Delicate dance

Posted May 4th, 2011 by kcorliss. Comments (3).

I’m no expert bird person. I never took any ornithology classes or went bird watching when I was a kid. But after picking it up later in life, I work hard at getting better by getting out a lot and reading even more. So read the following with these thoughts in mind.

Everyone makes mistakes, even the big boys. No one is fault-free, especially when it comes to identifying moving living creatures like birds. I continue to be in error at times and will so until I die. That said, every day a person gets better with practice.

So it’s with some trepidation I introduce a discussion on bird reports. Ever since the floodgates opened up with Internet chat groups and bulletin boards, there seems to be a wave of “new” people adding this or that report. There was a time when I knew virtually every person on North Dakota’s listserve; after all we’re a lightly populated state with an even lighter percentage of birders. We all pretty much knew who the really good birders were.

It’s not so easy anymore with many new names making their presence known, most are folks I don’t know. Without some knowledge of who these people are it’s hard to critique them from afar.

Here’s my conundrum: How far should a person go when questioning someone’s bird sighting without discouraging them? Seriously, this is a problem. After all, the ultimate goal of these websites should be the gathering and disseminating of information which may be useful to science, or at least useful to our understanding of bird life and its distribution. When a mistake is made, should it go unquestioned? Because if we don’t, erroneous information has a nasty way of filtering into the body of knowledge. At the same time, simply telling someone ‘you are very likely wrong,’ has the potential to turn them off, discourage them, maybe even make them quit reporting birds. Even a well-intentioned attempt at a “teaching moment” can be immediately interpreted as an affront. See the problem?

I’m not talking about obvious inexperienced mistakes like seeing flocks of McKay’s buntings in Fargo. No, I’m talking about subtle sightings which sound reasonable but are still very likely, wrong.

Two cases on point: those tricky sparrows and those nasty thrushes. Every early spring there seems to be a smattering of chipping sparrow sightings. Coincidentally, these usually occur right at the time American tree sparrows (the first sparrow migrant and a somewhat striking look-alike) are being noticed. Some weeks later swamp sparrows show up, another rusty-capped sparrow which can fool folks. Frankly, when folks “see” chipping sparrows early in the season I don’t believe them. (note: some regular readers might notice a bit of hypocracy here as I’ve preached about not being slaves to calendars. But when a bird is seen outside of normal dates there should be darned good documentation and a firm description, not just a casual mention on an bird chat site.)

Also hermit thrushes are the first thrush to arrive (this year it was late March) in spring due mainly to the fact they’re the only ones to winter in the US (I’m not including American robins here). Once hermit thrushes arrive there will be inevitable reports of Swainson’s thrushes. This is the same as the sparrow case above, they just aren’t here yet. There’s also the problem of getting good looks at thrushes since they have this uncanny ability to put obstacles between themselves and observers. Even with good looks, thrushes are notoriously difficult to differentiate. Again, I have a very hard time taking all those early Swainson’s thrush sightings seriously.

Left uncritiqued, these “early” birds might very well end up in seasonal and regional compilations, eventually national ones. Then folks take these reports, make studies, and come to conclusions (“See? Look how early chipping sparrows and Swainson’s thrushes are migrating. It must be global warming!”). Only problem is, it’s bogus.

Maybe I’m making too much of this but it sticks in my craw. Maybe it’s the desire to always seek the truth no matter what. I guess the most prudent action on the part of birders is to be cautious about making claims. There’s nothing wrong with “I think I may have seen…” or ” I saw what was likely a…” or even “the bird might have been a…but I’m not sure.” I’ve done that many times. When you’re not sure, admit it. But that still leaves the issue of how to handle the bold ones such as, “today in my apple tree I saw a green jay,” and even the sublty wrong ones like, “I saw a Swainson’s thrush on March 15th in Fargo,” where observers earnestly believe their claims. In this regard I don’t envy those who must turn in the official regional reports.

Here’s a little illustration for those of you keeping score at home. Take a look at the photo below. The person who emailed it to me was wondering if it was a Swainson’s thrush or a hermit thrush (by the way, as of this date both species are in the area). At least she had the humility to admit she wasn’t sure. Any guesses as to which thrush this is? Go ahead and give it a shot, I don’t bite.

3 Responses to “Delicate dance”

  1. GrandmaVickiAnn

    Interesting article. I had not thought of those results of an inaccurate identification. I, too, like to be “sure” that I saw what I think I saw, not just accept a possible or even probable identification because I want it to be so. I enjoy your blog.

  2. Andrea

    I’m no expert either – especially with birds in the field – and my confidence is pretty low, but I’ll guess Hermit. The eye ring seems whitish as opposed to buffy, the rusty color of the primaries, the apparent lack of buffy cheeks, and the tail on the ground (maybe it’s flicking?) swayed me. But I wouldn’t call it without seeing the tail. (And if I had it in hand, I’d look at the P6!)

    Working as a bird bander, I see experienced “big boys” disagree about a bird we have in the hand. I have also seen them release birds unbanded because they could not confidently decide on a species ID. When we do ID a bird that is outside of its temporal range, we take great pains to photograph and document the bird so when the USGS flags the record, we have proof of what we had.

  3. kcorliss

    I guess I shouldn’t be surprised even banders have trouble making the call. Some individuals are just too iffy.

    Great points about the photo Andrea. I know nothing of P6 (6th primary), I’m a “field” birder after all.

    Your ID points are spot-on by the way. White eye-ring is nearly all you need.