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ICYMI: On Stringing…

The ABA Blog has been in existence for almost 7 years, and there’s a lot of good content back in the archives that deserves an audience now that it might not have received way back when. So, semi-regularly we will bring some of that stuff back. Here’s one by George Armistead form May 2014, on a topic that always seems to promote rigorous discussion.


(with apologies to “Pat Stringer”)

Never identify a bird unless you’re 100% positive. At least that’s the way I learned it. Then, as I learned more I kinda had to unlearn that. We identify a lot of birds based simply on percentages. A distant flock of dark ibises are doubtlessly Glossy in the East, but it’s a different story elsewhere. I remember Michael O’Brien (well known as one of the best field birders around) reporting 10 “meadowlark sp.” on the Cape Charles, Virginia Christmas bird count one year. Got me thinking. He was right. They could have all been Westerns Meadowlarks (though there are zero accepted state records I believe). But Michael would be the first to tell you, most of the time it is safe to assume. Knowing when it’s not safe is when people run into trouble, and that’s where the Stringers live.

I did not string this Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Took this shot in Venezuela. Still need it for ABA Area! (Photo © G. Armistead)

I did not string this Fork-tailed Flycatcher. Took this shot in Venezuela. Still need it for ABA Area! (Photo © G. Armistead)

Every province and state has one or more. A stringer is someone who doesn’t know when to declare uncertainty, or just never declares it. One mark of a really good birder is that they can say without shame, “I don’t know”. A stringer hardly ever says that. And stringers find a lot of “good” birds, nearly always when they are alone, and usually they don’t get photos of them. Some birders live in remote areas and aren’t into photography, and it stands to reason that they would find interesting birds while alone and not have photos to show for it. Stringers know this too, and can use it as a shield when anyone sticks a nose into their noteworthy claims. But more often than not stringers don’t live in remote areas, much as we might wish it.

There was an age in birding when honor was perhaps more scrutinized at the individual level than it is today. In the Oughts, with the arrival of digital photography, it became much easier to document rare birds and vagrants. As someone who understands how birders’ minds work, I actively try to document with photos any species I see that comes close to the threshold of being deemed unusual. I estimate I’m successful more than 80% of the time in getting an identifiable photo (or audio recording). It’s that easy. And I also hope that my thoroughness in documenting unusual sightings lends me credit for the day when I see something truly remarkable that does not allow me to get a photo of it. But when I do see something really truly mind-blowingly earth-shatteringly rare, the odds will be on my side 80%+ of the time. And with chance favoring the prepared, I’ll have been practicing along the way.

Some folks actually bemoan this new era of digital photography. They miss the days where we had to rely more on written accounts, or just simply the good word of our fellow birders. While serving on a couple state records committees I heard other committee members arguing that perhaps we should not accept any submissions of rare birds without some form of written description. Never made much sense to me. Give me a photo, name, date and location and I’m pretty happy to evaluate that evidence over a meandering treatise on what somebody thought they saw. Of course even today we rely heavily on the honor system among birders, and this is one of the most compelling things about birding as a practice.

One of the first questions non-birders always ask us is how the honor system can possibly work. Often they see birding (especially listing) as competitive and ask why people don’t just lie. While it isn’t perfect, our system does work by and large. Being dishonest about what you’ve seen is actually not terribly rewarding. There’s no money it, and birders are good at sniffing out such patterns, and reputation counts for a lot. And given that the fun of birding is celebrating what you’ve seen, it’s just can’t be as much fun to revel in sightings that never actually transpired. And they can’t be shared by anyone else. Outside of Big Day competitions and such, there’s not a ton of stuff to motivate somebody to lie about bird sightings most of the time.

And perhaps photography has become too easy. Anybody can get a picture of anything it seems and a quick look at the various facebook groups shows all sorts of folks slapping up all kinds of bird images, noteworthy or not. On rare occasions people even lie about where the picture is taken. Such is the way of the stringer.

Stringers typically do not lie. The really unstable ones lie about where they took their photos or totally fabricate bird sightings, but this is rare. More often a stringer is someone who sloppily mistakes one species of bird for another. A stringer is someone who thinks they see something noteworthy and doesn’t question that impulse further, or does not question it enough. Good birders know the limits of their observational abilities and constraints. A stringer does not. A stringer sees a distant falcon flying around and thinks “hey, that looks like a large falcon. Maybe it’s a Gyrfalcon.” Before they even realize it maybe has vanished, and they just tell folks they saw a Gyrfalcon. “It was too far away to get pictures,” they say. They could be correct in their identification, but the odds are against them. And as times goes on a pattern develops. The conversation’s trajectory usually works kind of like this:

Hey do you know Pat Stringer?
Pat Stringer is finding a lot of really good birds.
Pat Stringer must be a really good birder.
Has anyone seen that Fork-tailed Flycatcher since Pat Stringer found it?
No? What about the Gyrfalcon he/she had?
Did anyone get a picture of it?
No? What about her/his Black-headed Gull?
Have you ever gone birding with Pat Stringer?
Who does Pat Stringer bird with?
Do you know Pat Stringer?

Stringer field marks vary somewhat. There are those who find interesting but not re-findable birds while alone. There are the non-photographers, but these are becoming rarer, as there seems to be an uptick in photographer stringers that misrepresent their photos. Probably the most common stringer though is the one that doesn’t report really outstanding rarities, but instead strings lots of mid-tier rarities. And this is particularly frustrating if the stringer frequents the same birding patches that you do. Many stringers do not handle criticism well either and become overly defensive or dismissive when pressed for details about their sightings. Nobody likes to be wrong, but stringers like it less than most and are particularly bad about admitting mistakes.

I did not string this Black-headed Gull either, and it was in the ABA area at Prime Hook, DE. (Photo © G. Armistead)

I did not string this Black-headed Gull either, and it was in the ABA area at Prime Hook, DE.

Stringers ain’t big on self-awareness, and despite usually having good-natured dispositions they end up being disliked. If Pat Stringer reports a Fork-tailed Flycatcher inevitably people will make an effort to try and see it. They may take a day off of work and drive 3 hours out of their way, perhaps putting themselves at peril along the way. The most frustrating part about stringers is that often they are not totally delusional, and even possess some skill as birders. So when Pat Stringer (and gosh I hope there isn’t an actual birder out there named Pat Stringer) reports that Fork-tailed Flycatcher usually the question isn’t “do I go look for it?”, but more “did they really see a Fork-tailed Flycatcher?” Maybe, maybe not. And not knowing we feel compelled to look. And spending time searching for something you know may never have been there in the first place is tough. It gives you time to think how much you wish Pat Stringer hadn’t reported the bird at all, real or not.

People are complex. There are shades of gray. And everyone makes mistakes. We can’t hope to put an end to stringing because new ones sprout up. While stringers string habitually, even good birders string on occasion by accident. Much of the time we are left only with someone’s word and there is some elegance to that. And it keeps people on their toes. Reputations matter, and while they can be rebuilt, often it is (as the saying goes) like your virginity in that you only lose it once. You know this already and appreciate it. But does a stringer?

A non-strung Western Meadowlark a couple miles offshore of San Diego. (Photo © G. Armistead)

A non-strung Western Meadowlark a couple miles offshore of San Diego. (Photo © G. Armistead)


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George Armistead

George Armistead

George Armistead is a lifelong birder and since April 2012 is the events coordinator for the ABA. George spent the prior decade organizing and leading birding tours for Field Guides Inc. He has guided trips on all seven continents, and enjoys vast open country habitats and seabirds most of all. Based in Philadelphia, he is an associate at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, and spends much of his free time birding the coast between Cape May, NJ and Cape Hatteras, NC.
  • jmorlan

    Does anybody know the etymology of the word “stringer?” It appears to be of British origin and is discussed in “Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book,” but its origins are otherwise obscure.

    • ADrauglis

      My guess is that it comes from the phrase “stringing someone along”.

      • Rick Wright

        Turns out that the simple verb “to string” has meant to deceive since before 1819. (OED) The Century Dictionary gives “hoax” as a meaning for the noun “string.”

        • George Armistead

          Thanks for clarifying this Rick. And thanks for asking Joe. I’d been diggin around for the info elsewhere. Should’ve gone immediately to resident wordsmith Dr. Wright. Much obliged!

  • Cyanocitta

    Very interesting article.

    I’ve gotta pick at one thing, though. While I haven’t been on a records committee, and George has, it seems very dangerous for “the record” to dismiss the importance of a written description even when photos are present. For one, it keeps people’s observation skills honed for that 20% of situations when photos aren’t obtained. And for another, IDing a single photo can be almost as bad as stringing! What if only one photo of that white goose was obtained, and it contains a lighting artifact or somethin’ funny, and while the observer is sure (for good reasons) that it was a Ross’s, most of the committee dismisses it as a hybrid. And lastly, wouldn’t a written description by a photo stringer open them up for error, and thus detection? (I’m fairly sure some state records committees have actually had to deal with photo stringers…)

    I hesitate to rush to the opposite end of the spectrum with respect to records (i.e. allowing only written descriptions vs. accepting only photos with no details). It seems to me that the record should be as thorough as possible. Sorry if that’s a headache, records committees.

    • I couldn’t agree more. I currently serve on a committee and we occasionally see single-photo records without accompanying written descriptions and it is frustrating for precisely the reasons you suggest.

      A record should be thorough, with all photos available (even bad ones!), and single-photo reports should be scrutinized very closely.

  • Rangel Diaz

    Hit the nail so hard on the head it’s not even funny.

  • Joel Hitt

    Cheers to George Armistead for this article. I may be naive on this question of the honor system, and whether it can be trusted in birding. I do understand all the factors George mentions. But I am always quick to list one more.

    It has nothing to do with suspected stringers not being liked, or finding little reward in fabrication of birds seen. Rather it relates to birding as an environmentally based sport. Birding is competitive, yes; there are awards and recognition for those who excel, yes. But ultimately aren’t we about keeping track of what birds, in what numbers, are where, at what times? Aren’t we trying to learn as much as we can about how birds signal victories and defeats in environmental conditions, and report those findings as citizen scientists? And don’t we strive for accuracy because our records are for much more than self-serving competitive ends?

    So you see how I might be naive. I am not out there among the hottest birders in the region. And maybe there has been a shift in motivating factors for taking binoculars or scope out there to record what’s seen. But I’m out there because I love the thing(s) with feathers, and want to do everything I can to insure their survival and that of the habitats that support them.

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  • Tim Avery

    Best post on the ABA blog in a long time. One that should be shared on every listserv, blog, twitter, so on and so forth.

  • Tom Brown

    Fantastic writeup George!!!!!!

  • Geoff Malosh

    Excellent post. Though I think there is another new and important factor at play in modern stringing that is worth discussing: eBird. Specifically, the eBird Top 100.

    It is true that it’s hard for most non-birders and even most birders to imagine the motivation of a stringer, for the reasons George outlined: there’s no money in it, stringers are relatively easy to spot and ignore, and in birding, pretty much nothing is more important than one’s reputation.

    In the old days (pre-internet), it was relatively easy to deal with stringers with respect to the “offical record” (which is my special area of interest, as the editor of a state ornithological journal). Once a stringer was known, birders tended to just ignore him or her, realizing that the latest miracle find was just another “Pat Stringer bird”. The record-keepers of the day (state bird journal editors and North American Birds editors, cBC compilers, and the like) were generally in the know, and would quietly strike some or all of Pat Stringer’s stuff from the final accounting. Sometimes Pat Stringer would get the hint, and fall off the scene. Sometimes it wasn’t that easy, as of course some stringers are more vocal and defiant than others, but in general these things worked themselves out… perhaps with a few futile chases after Pat Stringer’s fake birds as object lessions, but in the end Pat’s reputation would end up shot to pieces and he would be more or less relegated to the pay-no-mind list, one way or the other.

    These days, however, there is a new reward for stringing: instant fame. Instant, internet fame, and the ebird Top 100 is one of the main drivers. Certain kinds of people, I think, are quickly taken in by the instant feedback afforded by watching their name rocket up a Top 100 list in real time. It sounds ridiculous even as I type it, to think that someone might be motivated to cheat at the game of birding just so their name floats to the top of a list on some webpage that 99.999% of the world’s population doesn’t even know exists. But it does happen. I know it for a fact as an eBird reviewer, and as editor of a journal — some people outrightly fabricate sightings specifically to increase their standing in the eBird Top 100. And I think outright fabrication, while certainly not as common as the typical stringing-by-overconfidence as George describes it, is in fact not as rare as we may think, or hope. I have it happen seen on small (county-level) and large (state-level) scales. The Top 100 is not the only reason that stringers seeking to be internet heroes do what they do, but it is one of the reasons, and a big one, I fear.

    And the problem doesn’t stop with gaming the Top 100. Certainly the Top 100 has important benefits, and it drives a considerable amount of legitimate traffic to the eBird website and database. But it has a dark side too, and one that is increasingly hard to deal with, and that is all the data from the stringers that flows through the eBird filters unnoticed, which is in fact the vast majority of the data a stringer submits.

    eBird reviewers are in a tough position — one that journal editors of old didn’t face, at least not in the same way — having to accept data from people they know are almost certainly stringing (often for the purpose of the Top 100) because they cannot absolutely prove that the observer is in fact stringing. An eBird user may be known as a stringer by the birding community, with a reputation as surely shot as the Pat Stringer of old, but their data for the most part flows past the eBird filters and directly into the public database, where 10 or 20 years from now it will be considered as valid as anything else. A diligent reviewer (and not all reviewers are diligent) might even invalidate all those scads of mid-level rarities George mentions, but there may be 60 other species on the same checklist that are (or should be) just as suspicious as the rarity. Those checklists, in their entirety, would have been excluded from a journal of record in the past (and even still are in the present, if the journal editors are diligent enough), but they are mostly not excluded from eBird, unless the extraordinary action is taken by the eBird administrators, which is very rare as far as I know.

    I’m not sure what the answer is with respect to the Top 100. I’m sure the Top 100 isn’t going anywhere, nor do I necessarily think it should go anywhere. I just know there is a downside to it too, and I felt the need to point out this newest motivation for the stringers out there and the long-term consequences of their unfortunate actions.

    • andrew haffenden

      The eBird Top 100 effect is definitely one worth discussing, as it has the most significant impact of stringing, even stringing in the sense of giving a birder a reason not to be as conservative in their ID as they perhaps should be.

      • gutenburg

        This is true but I would venture that Ebird top 100 is more accurate in many areas than the ABA listing central. Whenever you make people pay in order to put in their numbers you will not have good participation. And I would suggest that some of the people who do report their figures to ABA are stringers as well.

        I know that it does happen. But I think it can be bad to accuse people as well. Someone reported several marsh birds on a certain marsh in my county. I went several days later a heard most of them (I missed a couple of them). Someone could assume that I made it up just to stay competitive to the other birders in my county. Or say I see a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher and don’t get a photo (and it flies away before anyone else gets there). People could say that I made it up. That actually happened to a birder who lives in my area.

        There is a guy in my county who is #8 on the top #100 and 75 species lower than the record. You wouldn’t think a person that was that far down would be stringing. In fact he still hasn’t reported some common species. However I am positive he is a stringer. I think he is the type of stringer who convinces himself that he seen a bird that he didn’t see. he has seen a bird that has never been seen in the county before and he reported like 4 Connecticut Warblers in one checklist (this is in the inland northeast). I think that he saw Nashville Warblers.

        Another point is that it doesn’t matter if an Ebird reviewer invalidates a record it still counts on a person’s list.

        But I don’t think it happens too often. If a person has unlimited time on their hands it doesn’t take more than a couple of years to rise into the top 5 on Ebird for counties (depends on what county). They wouldn’t have to lie, they may be out in the field all the time.

  • Andrew Mack

    Nice essay. I think it speaks to a larger societal trend where we seem to overvalue
    self-confidence. How many of us have sat on committees at work or in our communities and watched them led astray by confident leaders, while the not-so-sure doubters are ignored? We often reward people who are certain and see things as black and white (try watching the pundits on Sunday morning tv). Those who clearly see the complications, nuances, and multiple sides of an issue are often not rewarded in broader society.

    Stringers in birding might not be driven by any motive to advance themselves through prestige of rarities they find. They might be applying to birding some of the same behaviors they developed in business and social circles where confidence rates higher than uncertainty. This is part of the beauty of birding the birding community.
    Good birders appreciate the nuanced complexity of identification. Birders appreciate those who incorporate their own fallibility in their decision-making.

  • D

    Your argument is that someone who believes (claims) to have seen a tier-3 bird should be castigated because you are not sure you want to make the effort to go see a tier-3 bird or you do not want your records diminished because you think his sighting is bogus. Considering that I have birded with supposedly expert birders before (some who have sat on records committees) and seen them make boneheaded identification mistakes to get easy ticks, even after looking at their supposedly easy to identify photos, I find your argument with some titanic holes in it.
    Similiar to what the person who talked about the Ebird Top 100 list, there are those birders, a great many who sit on Records Committees, who want to be the ones who find the rarities. I could point you at some pretty obvious examples, but I do not want to get sued or harrassed. They like to keep their club exclusive and get incredibly dismissive of people outside of their circle`s ability to find `good` birds. They do not care that you saw 400 Yellowthroats in a two-block radius, the fact that you saw a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, that`s what gets their underwear in a knot. Why? I have no idea since no one is making them drive out to where it was seen. The only reason why I can think of is the purity of the records for rare birds and the development of fame within the community that comes with them when one finds them on a regular basis .
    As the hobby expands to a more watered down version of itself, instead of a small group of expert birders, to a larger group of intermediate and beginner birders in the short term, patience and acceptance should be the norm. However instead, we see an article by one of the experts in the field trying to impose name-calling within bird culture. Good to see the ABA is being a positive influence on the birding community.

    • George Armistead

      “D”, I’m really not sure what point you hope to make in your comments above. Bone-headedness and unnecessary exclusivity within social situations are problems that one runs into in any pursuit. (As my Dad has often said to me “illegitimi non carborundum”). I certainly agree that patience and acceptance should be the norm, and I’m happy to say that in my experience as a birder they are. These aspects of birding seem obvious enough that I didn’t deem it necessary to devote space to them in the post. Certainly my goal was not to “impose name-calling” or to castigate anyone, but rather to give voice to an issue that has haunted many birders for some time. It is (as you say) sort of a negative subject, but being that it is a common experience it seemed worthy of discussion.

      • Ron Pittaway

        A related commentary was written over 100 years ago by
        one of North America’s foremost ornithologists. See link to “An Untrustworthy
        Observer” by Jonathon Dwight in The Auk, Vol. 15, No. 2. p. 213-214, April

        • Peter Coo

          I find this piece very interesting … of course, they are talking about specimens, not sightings (it being the 19th-c. and all) but the theme of the piece is as relevant as ever – reputation matters, and once lost, is very unlikely to be regained.

          CN: Off topic.
          There’s something I found rather odd with this Auk piece, though… kinglets “…not in breeding plumage?” How would they have known? Pardon my presumption here, but I’ve banded a fair few Regulus sp., and as far as I know, they simply don’t have a PA moult – how would they have known they weren’t taken in June? Lack of brood patch/ cloacal protuberance?

        • Mark Stevenson

          Stephen Sargent Visher’s “Notes on the Birds of Pima County, Arizona” in The Auk is also a model of old time stringing from 1907 and 1909. A subsequent commentary called him on such things as his White-headed Woodpecker that, although not collected, he reported could not possilby have been anything else.
          Auk, 27(3):279-288, 1910.

        • Dave
  • Mel Goff

    As relatively new birders (12 years) my wife and I enjoy following reports on eBird and the Colorado listserv. We often go after (chase) interesting and rare birds to add to our list and to our experience with this great pastime. The problem of us is the opposite side of this argument. Because we see so many really fantastic birders in our outings, we are often hesitant to blurt out an ID. Our greatest “fear” in birding is that we will find something truly off the charts – out of season, out of range, etc.) and be tentative about reporting it. While we do not carry more than a point-and-shoot camera, we do try to document our finds and we work with the eBird reviewers to answer their questions. Well, we are getting better and the whole world of birding, and I hope to meet many more of you as we seek the “mythical” Cape May Warbler.

  • Dan Cooper

    Great post, George. A lot of this is so subconscious that in a lot of cases, stringers probably aren’t aware of their stringing (hence the extreme defensiveness/bafflement when questioned), and almost all are truly ignorant, willfully or no, about basic seasonality and distribution, and probability for that matter. I think most of us are “guilty” of some degree of this when we first start out birding – a lot of second-tier rarities are quietly deleted from the life list as we learn more about what shows up when. This happens over and over with lookalike species where one is very common and the other is fairly rare, though not crazily rare (female BH vs. RB Grosbeaks in California, for example). Or, when a lookalike occurs regularly, albeit rarely, in one season and almost never in another – we get those spring migrant Plumbeous Vireo and Dusky-capped Flycatcher reports here in Calif. There’s also something odd in the fact that most birders just gravitate toward calling a “wobbler” the rarer of the two, and need to resist the urge to try to turn something seen briefly or poorly into that rarity. Of course, with experience, they stop making those bad calls (one hopes). Yet, as you note, stringers just keep going and never change trajectory or assimilate relevant information – they’re just stuck in that one gear. The stringer gear. And it’s a very, very slow gear.

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  • Matt Stringer’s brother

    I foresee a day when eBird will be sued. Look at any Top100 list: how many are dominated by males? how many are dominated by whites? I regularly check many listserves and there are often grumblings about the eBird review process, and in one case its discrimination towards women was specifically brought up. People are out there watching eBird closely. I predict that if eBird fails to standardize and objectify its review process, the first lawsuit may come from women in some areas of the country sooner than you think.

    The description of how records committees works makes me sick. Thanks for proving what my gut feeling about it was. Its a perfect setup to create an ‘old boys club’ — and IMHO thats how it works. How can you wholehandedly dismiss the sightings of a known stringer? Each sighting should be evaluated on its own merits — irregardless of its source. Occasionally a known stringer might be right. If he/she has a photo and good evidence, a valuable piece of information will be lost.

    With the increasing fame of the Top100 list, comes increased fortune — I see many names of prominent bird festival leaders and speakers on the list. Others will want a piece of this economic gain, but will feel left out. In my own discussions (as an ameteur) with various eBird reviewers, I have been frustrated by a lack of objectivity in the process. It works in many areas more like an old gentlemens’ club, or like what we usued to call a ‘click’ in high school. I think some people are blacklisted — i.e., secretly kept out and the insiders don’t have the integrity or guts to tell them.

    eBird (and record committees too) MUST objectify the review process to save itself. My own suggestion is to require either photos or audio of any reviewable sighting — even if God is claiming the sighting. I think most of the errors in todays eBird database are from the eBird reviewers themselves. Their minds have been warped by the fame of the Top100. In one case, I disagreed with a very prominent birder whose name is well known. Dispite me having 50+ photos of the bird which clearly showed he was wrong, his sighting went all the way to the top, and his frend Marshall Ilif approved it for him without even asking to see any of my photos — to save the young mans reputation, and to spoil mine.

    In another case, a rare bird was reported and I ran out to get a photo. My sighting with the photo was rejected, but the four sightings immeditaly before and after mine — all with no photos — were approved. Really? Is it possible that the only person with a camera got rejected? In another case, I was among a group of top tier birders who along with myself were out chasing a rarity. A bird appeared, everyone including the experts rejoiced, and several photos were taken. The sighting was subsequently submitted to a records committee and was rejected — the photo was a very common bird. The conclusion of the experts was the photos were of the wrong bird — but I only saw one bird, so where the ‘wrong’ bird came from is a metaphysical mystery!

    Birders would do well to take a Psychology 101 course to understand the tricks the mind can play. At least read Sibleys old post about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker search — where he says ALL the undocumented sightings were wrong because of psychological forces of wishful perception of the searchers.

    • Madeline

      Bias by eBird reviewers could be eliminated if the reviewer is blinded to the name of the observer (Observer’s name is not a field mark). Many scientific journals routinely have blind reviews of submitted articles. Blind reviews could be easily programmed by the eBird team “where birding meets science.”

    • Huh?

      Come again?

      • Madeline

        If you want to “objectify” eBird and committee reviews, then require that they review the bird lists and documentation without knowing the name of the observer(s). I.e. the reviewers would be “blinded” to the name of the observer(s).

    • Cyanocitta

      Your tone is angry, but you do make a number of great points. It can be very easy for a group of birders (whether male or white or not) to subconsciously reinforce each other on a wrong ID. (Witness the recent pelagic trip out of San Diego where very early Craveri’s Murrelets were IDed as late Scripps’s Murrelets, and were correctly IDed post-hoc by photos. I’m sure everyone on the boat was kicking themselves for either buying into the ID or not speaking up loudly! No harm done in the end, but an interesting illustration. Also a tough ID, to the credit of folks on the boat.)

      I also think that as people get more confident and older they are less inclined to admit they’re wrong. They may be wrong less often, but the damage is no less severe.

  • gdenton

    I have known people that fit your description perfectly and did not even realize this was a well-known personality with a name and everything! We could be talking about the exact same person…
    I completely agree that the ebird 100 is driving “optimistic” reports of exotic birds. I used to think I just sucked at birding (maybe I do) but at some point I realized (ironically by using ebird maps) that only one or two people were “seeing” most of the unusual birds in unusual locations. Furthermore, if those data points were removed from the data set the data looked a lot more like my personal experience birding the same locales. It has become clear to me when I use the ebird app or data, that I have to evaluate the reports with care in order not to waste lots of time and energy chasing a bird that is given equal billing with a common bird on the Birdseye App.
    I have another point about ebird that I have been mulling over lately tangentially related to this topic: the potential distortion of data collection by the huge number of people that truck over to see some unusual bird. For instance, there have been 53 total species reported of Prothonotary Warbler in the Boston area in May 2014 on ebird (Suffolk, Norfolk, and Middlesex County in this particular data search). If one looks at the data more closely, it is clearly one individual bird spotted at the same location 53 times. On the other hand, there have been 51 total species of Willet reported. Now if I look at any data set which lists abundance or range, Prothonotary Warbler is listed as Very Infrequent or even Rare. Willets on the other hand are fairly easy to find in the Boston area this time of year. I do not want to belabor the point but is it not the case that the rush to add to one’s own list makes the data on ebird somewhat less reliable as a result? It would be easy to assume, to take another example, that the Amazon Kingfisher is quite common in South Texas in November based on the ebird reports, to cite another instance where certain birders might have been waylaid into thinking exactly that (no names mentioned but I did go to South Texas recently…).

  • gdenton

    Sorry to drone on, but to get back to the original point (I accidentally posted my previous post prematurely)…I agree that there should be objective criteria applied to ALL unusual sightings. I had a peculiar case where I saw what looked to be an Orange-crowned Warbler coming to my feeder in February 2012 (very unusual for Boston). I hesitated for days to post the sighting for fear of a. rejection and b. ridicule when it inevitably turned out to be a funky Goldfinch. However my wife, who does not even bird, noticed it while she was watching the dishes and said to me” there is a weird looking Goldfinch at the feeder” and I figured if she could tell it was something unusual then it was not just my mind playing tricks on me. I submitted the sighting and got very nice emails from Jeremiah Trimble and Marshall Iliff congratulating me and essentially saying : no proof no sighting. So I endeavored to acquire a new skill: Phonescoping. After countless hours literally sitting dead still at my window waiting for the bird to appear for 30 seconds I got some crappy but clear enough images of the little warbler and they accepted it. I was happy to try to provide proof and bent over backwards to do it because it strikes me that it is meant to be a scientific enterprise. However, my fear is that 1. People who legitimately see birds may not report them for fear of ridicule if they are wrong, another form of data distortion (suppression) 2. Stringers and Ambulance Chasers (people who run out to see the latest exotic bird when the alarm bell goes off on their phone) distort the data by “imaginative” data in the first instance and “statistical overload” in the latter case. 3. Certain people get sightings accepted with no proof whatsoever, presumably based on their well-known birding skills and experience, which inevitably leads to conspiracy theories about an old boy’s club, generating friction and perhaps defeating the collegial good intentions of an excellent crowd-sourced data collection project. It is not healthy.
    An application of objective analysis to each unusual sighting independent of fame or skill might help redress the balance by encouraging efforts to provide more hard data for unusual sightings, suppress Mr/Ms Stringer, promote less confident birders to come forth on an equal and understood playing field, and perhaps even get skilled birders to stop and ask themselves whether they really did hear a Gray-cheeked Thrush just now instead of assuming that they did because they do not have to provide evidence like the rest of the punters. Perhaps they could put a purple pin on the map instead of an orange one in the case of an unconfirmed sighting. That way the people whose sightings are rejected can get a modicum of credit for honestly trying and people can choose to ignore those pins if they so choose. And those whose skills are deemed sufficient to warrant inclusion on the map might go the extra mile to provide hard data to justify changing their sightings from purple to orange.
    In the old days the Wimbledon champion from the previous year got to sit out the tournament until all the other players generated a finalist with whom he would play one match for the title. Those days are gone. I know Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are great tennis players, but why should they get to sit out all the hard work of getting to the final merely because they are the best? They do not anymore! Should we not apply the same standards to all birders in the interest of scientific integrity?

  • gdenton

    One final point: An old Biology Professor of mine once said regarding data analysis: “Think Horses, not Zebras.” I try to apply that to birding all the time- I assume it is the more common and expected possibility until I have a reason to think it is the unusual bird I secretly hope it might be. I have probably not reported the one or two odd sightings of a Zebra as a result over the years but I have probably saved myself from reporting a Zebra that was actually a horse many more times.

    • Mark Stevenson

      When you hear hoof beats, do think horses first but don’t neglect to consider the zebras too. If you only think of horses, you may not even recognize the zebra when it presents itself. As can be seen in the rare bird alerts in the ABA Blog, zebras do exist.

  • Pingback: Finding Unusual Birds to Photograph (like the Black Billed Cuckoo) is Exciting. | NancyBirdPhotography()

  • Pyrrhuloxia24

    I may be a stringer but I never report rarities unless they are actually there. Usually the only time I see rarities are because other people on eBird report them first and I go looking for them. The only birds I assume on are very common birds, like a small yellow bird is probably just a goldfinch, no big deal. I may not even report it on eBird. It’s still not good to assume but I would never assume a bad look to be something rare.

  • chainzaw


    Jeez … tough crowd here!

    Yes, we have all known serial stringers. But if you are so compulsive about chasing rarities that you’d drive 3 hours in search of one of their “sightings” … well, whose fooling whom?

    I came to this blog by link from a local blogger who added an extensive discussion about how people tend to turn stringer when out of their home territory, about their negative impact on eBird.

    As for the former … I think we could be a bit more forgiving given the vagaries of human psychology and perception. Thinking back to our pre-birding days … tough I know for George Armistead who, as a “lifelong birder” was apparently birthed holding a pair of binoculars … reflect for a moment about the maddening number of rarities you may have “seen” but only registered as “bird.” Well, when in unfamiliar territory, we kind of revert to that state, don’t we? Except now we have all these cool birding skills we’ve learned. Which, unfortunately, can become our worst enemy when faced with the unknown.

    As for eBird … yes, we’d all like it to be as accurate as possible. But at the same time, it’s also an awesome tool for tracking what may be an actual shift in range as the impact of climate change (sorry, chronic non-believers) alters the “known facts” about any particular species. True scientists recognize there’s always going to be bad data and do what they can to limit its impact. Pseudo-scientists, on the other hand, become churlish, stamp their feet … then jump into the car to chase that latest dubious sighting!

    The one thing I would recommend would be for eBird to become far more liberal abut including a “sp.” choice for more birds. This appears to be a matter of local choice? But I know from first-hand experience that when forced to add “Wren sp.” while doing a checklist, and upon being told this is a “rare” sighting that must be verified, I have at times taken the easier path and chosen from the list of offerings (as long as that wouldn’t be a life bird!). If that makes me a hated “stringer” … well, guilty as charged.


    Re-read this as the subject came up again on FB. George is right on point.

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