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Open Mic: Rage Against the Machines – The case against pressing Play to tick

At the Mic: Chris McCreedy

Chris McCreedy is currently a biologist for Point Reyes Bird Observatory Conservation Science and a graduate student at the University of Arizona. The views expressed in this blog post represent the personal opinions of the author.

–=====–

Are you Chris McCreedy?

The car slowly pulled up next to me as I birded the river road.

Whoa, yes. How do you know that?

I Googled you! I recognize you from your pictures. You were ahead of me by two species, but then I passed you up.

I smiled. This was weird but fun. Competition!

Dang, I said. What did you find?

I got the siskins at the river, and I found the woodpeckers.

That’s awesome! They were beautiful. Where did you find them?

Oh, I couldn’t find them, so I went back and played a tape to get them.

My face screwed up. I don’t like playing tapes much was what I managed to say through my disappointment.

 =====

    On-line listservs, eBird, and smartphones have changed birding, and of course, listing. If I want tofind a Wrentit, I can load up a map of the month’s eBird sightings within a 100-mile radius in under 45 seconds. If I want my birds spoon-fed to me, I can sign up for a needs alert for immediate notifications of sightings of unticked birds in my area. If I am blowing my day on an Arizona Ovenbird that never was, my iPhone can save me from my folly in order to chase the Eastern Wood-Pewee that was just heard across the county.

This is no Luddite rant; I love eBird. I find the website and my friends’ checklists endlessly fascinating. eBird’s daily-updated Top-100 lists were a stroke of genius, an ego-engine that motivates hundreds of users to spend untold hours entering their data into eBird for free. If you doubt the power of their pull, watch an eBird staffer muse on the number of hits the top-100 URLs draw daily.  The competition! The
fury! A motivation for the playback.

If someone tries to tell you that playback recordings do not have a negative impact on birds, ask them if that bridge is still for sale. I’ve watched cowbirds cue on Willow Flycatcher excitement in response to playbacks. I’ve even seen cowbirds skip that step and cue on the flycatcher playbacks themselves. Disturbance effects from playback are a question of degree, of species, and of location, and it certainly frames my
approach to birding. Yet disturbance is not my issue here.

 ====

     I drove across Michigan nearly three hours in the dark, my first serious twitch since my return. This solitaire was in the dunes, in a state park that I once visited in a wayback forest ecology class because of its unique stands of old growth trees. I was so excited to be back! Beeches!
A wandering western winged monster! A worthy twitch, a true expedition. Early gray January light greeted me when I pulled in. Cars were already in the parking lot. The temperature was slated to hit a gassy 60-something. A great lake was behind those dunes somewhere.

I unfolded a piece of paper. An eBird user had detailed the stakeout to the exact tree— all I had to do was print out their checklist. Walk
here. Turn there. Stand, wait. I walked. I found a small group of birders near the tree. They were super friendly.

Is it here? I asked.

It just left about two minutes ago.

I started laughing. It will come back! Then, less certain: I hope it comes back.

Without hesitating, one birder pulled out his phone. Oh I can call it in.

I had come across this situation before, with a big lister in Arizona. As then, I asked them not to call it in, and like in Arizona, gracefully they respected my request. To our cheers, the bird soon topped a nearby dune and warily approached its juniper fix. After driving two or three hours to arrive here, they left in five minutes – onto the next tick. It gave me a chance to dawdle, to goof on the dunes, mindmeld with the solitaire, and to try a few exposures in the hesitant January light (here).

 ====

To my memory, outside of research requirements, I have used playbacks twice. In 2011, my friends invited me to try a Mono County big day with them, and then we did it again two weeks later. At our first stop, a friend broke out a small set of speakers and an iPod. I was amazed. What are you doing? I asked. We have to use recordings, otherwise we’ll never beat the record.

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Northern Saw-whet Owls can be found without playback, you just have to look a little harder, photo by Chris McCreedy

To many, listing is self-indulgent, a game. It is also really fun. Those Mono days were two of the best of my life; I love my friends and I love Mono.  We would have beaten the record without the tapes – and spared ourselves the embarrassment of tooling around at 5PM, blaring Mountain Quail calls from a Toyota MPV like jackasses. As fakes on bikes cry on the news that they had to dope in order to compete, I think about Mono and my playback encounters of recent weeks.

A tick conveys some bragging rights. It is a measure of earned knowledge, luck,  planning, respect for the birds and their ecology,  communication with your peers, persistence, and hard work. Each species represents untold glorious dips, days where you took it in the shorts chasing that unchaseable hawk while your rival gained three on you across the state. Yet with all of our internet gadgetry, the inclusion of playback renders the tick an entirely prosaic measure of one’s ability to click a mouse, to drive, follow a map, own a smartphone with an app,
and to press Play. Why boast about this? Why riff on a wild night of owl playbacks on your big year blog?

It seems that many more of my friends use playback if they need a tick than I would have believed.  The most common form of denial is, I
had to be in the right spot to play the tape
. This is a way of saying ‘I used skill to get to the spot to play the recording’. Sorry, my high school writing assignments required more research effort than looking up Barred Owls on eBird maps. Another example is You’re young; older birders cannot hear their birds and so they need to bring them in. While I fear and loathe the thought that one day I will not be able to hear Rock Wrens, retired birders can also spend all day, perhaps every day, looking for their birds. One of my favorite angles was this: I am helping eBird by finding owls with playbacks.  I hadn’t realized nobility resided so close to rationalization.

Playback remains an important (and occasionally required) research tool, and I believe that playback can be extremely effective in
education and outreach. If I have my ABA Ethics correct, limited use of playbacks is encouraged. But given the rise of internet-based birding
aids and the prevalence of smartphones, I dream that the ABA would forswear the use of playbacks for ticking, just for the sport of it, to give the endeavor a little art. Otherwise, why keep track? Who cares if you cannot find the sky but you can find the smartphone in your pocket? I doubt that will happen; tour guides would go bananas, we would not know what to do with our old lists and the world would then definitely explode.

Listing is about the birds, the birds! Birds are beautiful, ugly, weird, and they have wings. They are hard to find! And to me, they disappear when you press Play, replaced by a number.

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