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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.

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(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.
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