How many rare birds did we miss before the internet?

Yesterday morning I ‘found’ Canada’s first Lucy’s Warbler… in my inbox.

After reading my recent posts about rare birds, Cathy Mountain (whose redpoll photos were featured here last winter) sent me a series of pictures of a warbler that had been in her yard in Fort McMurray, northern Alberta, from November 8-10, 2008.

After rejecting the possibility of a drab Yellow Warbler, she thought it might be a Virginia’s or Lucy’s Warbler, as did other local birders who saw the photos, but they were reluctant to call it since both of those species were so unlikely.

photo copyright by Cathy Mountain - used by permission

This photo is not the sharpest in the series, but it is the best for showing the identifying features: the small pointed bill, plain gray color, pale lores and eyering, and dark rusty rump just showing under the wings. (and Yes, that is snow.)

This highlights another line of evidence in the debate about how many rare birds we miss – the number of rare birds found and identified only because they are photographed. This bird, like West Virginia’s Great Knot in August 2007, and countless others, would have been lost in the swirl of ambiguous possibilities if not for photography. And without the internet to allow immediate sharing, even photos might have laid in a drawer with a very low chance of ever being identified.

Imagine the chain of events that led to this discovery:

  • In all of northern Alberta, this warbler landed in the yard of a birder (maybe not entirely random since Cathy probably has some landscaping to attract birds, but still… northern Alberta’s a big place)
  • She had to notice it and take some pictures
  • She had to realize it could be something noteworthy and go to the effort and the risk of showing the photos to other birders to try to identify it
  • When it remained a mystery she had to continue pushing the pictures out on the internet

Judging from her email to me, I think she knew what it was, and just didn’t have the confidence to say, but did have the confidence to keep trying to confirm her suspicions.

Now imagine if any one of the links in this chain had broken down. The bird didn’t land in a birder’s yard, didn’t stay long enough or simply wasn’t noticed, wasn’t photographed, or wasn’t ‘advocated for’. This Lucy’s Warbler could have landed unnoticed in dozens of yards on its trip from Mexico to Alberta.

The digital photography revolution, and the ability to share pictures easily on the internet, means that a lot more of these birds are found (meaning confirmed), which is fantastic. But this still must be a fraction of all the rare birds that are out there.

So get out there and find something!

13 thoughts on “How many rare birds did we miss before the internet?”

  1. I had a similar experience here in Utah. This fall I saw an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, Utah’s sixth record and my county’s first. After seeing the adult, I happened to be going through some old photos from the spring. One gull in those photos caught my eye this time. I had written it off as “unidentifiable” for my level of experience back in April, but now after learning about Lesser Black-backed Gulls by studying this adult, I realized that the bird in my photos was a second-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull. Cache County actually had its first record “documented” seven months before the adult bird, but I hadn’t realized it until my skill level had increased. I probably wouldn’t have even photographed that earlier bird if I still had to pay film and developing costs, but with digital it was free, so I took a few shots and saved them to identify later.

  2. Technology has very much changed the way we bird, and the way in which rare birds are documented. Just yesterday in northern Illinois a small eruption of White-winged Crossbills brought the birders out in force to a rather small forest preserve. From there people fanned out in the area, checking the beaches and harbors and a hawkwatch site nearby.

    And the cell-phones were a-ringin’! With about 30 people in the field some great birds were located and seen by many, including California Gull, White-winged Crossbill, Purple Sandpiper, Northern Shrike, Harlequin Duck and Great Black-backed Gull…any one of which would make for a good day (especially the gull).

    I am a huge proponent of using every technological tool available to keep birders in-the-loop, and enable discussion as much as possible. To that end, I’ve created the Illinois Birders Forum, and I’m constantly looking at ways to merge technologies. For example, right now you can subscribe to the “rare bird alert” so that when someone posts a rare sighting it sends you an email. I’m working on a way to have it also send a notice to a local listserve, as well as push a text message to subscribers’ cell phones.

    New tools like the amazing iPhone 3G with a 2MP camera, GPS and full email/internet capabilities (as well as being a telephone) make it possible to post sightings literally immediately.

    There has been some discussion here, due to a recent unfortunate incident concerning a Burrowing Owl that was eaten by a Cooper’s Hawk (it was assumed that birder’s looking for the owl flushed it/stressed it and made it easy pickings for the hawk) about NOT posting sightings to listservs and forums. I am very much against this, although I can see the case for exceptions, such as not giving detailed directions to owl roosts.

    But, the problem (if there is one…I’m not convinced there is) is of individual behavior, not the vehicle for keeping birders informed. Considering the number of birders who “twitch” to rare birds, and the very very few negative incidents that occur, I think simply calling attention to these rare incidents is enough.

    To get back to subject, next to the iPhone (which we already have), my “holy grail” of technological wonders would be a color-screen Amazon Kindle that could be loaded with an almost unlimited number of field guides and site guides.

    I’ll be waiting…

  3. The Zen Birdfeeder

    Thanks for the inspiration. Though not “rare” birds, I had 9 birds I was seeking help in identifying, and got 4 confirmations via a blog post earlier this month. As time passed, I was resolved to the fact that the remaining 5 would go un-identified.
    After reading your post, I’ve given it another shot.
    Thanks for the advice!

  4. Certainly many in the UK! In recent years there has been a series of mega rarities ‘rescued’ by the internet. Amur Falcon, Brown Shrike and Olive-tree Warbler spring to mind immediately. This phenomenon is happening across Europe, for instance a White-backed Vulture in Spain was identified after the event by Dick Forsman from his PC in Finland. E-birding is potentially the easiest way to find a rare bird these days and no need to go out of the house! I find my cameras have replaced my notebook in reviewing sightings after the event and whatever your observational powers there is no substitute for a series of photos from different angles to correctly judge proportions, structure and small plumage details etc. Therefore, I rarely go birding without my DSLR + 100-400 lens as well as my digiscoping set up. I was fortunate to enjoy the latest British E-birding ‘find’ at the weekend – Britain’s second Glaucous-winged Gull:
    …and if you find anything good on my blog please let me know!

  5. I can hardly believe it but no sooner than I posted this comment I checked today’s UK bird news and I see that a female Steller’s Eider in Wales has been identified today from photos taken on Sunday. Another amazing example of E-birding in action!

  6. Yes, a hoax and the underbelly of birding in action instead. Apologies! The data from the photo, which could be extracted as the hoaxer ‘saved as’ instead of ‘saved for web’ when they lifted the photo from a Finnish birder’s site, showed the photo was taken in 2006. I wonder if there are any other hoaxes out there that slipped under the radar?

  7. I think that hoaxes are not very common. Most birders wouldn’t want to risk being found out even if they would be willing to do a hoaxe.

  8. Very interesting.I have noticed that even though some potentially rare birds are found less than 1% of forum/bird group users are prepared to debate the identity of birds on public forums. Take what might have been Irelands first Glaucous winged Gull labeled as’Possible Glaucous-winged Gull hybrid not ruled out’

    I think the eventual consensus was that the bird is a Glaucous winged x American Herring Gull hybrid. Even rarer than a pure Glaucous winged Gull,I would have thought, but not the same standard of proof required to get the record accepted.
    and discussed here

  9. Hi Peter,
    You make some interesting points, I would say that even though a hybrid Glaucous-winged Gull almost certainly comes from western North America, where this cross is fairly common, it might have inherited some wandering genes (like a lack of aversion to fresh water) from the Herring Gull parent and therefore be more likely than a pure Glaucous-winged (per capita) to travel to Ireland.
    As you point out there is also an understandable bias against these ambiguous birds. Birders and records committees get very passionate about debating the identification and origin of a clearly-identifiable species, but when a hybrid is involved the reaction is more often a shrug and a “sure, that’s probably what it is”, even when the hybrid is rarer than the species.

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