What to Do When your Neighbour Reports an Eskimo Curlew in his Bird Bath
Since becoming President of a naturalists club I’ve been receiving a number of personal “I’ve found this amazing bird!” messages. They always come from non-birders. Real birders have the sense to contact the experts, not me. But the reports are always highly enthusiastic, and I’m glad to get them, though not always sure that I’m handling them well.
For instance, there was the report from an enthusiast in northern Canada of a Carolina Chickadee on her feeder. I don’t think my response was a prize-winner. I didn’t smirk, and no naughty words passed my lips. But I did say something along the lines of “And how exactly did you tell it from the Black-capped Chickadees that are all over your area? I’m sure I couldn’t!” Not helpful. The Prime Directive in teaching is never put down the eager learner.
In fact the reports are usually given with such enthusiasm that there’s no temptation to curl a lip. There was the person who said he had a Mackay’s Longspur and Tricolored Blackbird on his land – a somewhat unlikely combination, but they were “Definitely what he saw!” He said he didn’t manage to take a photo of the Mackay’s but got a good one of the Tricolored Blackbird. It proved to be a doing an incredibly good impersonation of a Yellow-headed Blackbird. When this was pointed out diplomatically, my correspondent didn’t miss a beat, and reaffirmed his faith in the Mackay’s. I finally applied my standard phrase: “That would be an extraordinarily unusual sighting for this region. In fact one has never been officially recorded in this part of the world.”
I’ve used that sentence quite often now, and find it hasn’t had the effect I’d intended. To me, the expression means “Ya gotta be kidding!” But what the listener hears is that they have seen something really, really exciting, which is exactly what they’d wanted. And perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. The world can’t have too many people excited about the birds they’ve seen, or mis-seen.
A variant on my standard “extraordinarily unusual” statement is: “That would be the first sighting ever in this area. If you can get a photograph to document it, you’ll have achieved a real coup.” That is a better approach. The listener can remain enthusiastic, and just might take a photograph, examine it, and quietly realize that he’s actually seen a bog-standard summer visitor. That’s good. He’s on his way to becoming a better observer.
And of course, there’s always the possibility that he really has seen something very unusual, and can prove it.
This is why I like receiving such reports. One day, a non-birder will tell me that he’s seen something unbelievable, and will be right. In fact, I’m coming to think that a non-birder is more likely to see a true rarity than someone like me. The problem with knowing the ranges of the birds is that you discount the ones known to be outside your area. You see what you expect to see – or at least, I know I do. A little while ago I saw a Townsend’s Warbler in a particular tree, and the day after, I saw a warbler in the same tree and happily watched it through my binoculars. “Lovely Townsend’s” I said to myself, turned away, and heard it give a very un-Townsend song. Confused, I looked again, and was embarrassed to find that I’d been staring at a Magnolia Warbler. I’d been suffering from something the psychologists call “confirmation bias,” which is a posh way of stating that our expectations strongly colour our perceptions. I was expecting to see a Townsend’s, saw the black-and-yellow, the bib, and the streaked flank, and settled comfortably into my expectations. The grey crown and white eyebrow didn’t fit my expectations, so I just didn’t see them.
It gets worse. Why did I not take a second look, when I first saw the Townsend’s, to make sure that it wasn’t a Black-throated Green Warbler? I didn’t, because BTGWs aren’t in my area. The range maps state that clearly. But hang on, birds have wings. They get caught in storms. They get lost. Their compass goes faulty. They go a-roving. So perhaps it was a BTGW, and I hadn’t looked to check. If I’d been a beginner, and particularly one with an old field guide with the range maps hidden in the back, I’d actually have looked. Looked with an open, not closed, mind. “Hm. Yellow face, olive cheek, thick black streaks, yellow across the bum. Must be a Black-throated jobbie. Says here it’s uncommon. Do you think we should tell that Naturalists Club guy?”
I hope to heck that they would.