February 23rd – A Lesson In Humility

Daughter (trickster) Joanne and Dorothy Smith.

Birding/”twitching” has exploded over the last couple of generations. A while ago someone was telling me that birding was the fastest growing activity – I think he actually said sport – in North America. One of the positive results is that more is known about birds generally and their movements more specifically. In most populated areas (in parts of the World with a “leisured class” anyway) it’s rare for a vagrant to sneak through without being noticed.

But there’s also a down side to all this, especially the notion that birding is a sport. Like any human endeavour people want to be good at it. Some even want to be the best or to see the most or to have the longest list of species or to have a list for every conceivable geographic entity they can think of. And of course, to be the best (or just really good) you have to compare yourself and your results to someone else. OK….I get that. But what seems to develop is a snooty elitism whereby the twitcher begins to discount the observations or results of other birders – especially if (s)he hasn’t been able to list that bird yet. In some instances it gets so bad that people don’t even want to report a sighting because of the grilling that they are subject to, the demand for picture proof, a multi-page description of the bird feather by feather.

I remember how pissed my wife, Marg, was when she reported a Turkey Vulture that she saw in January a number of years ago. At that time this species would have been unusual but it’s a hard bird to confuse and when she was told that it was “impossible” for her to have seen it, she simply said “to hell with them” and has kept her sightings to herself since then. [Interestingly over 100 Turkey Vultures were counted on the Dunnville CBC this year. So Marg’s sighting was quite likely the observation of the beginning of this northward trend in wintering range – an important observation…..] I don’t think this pedantic questioning of people’s observations is good for the development of gathering citizen science. Oh I get that you don’t want to be flooded with incorrect observations but on the whole I find that most people are pretty careful and quick to voice their doubts if unsure.

At Ruthven we encourage participation by people of all skill levels. Part of my job, when sifting through sighting reports on the grounds, is to assess how much credibility to give them. This is a complex task requiring a lot of “gut” judgements about the probability of that bird being seen at this time and place and about the ability of the person reporting it (sometimes completely unknown to me). [I’ve found that some people try to bridge the credibility gap by carrying expensive binoculars. Some of the best birders I know are in Kenya and can pick out obscure findings high in the tree tops or hundreds of meters away -without the aid of binoculars, which they simply can’t afford. And some of the most incorrect sightings at Ruthven have been spotted with expensive eye gear…..]

Dorothy and her more “stable” daughter, Dianne.

Years ago I used to be much snootier than I am now but I learned a really valuable lesson:

It was the Fall and I was taking some “confusing Fall warblers” out of a net when this quite mature, white-haired woman, whom I’d never seen before, sidled up to me and nonchalantly reported that there was a Pileated Woodpecker in the tree just “up there” and pointed. I thought: Ok Granny, you’re confusing a Red-bellied with a Pileated….but I said: that it wasn’t very likely because, although I’ve seen them deep in the slough forest, I’d never seen them in the open areas around the Mansion and banding area. Well, she said, there it is. I followed her pointing finger and, DAMN!, there it was – the first sighting for the banding area. Hmmm…..lucky I thought. But she then proceeded to identify all the warblers that I was extracting. They weren’t “confusing” to her all. This lady knew her stuff! The whole incident knocked me off my pedestal and since then I have tried to be more open to others’ observations. (I don’t always accept them….but I’m open to hearing them and encourage people to come forth.)

Dorothy with a Blue Jay retrapped yesterday. -NRF

Interestingly, Dorothy (and her daughters Dianne and Joanne) regularly visit Ruthven – it has also become part of their Spring birding tour. What is uncanny is the number of times Dorothy’s visit turns up a Pileated Woodpecker. Yesterday she found the first one of the year for us – along the laneway on the way up to the parking lot. She truly is the Pileated Woodpecker “whisperer”.

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