Friday, May 25, 2007

ENV: Numbers and Experts

This is in response to a long series of posts this week in the Texas Birding listserv Texbirds. I am responding here for two reasons -- one, the sheer length of this response; and two, because as further comments warrant i can add commentary directly to this post (in hopes i can make it more accessable/readable). This post has been linked elsewhere. Comments are welcome here or on Texbirds, or directly to me here.

WARNING: For those of you who tend to turn red when reading my posts, this one will make you volcanic, so best delete it now, or have the bottle of nitro pills ready. Not to mention that, in my typical fashion, it is long and rambling.

So, for the new folks on the list who may be totally in the dark about what’s going on i want to:

a) even though i think it’s common knowledge, i want to stop the rumors, and come out of the closet, and confess that I am the TexBirds numbers nazi;

b) freely own up to be being the #1 TexBirds snark;

c) confess that i don’t flame people offlist, if i am going to do it i do it right out in public;

but that d) most of the snark i take heat for is not directed at anyone, but is just an attempt to be funny, because i am a failed comedian.

Having said all that, i want to say that i believe that TexBirds is a community first and foremost, and that i have always presumed that this community aspires to operate as others do to a) help support and nurture each other as they/we grow, and b) to provide global information that helps others achieve personal and community goals. Under those presumptions, and you can love me or hate me for this, but i believe that a simple list without numbers is of no functional use to the community for either of the above purposes and indeed may be detrimental to the purposes of the community.

Does that mean they can’t be submitted, of course not. I am a card-carrying member of the ACLU. You do what you want, and i’ll give up my chocolate chip cookie to defend your right to do it. My point though is, and has been, that if you wish to contribute to the benefit of the community, the best and quickest way to do so is to simply add numbers to your lists. And i believe that, deep down, all members who post to the list have this deep desire to be considered someone who has contributed to our knowledge. No?

[First clarification: i never said, don’t believe, and think it is ludicrous to attribute to me the idea that KEEPING lists without numbers is worthless, that people shouldn’t do that. The entire point from post one has been about the value of such posting a list to this community, not about its value to the individual.]

I think part of the issue with numbers here is in understanding what purpose is being driven toward.

I am thinking in terms of this being a community of bird students, with many widely diverging goals. Regardless of each individual’s goals, i think that, ostensibly, the objective of communication within the community is to provide information useful to the finding of birds and understanding of their distribution in order to promulgate identification. Therefore i am the one who initiated this long-running topic some years ago by proposing that the posting of a numbers-deficient list of birds was driven by ego, and was, in effect, useless. Both of those things were in direct relation to my concept of the a) and b) purposes i stated above for developing this community. If you’re not already thoroughly disgusted with me by now, perhaps i can explain further.

Helping bind the community together is the family helping/nurturing aspect of any list like this, in which the more experienced of the lot take the newer members (and these are not necessarily neophytes per se, but may be excellent birders from Norway scoping out a trip, or new residents having moved here from the Sierras with a vastly different avifauna) and guide them through the labyrinth of understanding identification issues, which leads to the accurate building of a lifelist/yardlist, which helps build an understanding of bird abundance and distribution, both directly affected by species behavior and ecological needs, which in turn helps folks build their lifelists by building their knowledge of why and when birds occur and where to find them under what circumstances in what habitats, ad circusum.

One of those binding things that some may get tired of, but that i see as one of these things in full display is the announcement of new yard birds and new lifers. In addition to letting us share in important milestones by which we can congratulate and further encourage folks, it also is educational in that it allows those of us who’ve been around a while to determine at what level someone has progressed. Someone announcing their 100th lifer has a different degree of experience than someone announcing their 700th US bird, and neither of which, by the way, says anything about their expertise – ask the pro tour leaders on this list about having Brits on their tours who have never seen a US bird.

Likewise someone who has had their first yard Cardinal allows us to recognize that they are different than someone who has identified their first yard Selasphorus, versus someone who just had 27 Hoary Redpolls in their south Texas yard. So too do those who announce their 100th and 200th and 300th lifer send a different message to the rest of us than someone who announces their 100th lifer, and then announces traveling to Fort Stockton to see a Tufted Flycatcher, and then is signing off TexBirds for a month to tag along with Greg Lasley to Antarctica. One of the great pleasures of having been on TexBirds a few years is watching some folks who asked for help IDing Savannah Sparrows, now posting to the list on the finesse involved in separating Pacific-slope and Cordilleran Flycatchers. Let’s just face it -- we all judge others, and are judged. We all use clues to make these judgments, and nothing is more public than posting your own clues online.

On to numbers. The idea here is that TexBirds, presuming it is a community of BIRDERS not ornithologists, exists as a community of people helping each other learn about Texas birds, but also as a bird-finding and distribution guide. It’s not meant to be a scientifically testable database, Everyone else here of experience has and can testify to the extreme limitations of that. Nevertheless it IS a permanent archive of sightings dating back many years now, and people DO use it for not only determining where birds occur, but also for planning trips, including emergency rare bird trips to see birds. I know this is true, because at least half of the queries i receive that are connected to TexBirds in some way have to do with finding specific birds.

So let’s develop some scenarios, if you’ll indulge me.

If we were interested in filling a database with the exact numbers of Snow Geese in ten locations in Texas, the only modus operandi would be to count exactly the number of geese in those locations. There are, albethem expensive and tedious, ways to do this, going back to older methods of aerial photography and the ornithologically infamous method of punching holes with a needle in photos to make sure you don’t double count. Algorithms could be written to do this by computer these days, but it still starts out expensive. Ground-truthing or simple ground counting can be done too, but in many areas where Snow Geese winter, you can’t approach close enough to do this accurately (because of a lack of roads (try between High Island and Sabine Pass for instance), or because of their wariness, or because you simply can’t humanly do it – those of you who have ever scoped a SE Texas flock of 25,000 geese know that their heads bob up and down with such sewing machine-like rapidity that keeping track of any single goose is impossible, made most obvious in trying to point out the occasional Ross’s in a flock of Snows. So this idea that the only good data is perfect data is immediately put to the test. We can always hope for perfect numbers, and while exact numbers, or a number within some standard deviation would be ideal, it’s a) generally not workable, and b) is not necessary for the purposes of this community and what can be gained from it.

Bear with this rather pedantic simplification please. Let’s say someone is a new birder in Midland, and has never seen a Snow Goose and would like to add that as a lifer. They query the archives or see three recent posts listing Snow Goose. Let’s just fictitiously look at three lists:

Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken NWR
Green-winged Teal
Northern Pintail
Mallard
Mottled Duck
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Snow Goose
Great Egret
Great Blue Heron
Tricolored Heron


Gonzales, Texas
Ring-necked Duck
Green-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
Snow Goose
Great Egret
Great Blue Heron
Little Blue Heron


Abilene Settling Ponds
Lesser Scaup
Ring-necked Duck
Green-winged Teal
Northern Shoveler
Snow Goose
Great Egret
Great Blue Heron

Well a new birder from Midland might think this is easy, i’ll skip on over to Abilene to get Snow Goose, might even make a couple or three trips before someone clues them in that Snow Goose is a rarity there. Might have been a one-day wonder, might even be a new county record, might even be a Ross’s Goose if the original reporter was less than familiar with the bird, since a single white goose in west Texas is always suspect – not to mention the possibility of feral barnyard geese.

Let’s look at the same lists though with the simple addition of a few numbers, even if most are raw estimates:

Attwater’s Prairie-Chicken NWR
4000 Green-winged Teal
750 Northern Pintail
60 Mallard
100 Mottled Duck
250 Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
25,000 Snow Goose
65 Great Egret
30 Great Blue Heron
12 Tricolored Heron


Gonzales, Texas
50 Ring-necked Duck
250 Green-winged Teal
300 Northern Shoveler
45 Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
250 Snow Goose
3 Great Egret
15 Great Blue Heron
1 Little Blue Heron


Abilene Settling Ponds
50 Lesser Scaup
100 Ring-necked Duck
250 Green-winged Teal
200 Northern Shoveler
1 Snow Goose
1 Great Egret
5 Great Blue Heron


In this case, even someone who is new can see that they could take a chance on Abilene, but there is a better possibility at Gonzales, and it looks like a sure thing at Attwater. In addition, they might find out that another bird they were looking for, like Green-winged Teal, is a decent shot at all three.

So this is what i mean by my presumption that TexBirds is a community where the purpose of posting is to help someone else. Or else why post? Surely underlying all this, new or old, is the hope that one can actually make a contribution. My earliest point, which i maintain, is that a post without numbers is not helpful to anyone else in the community. I further that here by this example, showing that such posts can even be deceptive, that such posts can appear to be helpful and instead cause folks to expend time and energy and cash in fruitless search. With gas prices the way they are today every birding “trip” becomes expensive. And none of this has anything to do with the statistical validity of the estimates people present.

Here’s a certain true example. A certain birder out west had this cute habit of posting a ringer in every list he put on the listserv. And he posted nearly daily lists because he was a field biologist investigating some cool spots In every list though was some Andean or Himalayan or Siberian species thrown in just for a giggle. He told me later that he specifically put only species in there that were sedentary and had no chance of straying to his home turf.

I wasn’t happy with him because, i said, it polluted the archives, only to be hit with the “archives are worthless anyway” argument (which i disagree with, in philosophy and in practice, but which argument i’ll save for some other day). I had written him asking him to stop. He refused. Not long after he posted a list, and a gentleman saw this odd bird on the list and gathered up a bunch of cronies and travelled a few hundred miles to see it (yeah, yeah, he should have researched the bird to see what he was looking for, and realized it wasn’t likely, but he didn’t, and to top it off he was a retired federal ornithologist, so we’re all susceptible).

It was a popular birding spot, and as i recall the scenario other birders were present, just birding, when he arrived and on query found out it was all a joke. There was some public scolding over it -- guy A replied he thought everyone understood it was a joke, was unapologetic and eventually just disappeared from the list. But there were some hard feelings over that. And of course, the suspect posts were signed with some titles, and bureaus and stuff, and so the air of authority somewhat permeated the whole fiasco. Sorry for the long aside there.

As for the process of keeping numbers, and probably stepping all over territory Greg and Josh have already covered, people remember when they see one, two or three birds. Those are easy. What difference does it make, statistically relevant or not, whether someone actually saw five birds but only wrote down four. It doesn’t, at least in terms of this community. What’s important is that a few were seen in that spot on that day by this observer. Does it matter whether the number is related to the actual numbers of that species present in that spot on that day? No. TexBirds is not a population survey, but a community of folks helping others to understand the distribution of birds so that they might better FIND the ones they want, and identify the ones they see. So when someone on the coast reports that they saw 200 Brewer’s Sparrows on a field trip, those who know (as Ted wrote about the daily errors) about the distribution of birds will realize they saw immature Chipping Sparrows, whereas, if someone reports ONE Brewer’s Sparrow among 200 Chippings on the coast, then they realize that it may well have been an immature Chipping Sparrow, BUT that if someone had taken the time to differentiate it from other Chippies then there’s that chance and someone may ask for details or if a picture was taken, because in most Texas coastal counties Brewer’s would be a new county record.

Does it matter if you saw a huge flock of geese and just vaguely guessed 10,000 and there were really 11,200? or 25,000, or 100,000? Not for the purposes of this list. The idea that there were thousands present is the information needed here. Even in archived information used to develop a checklist, there is no use in designating the difference between 10,000 abundant and 25,000 abundant.

That is what is meant by determining relative abundance, not total population size. And all of this is about observation too. People want to see these things. People don’t travel to High Island and look at a checklist and say, “oh look there’s a record of Yucatan Vireo here, so i’ll just go ahead and check it off on my lifelist.” Nor do they seek out Clapper Rail for their lifelist and drive through the marshes of Chambers County and say “well, i know they’re out there by the hundreds, so i’ll just go ahead and check it off my list.” So the argument about counting birds seen versus their actual population status is moot.

This list is about people seeing birds. So someone may query about where to go to see Clapper Rails, and twenty people may post about having seen them at Anahuac – meaning once twelve years ago, or a half dozen times over the last decade, or one yesterday. But one person posting they saw twenty in one morning at Rollover Pass pinpoints a good place to see this common but elusive bird, regardless of whether or not it is far more abundant in many other places. How many birds have shown up that are abundant in places but people only get a chance to see them when they show up as a single vagrant at some narrowly defined location?

At some danger here i want to point out some examples i believe of why there has been an exodus of talent from this list (or at least a reluctance to post or reply). I don’t know any other way to do this, except to show some examples, some i was directly involved in snarking out (you can search the archives for the lurid posts). The danger is in my presenting myself as one of the “experts”, which i am not, but do feel somewhat in the experienced camp, since i am old, fat and bald, studied ornithology in school, and have even been paid as a faculty member teaching it andpaid to lead trips – all of which is mostly in the past except the old, fat and bald which are most assuredly present tense.

While i for one am a constant adviser of the value of the archives, i usually will take someone who has a straightforward question and either direct them to the archives, or go to the archives myself, look up past discussions and send them links, or answer the questions directly. I know others on the list who do this in the same way. With folks who clearly seem to be neophytes and by all appearances are earnest about discovering how to learn i take great pains to do this gently and lead them down the right path.

Where I have changed, and i know at least a few others who have done the same, is that i no longer much post these answers to the list but do it privately. I think this has gotten much more common across the board and i base that solely on the number of posts from folks thanking “the ten people who replied offlist about the identification”. I do this because i feel like repeating these same bits of info ad infinitum onlist is just TMI to deal with for most of the list, AND it is available in some form somewhere in the archives.

If the question seems genuinely new, not dealt with on TexBirds before, or adds a new twist, i have no hesitation in responding to the list (except that i think most of the other experienced birders feel this same way and usually beat me to it, after which, adding a “ditto” serves no purpose). The benefit of this alternate approach is that for these new questions, then the archives has built a new chapter for future learners.

Here’s where i get snarky (besides from being a full-blown cynic): when i think there needs to be intervention is in cases where one of two things happens: the generally innocent a) someone posts a rarity, or an unseemly location or number that i think, without correction, threatens to contaminate the archives or causes someone of less experience to absorb damaging, incorrect information; or the insidious b) cases where someone steps out of line with regard to an identification or bit of scientific knowledge, that is, someone who is pretending to have a mental encyclopedia but really only has the cliff notes, if that (and, by the way, those people on the list who simply make things up . . . how do you deal with that . . . well, there really is not a diplomatic way, and some of these folks are so forceful with their modicum of superficial knowledge that many newbies take them for experts, thus further polluting the whole process . . . this by itself has caused me many times to want to abandon TexBirds).

Let’s look at a) first. Real example. Last year someone posted an observation of a huge flock of Whooping Cranes. The location was in a place where it would be reasonable for a Whooping Crane to be seen. It was at the tail end of migration when Whooping Cranes were still moving toward the wintering grounds. And the details posted were correct for, if not diagnostic of, Whooping Cranes. All those things weighed in favor of the ID. At least one person made a trip to find this flock of Whoopers, thereby using a full day of driving and searching, plus gas, and likely other expenses. I waited a couple of days to see if someone else might, more gently than i, question this observation. But when no one did, i snarkily jumped in, afraid that more folks might go look for the birds, and that this piece of info would go unchallenged.

In reality, i have no idea how many people, what percentage of TexBirds, realized this observation could not be, and how many bought right into it, thinking “wow, how cool to see so many Whoopers at once.” What experience (meaning having seen quite a few myself in the wild, having read every weekly report from Aransas over the years, having read National Geographic, having watched Disney films, having discussed it with many of the “pros” on this list, having been indirecetly involved in research on the bird) told me was that a) as a habit, as a rule, Whoopers migrate in family groups, meaning three, maybe four or five birds if young from previous years were hanging out with them. That, on the wintering grounds themselves, their food needs require them to have large feeding territories, also divided by family groups, and that they do not flock there either. But more than anything else, every Whooping Crane alive in the world is individually accounted for by the US and Canadian Wildlife Services, every single one, and that the week before, in an aerial survey at Aransas and area, all but a few family groups had already arrived on wintering grounds and were accounted for, leaving less than half the reported flock somewhere still en route to Aransas.

That made it perfectly impossible for this flock to exist outside of a space-time warp. And so i tried to set the record straight – after which i got jumped on for failing to warn folks days earlier that this wasn’t true, in addition to being jumped on for being snarky and insensitive and all that. So, numbers played a part again – this time pointing out the impossibility of a sighting. Had, instead, only a single Whooper been reported, a lot of folks would have acceded to the possibility and the sighting been seriously considered.

About the same time, a Fork-tailed Flycatcher showed up near Austin, probably setting a record for the longest observed individual in state history, but it oddly led to a flurry of reports across the state of this decidedly rare bird, sometimes in groups, when, while not impossible, would at least be unprecedented. None of the others came with photos or details, but they are lodged firmly in the archives. Raise your hand if you traveled to see a Fork-tail that didn’t exist. Again, because most people on the list were too nice to object publicly, i did the snarkdown on that one too, and got jumped on again for questioning people's abilities, and worse i was probably a communist.

Dare i mention the international incident i caused by questioning a certain raptor at a certain illogical site?

One of the things about community is the necessity of policing. Part of that has to do with the stonebound rules of the group. Ted and E.G. began, and passed the mantle on to David, to safeguard the list within the bounds of its purpose. But no community is totally contained by its police department. A newspaper plays a policing role as well, reporting on things of interest to all, much as posting on the list does. Where people go to bird is somewhat guided by who is seeing what and where and whether they post it. Letters to the editor and editorials and the blotters also are part of that function – calling folks out about transgressions that affect the community even if they’re not illegal (so to speak). Some folks don’t mind getting drunk, until their name shows up in the paper for it. And of course the community itself must police itself when it comes to moral standards. While most folks would defend everyone’s right to say what they feel, they also feel little reservation in smacking back what they feel about what someone else feels, ad uninterruptum. Nevertheless, when someone gets slapped by the collective conscience of the group then a personal decision has to be made about whether saying something is worth the risk, or if it would be more judicious to just shut up. And a number of people here have just shut up.

Likewise, any community has its pretenders. Let’s go back to b) above. That is, faulty or faux or just plain slimy information being proffered with the sound of authority. This is both the most damaging thing that happens on TexBirds in my opinion, and also the diciest to deal with. First, of course, is who’s to say who is an “expert” or a “pro” and who isn’t. Who’s to certify that someone who says something is knowledgeable enough to make a pronouncement and have it accepted as gospel? Well, no one of course, but over the years, spending time with folks, and listening to all the cross-gossip and criticism, one begins to ferret out who is credible and who isn’t. That’s something wholly missing, this community intellect, to anyone who’s joining this list as a neophyte or simply a new TexBirder.

There’re a lot of folks’ names floating around on posts the last couple of days from the old days. I learned at all these folks’ feet and more. I think Jim Morgan is the person who taught me directly more about birding than anyone i ever knew, yet you won’t see his posts here, not sure he even reads them anymore, and you don’t often see his name mentioned. But he is one of the legends. He was incredibly wise and gracious and knowledgeable. My numbers fetish comes from him (not because he had one, but because he was meticulous about understanding the meaning of numbers in relation to distribution and movement – Ted mentioned him this week in discussion about fallouts, which were Jim’s passion).

Likewise i learned from all those others who took me under their wings when i was a smartmouth know-it-all kid, many of them peers, some even the next generation teaching old me -- Kelly Bryan, Greg Lasley, David Stuart, Chuck Sexton, Ted Eubanks, Fred Collins, Dave and Jan Dauphin, John and Gloria Tveten, Victor Emanuel, Ben and Linda Feltner, Charlie Clark, Ed Kutac, Mary Ann Chapman, Elric McHenry, John and Barbara Ribble, John Arvin, Richard Albert, Steve West, Mark Lockwood, Derek Muschalek, Willie Sekula, Randy Pinkston, Bret Whitney, Peter Scott, Dave and Mimi Wolf, Kevin and Barry Zimmer, Ron & Marcia Braun, Peter Cantle, Steve Labuda, Alma Barrera, Frances Williams, John and Letty O’Neill, a whole slew of Wiedenfelds, Ernie and Kay Mueller, and the ornithologist-types Doug Slack, Keith Arnold, Ralph Moldenhauer, Dean Fisher, Terry Maxwell, Jim Scudday, and those who i’ve gained so much from even though our friendship/fieldwork together has been relatively recent including such folks as Brush Freeman, Martin Reid, Stennie Meadours, Ron Weeks, Mike Overton, the Heindels. Those are names you should know if you hope to be a student of Texas Birds (and there are others who i didn’t know personally back then, but you should know their names, like Fred Webster, Warren Pulich, the Rowletts, Edgar Kincaid, Arlie Mackay, Tony Bennett, Kay McCracken, Andy O'Neil, Ro Wauer, Charles Easley, Ken Seyffert, Gene Blacklock, Clarence Cottam, and Connie Hagar). And then there is the LSU cohort . . . most of them with big Texas backgrounds and continued interest here. It pains me that in this dashing off of a post i know i’m leaving important people (friends!) off this list, so my mea culpas now . . .

In that coterie of folks that Ted pointed out has been lost as a social group are also a certifiably wild astronaut, now known as the first man to ever fly free in space untethered to a spacecraft, a pulitzer winning author, and a bunch of complete flakes. But you had to be part of that social group to understand who the flakes were. Under the wing of a mentor you were warned well in advance about them. And having digested that, you still learned a great deal from those very flakes. But the foreknowledge was important.

In the cybirding world no one comes equipped with a pop-up flake detector like you do for viruses. And new birders, and birders new to the list, don’t know coming in that i’m a certifiable flake, so they might read this post and think i’m being serious. The same with posts from others who take on an air of authority, without having the benefit of knowledge or experience. So how to deal with that? I don’t know. I have taken some to task online, not by attacking them (i tried to do that once, and Ted wisely kept me from it, but it only forestalled me being discovered for a short while), but by going after the information provided. Of course these are taken as personal attacks anyway, much as the ones i’ll get in return for this long-winded diatribe will be. Unfortunately some of these people have fan clubs and the barrage of defenses then turns the tide back toward disinformation. I don’t follow those up, but resign knowing the community has suffered.

Instead, what has evolved are backchannel groups that discuss various things that happen on TexBirds. I have a standard list of emailees that i send my snark to, and they respond with huzzahs or their own snark that they’d never post online themselves, and we laugh and move on. The unfortunate part is that once again, the community suffers, because some good info does not make it to the list, and bad info becomes ingrained in some people’s minds as gospel truth.

Likewise i am aware of other coteries that routinely bash the "pros" offlist. That too is good for the purpose of stress relief, but i have to wonder if the list again hasn’t lost something important. I don’t know “pros” or “experts” or whatever who won’t stand up to being questioned. That is the process of learning for all of us. They must be able to support their stands with information that is convincing, or in some cases re-examine the question themselves. Once again, without holding myself up as an expert of any kind, for what it’s worth, in the last few months i have at least twice (i think three, but can’t remember the third) proffered an identification for a photo, only to back off and change my mind – once on an offlist photo sent me, and once on an online photo (the partial albino blackbird of a few months ago) – based on others’ opinions and points well-taken.

That brings me to one of those other disconcerting things, one that Greg touched on. The bird poll. This is one of the more disgusting things to have popped up on TexBirds and i have no idea where it originated or how it evolved, but i can guess. Last week there was an ABC poll (ABCNews is my browser homepage). It asked: Was Shawn Hornbeck sexually abused while being held captive for four years? And my immediate thought was, well if we vote that he was, either he must have been, or if he wasn’t we ought to have it done because that’s the way America voted, and when America speaks . . . I mean, is it true that our country has devolved socially to the point where we have to vote on things we have zero firsthand knowledge of? The example i used to use was a poll on OJ Simpson’s guilt, but this one takes the cake.

So it is with polls on birds. Someone might point out that the TBRC does just that, votes on the identity of birds, but it’s not a poll, it is a judgment based on the expertise of folks who have studied not only the details and photos present before them, but on research done on that regard often with specimens in hand, and who discuss the points among themselves. To me it’s the difference between a jury voting and Average America voting. Further, they vote on whether or not the evidence presented is enough to rule out anything else than what it is purported to be.

And even then, the TBRC has several times re-examined earlier votes based on new challenges or new techniques in identification, or new knowledge about a species. And yes, some IDs have been changed to unknowns, some to other species.

It hurts much to see on TexBirds where someone with extensive experience has gone to great pains to help someone with an identification (John Arvin, in particular, one of the most patient and gracious teachers alive, and one of the most avially learned persons on the planet, does this constantly), sometimes going feather by feather in detailing why something is a given species, only to have their time-consuming effort thrown into the pot as a vote along with a bunch of other “votes” that consisted only of someone emailing a bird name without any corroborating evidence, many of them likely pure guesses, often clearly based on a cursory flip through a field guide without any personal field or museum skin experience. Why after all, would someone with no field experience at all with a species be offering a proposed identification? Is this a game show, or a community of folks trying to help others learn identification, and learn the identities of certain problematic individuals? Polls have, in my mind, completely obliterated that line here. If, instead, folks with no experience want to ask questions and propose identities, without “voting” in a poll, then that would be a path toward, once again, helping everyone in the community learn something. Unfortunately, many “experts” no longer offer extensive opinions anymore because of things like polls.

Along with Ted’s loss of the social group thing, i’d point out another loss. One of the most common questions asked in any birding class is “What’s the best method for learning the birds.” My stock answer is, will always be, spending time in the field with someone who knows what they’re doing. As the modus for gaining information has turned increasingly to online methods we seem to have become dependent on it for all things birding – locations, directions, fieldmarks.

One day in the field with a legend will change you forever. You’ll never approach birding the same way again – for some it might mean deciding it’s not for you, or that you’ll be forever happy with the Cardinals and Chippies at your feeders. For others though it opens up an unimaginable landscape of possibility. One day in the field with someone like that can make you insatiable for similar details about all the birds you didn’t see, and will lead you to learn those things about the birds you haven't seen before you get to the field (dare i bring up the Brits again?). For me that is the defining characteristic of someone who has crossed that threshhold – the folks who go into the field with a knowledge base of what they are looking for, and what they might encounter, rather than going into the field and having to return to an anonymous list full of vague questions about glimpsed birds which result in narrow questions from the experts that you can’t recall for not having been prepared.

A few other notes that come to mind (but that i don’t want to re-edit the previous 8000 to accommodate in a logical sequence):

Another of those disconcerting group-think, me-too, me-too, borderline one-upsmanship things that drive knowledge people away is the thing about posting something important and then others post a gazillion observations of little or no relevance thereby denigrating the import of the first. The newbie, unable then to distinguish between reports of honest value and the morass of minutiae that follows, completely loses perspective.

I once posted about an inland White-tailed Hawk, just a quick note, nothing life-changing, but somewhat important because these birds are generally regarded as coastal. In return came a slew of “so what" posts -- we had it here, here and here, many of them indeed coastal, thereby losing the context of the conversation. Unfortunately, some other noteworthy inland records were also brought out, including others in the vicinity i reported it, but these too were likewise engulfed by the maelstrom of trivia. That’s another reason for knowing not just what comes through your backyard, but knowing what is noteworthy for your area, and a need to understand the role of habitat, and numbers, and distribution, etc.

The ever-present danger of pedantry. Sometimes there’s no easy way to give out the information except to just give it out, even if it comes across as arrogant.

And, as Ted intimated, we do scan the lists, numbers or no – in part to see if possible rarities are out there, or to judge folks by their errors, etc. Witness the number of times that folks have posted that someone wrote in with questions about a bird on their list, and have now realized they had something else. Those folks are learning and growing, and i’m paying attention to their progress. To get huffy and refuse to post in the future is to abandon perhaps the best learning tool TexBirds offers (the help of others – even if it is sometimes pedantic, snarky, or arrogant).

I’ve spent a lot of brain cells thinking about this over the past week and one of the realizations i came to has to do with recognizing pride at work. I am a teacher. I work with, have always worked with the most difficult children, right now my “career”, if you will, is in working with severely sexually and emotionally abused children. I know a thing or two about learning styles and methods. I know, in our touchy-feely age, that gentle teaching goes a long way in building self-esteem. And for some populations that is important.

Here is what i recognized about myself though: all the touchy-feely learning i was subjected to didn’t really teach me much. I learned by way of challenge. By deciding i wanted to learn something because it interested me, or because i was wounded. In other words, someone insulted my intelligence or dignity. This was usually the result of sarcasm, cynicism, putdowns. All these years later, the snark makes no difference to me, but i am wiser. I never wanted folks telling me i couldn’t do or know something. Maybe i’m fooling myself with this self-epiphany, and maybe i’m just rationalizing my obstinance here. I don’t really know. What i do know is that embarrassment has caused me to dive into learning something more than anything else i can think of right now, and in turn has resulted in my being who i am. Aaaah, no need to prolong that.

So, i think folks can have all the birding fun they want without progressing, but really, deep down, does anyone want to be scoffed at? I’d bet people are here to learn, which means at some level they want to be good at this, which means at some other level they want to contribute. Else, again, why post to this list at all?


tony g
frustrated snarky faux-expert





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