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Would You Count It If . . . ?

A week ago, Jason Ward and I were on a boat trip out of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. Birds were our objective, needless to say, but we were well pleased with our haul of cetaceans—including a particularly photogenic humpback whale. In reviewing his images of the whale, Jason came across this photo:

Photo by © Jason Ward.

Along with the whale, there’s a bird in that photo. It’s a Manx Shearwater, a species none of us on that boat consciously noted during our time on the ocean. Question: Would you count the bird if it were your first ever? Would this after-the-fact detection qualify as your lifer Manx?

My sense is that many birders would say yes. Even though you were focused, literally, on the whale, the bird was in view while you were taking the picture. Some photons of light from that Manx Shearwater passed through your camera lens and entered your eye, whereupon photoreceptors in your optic nerve transmitted an electrical impulse to the visual cortex in your brain.

 

Earlier in the day, Nick Lund and I were audio-recording a Black-and-white Warbler singing a somewhat unusual song. Instead of the classic weesee weesee weesee, the bird sang weesee weesee weesee I’m so sweet, as though it were channeling its inner Yellow Warbler. Sometimes the bird mixed it up, inserting the atypical song element in the middle, like this:

 

In addition to the Black-and-white Warbler, there’s an interloper, a Blackpoll Warbler, in the recording. Can you hear it? Some birders can, some birders can’t. No biggie, you can see the Blackpoll in this spectrogram:

Recording by © Ted Floyd.

 

The Black-and-white’s song is aberrant, but the Blackpoll’s is as typical as can be. There was unquestionably a Blackpoll Warbler out there, whether or not you were able to hear it. Millipascals of sound energy reached the cochleae in your ears and then, if you can’t hear Blackpolls anymore, well, nothing happened. In that event, no electrical impulses were transmitted to the auditory cortex in your brain.

Would you count the bird?

 

At another juncture that shearwater-and-warbler–filled day around St. John’s, I was off by myself and I audio-recording a Red Fox Sparrow. This bird:

 

Presumably, you can hear the sparrow. Do you also hear the Blackpoll? In the field, I did not. But it’s there:

Recording by © Ted Floyd.

 

The warbler’s song is exceedingly weak, but the bird is nevertheless there.

Would you count it?

When you upload an eBird checklist, you’re asked the question, “Are you submitting a complete checklist of the birds you were able to identify?”

My interpretation is that this Blackpoll Warbler ought to be entered on your eBird checklist. Sure, the record has gotten an assist from technology. Um, so it is every time we hoist binoculars or a camera, every time we don eyewear or hearing aids.

Speaking of technology…

 

A couple days later, Jared Clarke took our little group of birders to a feeding station south of St. John’s a ways, and we encountered this setup:

Photo by © Ted Floyd.

 

That’s one of the red crossbills, and given its mongo schnozz, there’s every reason to believe it’s a Type 8 Red Crossbill, a.k.a. the “Spruce Mope,” endemic to Newfoundland. There’s something else in that photo, directly behind the bird, that staring red eye, like HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is a feeder cam, of course, and it got me to thinking about something.

Suppose we’d reviewed the feeder cam footage, of sufficiently good quality as to permit formal morphometric analysis of bill structure. Imagine, further, that there was audio feed, enabling us to analyze the all-important flight call. We didn’t do those things, but we certainly could have. Feeder cams and especially nest cams are viewed every day by millions of fans, and automated recording units, or ARU’s, have been routinely deployed in the field by biologists for at least two decades now. The preceding scenario isn’t far-fetched at all. It isn’t really even all that unusual.

So, again, that question: Would you count it? Would you eBird a Type 8 Red Crossbill in this situation? Would you put it on your life list?

 

I want to end by reflecting on something from the time we spent on the boat looking at humpback whales and not looking at Manx Shearwaters. At one point, our group came upon an island with staggering numbers of Common Murres, Atlantic Puffins, and Leach’s Storm-Petrels. We eBirded puffins in the low four digits and murres in the low five digits. As to storm-petrels, we eBirded a grand total of zero. At the same time, we are absolutely certain that the number of storm-petrels was greater still, numbering well into the six digits. According to the biologists who credibly and carefully survey the site, the Leach’s population here numbers 600,000+ pairs and their young. Yet the species is absent from our eBird checklist for the site. Here’s the deal: The young storm-petrels were safely protected in subterranean burrows, a stone’s throw from our position, but invisible and inaccessible to predatory gulls and longing humans. The adults, meanwhile, were out at sea, beyond our range.

I totally get that you probably wouldn’t put the Leach’s Storm-Petrel on your personal life list despite the fact that you were in the immediate presence of so many of them. And I understand why you might decline to tick a Blackpoll Warbler detected only by its spectrographic thumbprint, or a Manx Shearwater documented only by its photographic signature, or a Type 8 Red Crossbill analyzed by the audio feed coming out of a remote sensing unit.

But eBird and personal life lists aren’t the same. I think the Manx Shearwater has to go on the eBird checklist. Same goes for the Blackpoll Warbler and Type 8 Red Crossbill. As to the multitudes of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, they were undeniably, inarguably, incontrovertibly there. Our knowledge of their presence is indirect, but so it is with everything we perceive in the natural world. I think we often forget that seeing and hearing are abstractions, reality interpreted as electrical impulses dancing around the occipital and temporal lobes in our brains. We were there. So were the animals: the whale and the shearwater, the Blackpoll and Black-and-white warblers, the Red Fox Sparrow and the Type 8 Red Crossbill, and all those storm-petrels. Our human knowledge of those things arises through different sources and signals, by means of various processors and receivers, according to diverse messages and mediums. Our human brains are amazing, and so is our ability to engage and appreciate the material universe. Wouldn’t it be weird—wouldn’t it be a pity—if we deliberately suppressed our knowledge and awareness of the world around us?

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Ted Floyd

Ted Floyd

Editor, Birding magazine at American Birding Association
Ted Floyd is the longtime Editor of Birding magazine, and he is broadly involved in other programs and initiatives with the ABA. Ted has written 200+ magazine articles and 5 books, including How to Know the Birds (National Geographic, 2019). He is a frequent speaker at birding festivals and has served on several nonprofit boards. Join Ted at The ABA Blog for his semimonthly spot, “How to Know the Birds,” celebrating common birds and the uncommonly interesting things they do.