Category: Listing (Page 1 of 6)

The Manx Shearwater Conundrum

Manx Shearwater (courtesy of eBird and Jeremiah Trimble)

What does it mean to see something?

On January 22, 2006, Kobe Bryant scored 81 points in a basketball game against the Toronto Raptors. It was a home game for the Lakers, and the attendance was a near-capacity 18,997 people. But if you talked to people in L.A. in the years afterwards, approximately 341,676 of them claimed to have been at the game and watched the historic performance live. A similar but distinct phenomenon plagues the criminal justice system. Case after case after case involves the testimony of eyewitnesses who say they saw the defendant commit the crime charged. But research demonstrates the profound unreliability of eyewitness testimony and identifications. Some 20% of the exonerations of individuals sitting on death row involved mistaken witness identifications. A staggering 69% of individuals convicted for a crime but later exonerated by DNA evidence were incorrectly identified by witnesses as the perpetrator (check out this video about the case of Ronald Cotton). 

One of these situations involved an event that actually happened (Kobe Bryant really did score 81 points in a game in 2006) while the other involved events that didn’t occur (specific accused individuals did not commit a crime).  But in each, people said they saw something that they did not see.

Claiming to have seen things you didn’t see lurks in the birding world. Some of it is like the eyewitnesses in trials – cases of mistaken identification. This can be an innocent or optimistic error (think the Ivory-billed Woodpeckers sightings from 2004) or a deliberate falsehood. Other times, the false reports are not incorrect IDs of a bird seen in the field, but intentional inventions (see Swallowgate or this tale of a false big year).

These instances of claiming to see things that you didn’t see came to my mind after I went on a pelagic (open ocean) birding tour recently in San Diego county waters. It was a long, but productive, trip that I’ll recap soon. We saw Short-tailed Albatross and Cook’s Petrel and endangered Townsend’s Storm-Petrel and Long-tailed Jaeger and Craveri’s Murrelet and Arctic Tern and all kinds of other goodies. At no time during the trip, however, despite much and careful effort scanning flocks of Black-vented Shearwater, did anyone see a Manx Shearwater. As far as I know, no one even saw a bird that they thought might be a Manx Shearwater and snapped a photo to study later. Rather, after every pause at a flock of Black-vented Shearwaters, or awesome leader Paul Lehman would announce “looks like all Black-venteds.”

Where’s the Manx Shearwater?

A day after the trip, however, Paul Lehman sent out an email announcing that someone had looked through their pictures and discovered a Manx Shearwater amidst a flock of Black-vented Shearwaters. Like some kind of avian Waldo, the Manx had apparently been there when we were looking. But nobody spotted it. The interesting question to me becomes: should I (or anyone, for that matter) include the Manx Shearwater in an eBird report for that portion of the trip?

The main reason to report the Manx Shearwater is that it was, in fact, there. Since eBird is a data source tool of bird distribution, someone should indicate that a Manx Shearwater was present on this day at the particular location. But eBird is also a personal tool for maintaining a record of the birds I have seen in the world. And I didn’t *see* this bird. Even though it was there, and I almost certainly scanned the flock of shearwaters it was sitting in, I find it hard to justify including the Manx on my eBird report. I mean, it would be silly for me to visually scan a page of a Where’s Waldo book and declare that I saw Waldo if I never actually *saw* Waldo. That fact that he’s there, somewhere, and that I could find him at some later time if I looked more carefully at the picture, strikes me as quite different from me saying that I saw Waldo.

But perhaps it depends on the nature of an eBird report. When birders do a Big Day, for example, they often go out in groups of 3-4 birders, and any bird seen by one member of the group is a bird that goes on the day’s list. The eBird report is not, therefore, a list of the birds a single person saw, but I list of birds that the group saw. In this sense, all of us on that boat were a group of people looking at birds. And a bird seen by one is a bird seen by all. That’s true as far as it goes, but I’m not sure how far it goes. There’s still the little snag that nobody actually saw, much less identified, this bird during the trip. Or did they? For all I know, I saw the bird, but I didn’t see the key field marks that identified it as a Manx (it’s the white rump). I have certainly reported sightings of birds I could not identify in the field, but later discerned from pictures while sitting on my living room couch.

The shared eBird list that went out from the trip organizers did not include the Manx Shearwater. So far, a half dozen people (out of 68 on board) have added the Manx Shearwater to their eBird reports. Most of them–but not all–have uploaded a photo they took showing the bird. I’m not one of the people who added Manx Shearwater to the eBird report. I don’t think that makes me a more ethical person. It just reflects my conception of eBird reports as tallies of the birds I saw, with “saw” meaning a bird I consciously looked at in the field and either identified or puzzled over.

 

Playback gets me a county lifer

Scott's Oriole Los Angeles CA

Scott’s Oriole visits the west side of Los Angeles

It wasn’t me playing the tape, but….

Today I saw a new L.A. County lifer: Scott’s Oriole. They’re uncommon but regular in the southern edge of the Antelope Valley (less frequent in winter). But that’s over an hour from my house, and I rarely get out there. They’re rare in the L.A. basin. As happy as I was to finally add it to my L.A. County list, if it wasn’t for playback, I wouldn’t have seen it. This made me both delighted (close looks at a bright male Scott’s Oriole just 20 minutes from my West L.A. home) and a little penitent. I’m on record as opposing the use of playback to add a rarity to your life list. It’s hard to convincingly explain why, but it’s some combination of it feeling like cheating, of it disturbing birds, and it being the behavior of someone whose priority is the list. So the fact that this sighting benefitted from playback will forever tar the memory.

A week ago, Jared Diamond found a Scott’s Oriole in the Bel Air neighborhood near UCLA. (I’m assuming this is the Guns, Germs, and Steel author, New Guinea bird researcher, and UCLA professor Jared Diamond, but I don’t know for sure.) A couple other folks went up Stone Canyon Drive in the days following and found the bird. Most recently, it was reported 4 days ago. I decided I’d go take a look this morning and see if it was still around. Some big winds had moved into town, which didn’t bode well, but it was worth the short trip.

The bird has been seen in cape honeysuckle bushes along a fence line. I parked at the spot, and walked up and down the hill a couple of times. I saw no oriole. Occasionally I heard a very oriole-like “chek” coming from the bushes, but never saw any movement. When a mockingbird flew out of the bush, I figured I’d been deceived. Later, I noticed that a nearby “no parking” sign was loose and blowing in the wind, occasionally making a similar sound. After 40 minutes, I decided to sit still for 10-15 minutes and see if it emerged. If not, I’d leave.

Scott's Oriole Los Angeles CA

While I sat on the curb, a trio of birders showed up. They were pleasant folks, and very determined to find the bird. They asked if I’d played its call. I told them I hadn’t and said no more. They split up to look for the bird, and I made one last walk up the hill. As I returned to my car, I heard the the oriole-like “chek” again. This time, it wasn’t a mockingbird, and it wasn’t the no parking sign. Nor was it the Scott’s oriole. It was one of the birders playing a Scott’s Oriole call with his smartphone. But then an oriole-like “chek” call came in response from the bushes. The playback continued, and the bird kept calling back. But we couldn’t find it. At one point, I got a quick glimpse at a yellow belly and black back on a robin-sized bird. The bird, frustratingly, stayed deep or at the back of the bushes. Astoundingly, despite the bird frequently calling and us standing 10 feet away with a direct view into the bushes with the sun at our back, it took us 15 minutes before we finally got a clean look at the bird.  The looks were worth the wait, and maybe worth the use of playback.

With Scott’s Oriole now in the bag, there aren’t that many birds readily seen in L.A. County that I haven’t seen. According to eBird’s target feature, the most frequently seen bird in L.A. County I’ve yet to see is Gambel’s Quail. But all of those sightings are from San Clemente Island, which is 65 miles off the coast and owned and operated by the U.S. Navy. Justyn Stahl and others work out there with Loggerhead Shrikes, and report the Gambel’s Quail. Next most frequent is Golden Eagle (0.233% of all reports include Golden Eagle). That requires more hiking in the San Gabriel mountains, which I intend to do over the next couple of years. The rest are either pelagic species, owls, or rare migrants.

 

 

 

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