw it, I was not entirely convinced of our i.d.--I couldn't see the breast band too well and in reviewing the photos, the legs were the wrong color.
However, instead of looking for a more common, likely bird, I went in the opposite direction, especially after I received an email from a friend who asked if I had ruled out the much more exotic Snowy Plover. I had to admit I hadn't, even though there has never been a Snowy Plover in NJ. Looking more closely at Becky's photos didn't help any--that she got any photos at all is a miracle of modern optics--little gray bird on dark gray rocks in medium gray light at a distance of a hundred yards.
If someone who I didn't know to be a good birder had said Piping Plover I would have been much more skeptical--but looking at the bird I still probably would not have called what it now appears to be--a Sanderling. I didn't see a big enough bill and the bird itself didn't have the bulky look of a Sanderling but overall size at a distance is almost always unreliable. The bill length still bothers me, but I suppose foreshortening could be the answer there. On the other hand, the light half a band I saw on the shoulder was probably the dark patch Sanderlings have in winter.
So: Sometimes you see what you want to see. Sometimes you don't think "likely." And sometimes I misidentify Sanderlings--this isn't the first time. I remember a few years ago on Great Bay Blvd I saw three sandpipers in late winter and called them Semipalmated Sandpipers when they were actually Sanderlings. I don't expect to see Sanderlings on an inlet so I went then with the more "likely" bird based on habitat, even though it would have been much rarer.
Irony: We had been talking about a report of 5 Western Sandpipers of which we had our doubts and supposed that the reporter had misidentified Sanderlings. 10 minutes later, we apparently did the same thing!