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.