The Great Backyard Bird Count starts this weekend, which encourages people to go birding wherever they can and report their sightings to eBird. As Eric Carpenter has said in the Texas birding Facebook Group (TEXBIRDS), "Folks that participate in this event include some less experienced birders and their sightings go into eBird. Thus, we often get a rise in unusual reports/alerts in eBird on GBBC weekend every year and I expect this year to be no different. You may want to take this into account when you get alerts or see unusual birds reported the next few days. I wouldn't get overly excited about a lot of sightings until you see they are confirmed by an eBird reviewer."
This Green-tailed Towhee supposedly seen in upstate New York a week before the GBBC was reported by a credible observer, right? Or was this taken in Arizona and did the observer accidentally or even intentionally report it from NY? That's what I'll be going over. Edit: this is a CONFIRMED report of said species Photo credit: Donna Carter/Macaulay Library
This is a telltale sign of a bad report: usually a birder will have reported a rare species, but between the time the birder submitted the checklist and eBird sends an alert, the birder may have realized his mistake or the reviewer will have removed it. As Tim Healy has said on a broken link in NY birders: "I think in general a dead link for a fresh report of a crazy rarity can be assumed to be a corrected error. Usually the ID is just amended in the checklist, though." Other times the checklist will be deleted.
Another sign that the rare bird in question is not where the observer said it is is when the species has no details. When reporting a rare bird, eBird will ask you to add comments and/or photos and check 'complete' (see the second photo in this section for an example). Many birders just check complete without adding any details. Any time I see a report of a potentially rare species without any additional details, I know it's most likely a misidentification or a new birder.
When asked to provide details on a rarity, many new birders give vague descriptions that only describe either the bird, its habitat, or behavior. Many of these descriptions are extremely vague and not helpful in determining the validity of a rarity
Whenever possible, I will try to do a background check on the person reporting a potentially rare bird to make sure their report is credible. For example, a supposed Common Sandpiper was reported from Accomack County, Virginia a few days before Camp Avocet started (that’s worth a whole post to itself). No photos were attached, and the description oddly matched that of a Spotted Sandpiper. I looked at the person's eBird profile and found out she only had a Virginia life list of 59 species and only 11 complete checklists and one photo.
Below is an example of how not to describe a rarity
#5: photo posted to Facebook or Instagram, but the
photographer refuses to disclose where it was seen
You also get birders who don't use eBird and instead post to Facebook such as the above Swallow-tailed Kite. The person who took the photo saw it earlier this week, denied that it was a kite, and was unwilling to say where he saw it except that it was on "Long Island." This photo and a Summer Tanager were supposedly taken in "sensitive habitat" that the photographer did not wish to share for fear of a stampede. Others think maybe he was trespassing on private property or in a restricted area. I tried asking the guy several times, and he messaged me privately saying I should "find my own rarities." I left the group shortly after that and am no worse off.
The perpetrator attempted this in the main New York birding group with an American White Pelican on Long Island, and this time was questioned more persistently. It was later revealed he has a history of this behavior in other groups and was subsequently removed and blocked.
One of the most outright cases of stringing is when a birder reports a rarity from location and uses a really good photo that they almost can not have taken as "evidence." Often birders will search for photos of the species in question such as with a Kirtland's Warbler reported in Florida. When people found out the photo was stolen from the Audubon website, the "finder's" defense was rather weak. She first claimed they were her photos and said her photography really good. When that didn’t work, she posted a bible verse meme out of context. She was caught and banned from the Florida Birds group. On the same day, a Xantus’s Hummingbird was supposedly reported from California when it turned out to be a photo of similar hummingbird species called a Mountain-Gem (I forgot which one) that was actually taken in Panama. Both posts in the ABA Rare Bird Alert group got taken down (Nate Swick even commented with "Sad reacts only" before deleting the warbler post).
A similar incident took place just a month ago with a photographer in Massachusetts supposedly reporting a Great Gray Owl in the state. A Google image search confirmed the stringer used a photo of one seen in upstate NY last year (which I’m salty about not being able to see) and placed his watermark on the photo. Grrr...
However, this is nothing compared to tragic downfall of former young birder Ali Iyoob. A few years ago, Iyoob supposedly found and photographed North Carolina's first Violet-green Swallow (rare anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains) near an apartment complex pond in UNC - Chapel Hill, which no other birders saw; followed by several other rarities only he saw and photographed. Do any of his sightings have teeth to them? Well to start, the swallow photo was taken in Colorado, and the bird's tertial feather pattern was off for the time of year Iyoob supposedly saw it. This trend continued with other rarities Iyoob *cough cough* created, *cough cough* I mean found and used photos of a species until his reputation was not only soiled in North Carolina, but across the ABA Area. As Steve Tucker has said: "You can be a dipsh*t, you can be unskilled, you can be a bad person, and birders will still tolerate you as one of them. But for god's sake, don't lie."
A lot of birders just write “continuing” for a rarity that has been for a while. I’m guilty of this myself
This often raises questions because although the person is trying to protect their identity, it doesn’t make determining if the report is valid or not…
So by this point I've hopefully convinced you that stringing is bad and you should take all reports of unusual sightings with a grain of salt, but does that mean we should look down our bills on these birders who don't exactly know what their doing? The simple answer is no. All too often* I see this on birding groups, listservs, and comment sections: the greenhorn birder getting torn to shreds. The person you cold be talking to (or questioning) online might have just started birding and not to different from you when you first picked up a pair of binoculars. Tearing down people who aren't as experienced as you are in a field of interest is not an effective way of educating them, and that's the goal, right? We want the widest demographic possible to feel more comfortable learning about and enjoying birds, which is not going to happen if we ridicule those who are uneducated. This doesn't mean we can't make fun of greenhorn birding culture, it just means we need to be more thoughtful when dealing with rookie birder mistakes. It is possible to create effective satire without being a jerk. Facebook pages like Birding Family Circus and Birding Humor, or a couple of blog posts by Steve Tucker and Nick Lund are perfect examples of this: targeting the concepts rather than the people who hold them (except when they claim that Northern Goshawks are expanding into urban areas or try to get in the way of research on American Dippers is it ok to put these people put on the chopping block). As for any unusual reports from this weekend, don't freak out and remember that these new birders are still learning, Wait before a sighting is confirmed by an eBird reviewer before you freak out.
*I myself admit to sometimes being too hard on beginners
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