Tuesday, September 15, 2009

But it looks like a Swallow-tailed Kite!

I just commented on this guy Stephen's blog, about his post in which he posts that he saw a Swallow-tailed Kite on the drive from Tucson to California: http://predelusional.blogspot.com/2009/03/kite.html . There are very few records (well-documented instances) of Swallow-tailed Kite in California.

Oh god, this is a touchy subject. I am both a victim and perpetrator of a crime called "No you didn't see that species of bird: you're wrong." As a matter of fact, I have been on the opposite side of such an argument, in these last couple of weeks. A bird called a Great Knot showed up in San Diego--the first time one has been seen in California. I am on the side of those who say it is a Great Knot, while others are vehemently arguing that it is some other species--say, a Surfbird.

I got annoyed at the logic of those claiming that it's not a Great Knot (a sandpiper that breeds in Siberia, and winters in Australia), so I wrote an email off-list (sent in private to certain individuals, and not to all of the subscribed members of the California birding email list) describing my problem with the anti-Great Knot arguments. Boy, did I get my head handed back to me, on a platter! The problems are multifold.

First, getting back to Stephen, and his Swallow-tailed Kite. Here's my impression of his situation: He appears to be a casual birder from a part of the country where the only kind of kite that he sees is Swallow-tailed Kite, so when he saw a White-tailed Kite, he (un)safely assumed that it was a Swallow-tailed Kite.

Okay, but now I am going to point out my own errors:
1) I have never met Stephen. I don't know anything about him. Therefore, I have no actual data in terms of his birding skills.
2) I don't know the origin of the Swallow-tailed Kite photo on his blog. Did he take that phot in California? In his home state? Did he lift it off of someone else's web site?
3) This is the one that pisses me off the most: when other birders write me a letter in which they say, "No, Tom. You did not see a Arctic Loon/American Oystercatcher/Common Blackhawk/Crissal Thrasher/Yellow-billed Loon/insert-species name-here." These emails always come from someone who was sitting on his ass at home, while I was out somewhere, looking at the bird that I claim to have seen. They don't understand the idea that they can't tell someone what they didn't see, unless they were standing right next to them, and looking at the same bird/frog/lizard/butterfly/dragonfly, etc. at that same moment in time.

My favorite variation of #3 is the time I saw a juvenile Common Blackhawk near my house, and some guy went out the next day, saw a Red-tailed hawk, and then declared to everybody, that obviously I had mis-identified a juvenile Red-tailed hawk as a Common Blackhawk.

Time for a Confession: Someone else reported what I am sure was the same juvenile Common Blackhawk on the local birding email list 5 days earlier, at a location 15 miles from my house, and I thought to myself, "Well, she's a beginning birder, I'm not so sure she..." Boy, did I feel like a jerk when I re-found her bird a mile from my house, 5 days later (as rare as Common Blackhawk is in California, I feel safe assuming it was the same bird--but even that is unknowable).

Now we're going to go back to point #1: it actually does not matter what Stephen's birding skills are. Yeah, maybe he is the world's crappiest birder. That still does not prove that he did not see a Swallow-tailed Kite on that particular occasion. The two are unrelated. It happens in California once in a while: some novice birder finds a really good bird--say, a Roseate Spoonbill--and all of the experts pooh-pooh it, until one of them says, "Uh, actually...there really is a Roseate Spoonbill in the pond."

Oh, I get it. Now it's legit!

So, here it is, in plain English: Personally, I don't think Stephen saw a Swallow-tailed Kite, but that is my unverifiable, untestable, subjective opinion, despite the fact that I am an experienced California birder.

So my biggest complaint was that people who had not taken the trouble to drive to San Diego to look at the Great Knot declared it to be a Surfbird, based only on photographs (taken by others). There were two kinds of answers to that:
1) I don't need to go see the San Diego bird, because I have seen thousands of Great Knots in the Eastern Hemisphere.
2) I have ten thousand photographs of birds, that I have taken over the years.
I haven't taken the time to explain to these two types of birders that points #1 and 2 don't matter one iota. The point of their statement(s) is that they are experts, who should not be questioned. These arguments are the flip-side of the "Stephen is a crappy birder, so that proves that he didn't see a Swallow-tailed Kite in California" argument. The two phenomena are unrelated. The other problem with arguments #1 and 2 is that they are stating that as experts, their opinion must be accepted. In my college sociology class I learned about how TV and newsaper adds use what are called testimonials where a guy in a white lab coat tells you how great some product is. In tiny letters on the bottom of the TV screen they flash the words "actor portraying a doctor" for a short time, and you can't actually read it i.e. most people will never notice the disclaimer.

Well, to be perfectly blunt, a lot of birders who I respect or like (or--at least--did, up until now) have tried to invoke the "I'm an expert--don't argue with me" card, and don't realize that they're trying it with a guy who really does wear a white lab coat for a living.

Had they made the same arguments while standing next to me on the beach in San Diego, I would never have written this post. For the record, while I stood there on the beach, a very well-respected & knowledgeable birder stood there next to me, and said, "It's a good [as in, it's correctly identified] Great Knot."

They say that "You can be right, or you can have friends, but you can't do both." Right now, I'm so annoyed, that I'm actually willing to not have friends, if that's what it takes. They don't get it. Yeah, I think that the San Diego bird is a Great Knot, but that's not something I would want to lose friendships over. I am willing, however to lose friends if they're going to use faulty logic, and then react to my pointing it out by being arrogant and rude.

The thing that really pisses me off is the level of certainty with which my detractors have criticized me. Boy, I wish I could be that self-confident. Oh, wait. I think that's exactly the problem: their need for rock-solid certainty. I'm lucky. I took a bunch of biology courses with a lady professor named Cathy Jacobs who tells her students, "Biology is messy." Birding is dominated by men, and a lot of them are pushy type-A macho guys, and uncertainty freaks them out. I am comfortable with undertainty, and they grossly misinterpret my comfort with uncertainty as a sign of low testosterone levels.


Speaking of biology professors, that's the other thing about this Great Knot Affair that annoys me to no end: the testosterone-induced posing as if we birders were a bunch of scientists i.e. biologists who are using standardized, precisely measureable data. We're not. We're just a bunch of birders arguing about a bird that we are staring at from 100 yards distance, because we don't want to scare it away. I'm sure that I pissed off a bunch of people when I said exactly that this weekend, when I answered their tirades. Too bad. Deal with it. Suck it up.

Of course, there's one last problem: had someone shot the bird (like in the old days) or merely captured it with a net, and extracted DNA from it, and it turned out that it is in fact a Surfbird, the anti-Great Knot crowd would have howled in triumph: their logic was better than my logic. Nope. They would be blind to the fact that their baseless claims had nothing to do with the fact that they got lucky. They would be too busy making connections that aren't there.

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