Who You Gonna Trust?

The Generalissimo Franco of big woodpeckers, the ivory-bill, appears to be still dead, according to the latest press release from Cornell.

I was thinking about that this morning in Madera Canyon when we ran into a birder who reported a, well, never mind what the bird was: what was interesting was the brief conversation that ensued. Our interlocutor noted that s/he had a couple of times turned in written descriptions to a bird records committee and had her/his report “rejected, because the bird wasn’t documented.” I’m not good at hiding puzzlement, and my bemused look drew a clarification: “You know, documented, photographed.”

But you see, documentation is not necessarily the same as photography, or at least it didn’t use to be. It seems to me that birding has become so heavily technologized in the last few years that we have abandoned, or at least greatly devalued, the artifact it was founded upon 100 years ago: the well-described sight record.

Birders (and ornithologists, for that matter) spent the first couple decades of the last century fighting for the value of the sight record, arguing that verbal documentation by a careful observer could, for most species, be as credible as a specimen. And from about, oh, say, 1934 until about, oh, say, 2004, it was true: thorough, precise descriptions of rarities were treated with seriousness by birders and records committees alike, sometimes rejected, sometimes accepted, but in any event considered a reasonable way to document an unusual sighting.

That’s changed. Digital cameras and cheap, easily portable recording equipment have made it possible to secure “tangible,” “objective”–choose your adjective–documentation of rarities that just a decade ago would have been captured only in the careful observer’s notes. This is a fine thing, of course, and I am glad that so many birders provide photographic evidence of their unusual reports. But I am not glad at all that documentation of that sort is pushing verbal description aside, returning us surely and not so slowly to the same place we were a hundred years ago; just replace “shotgun” with “digital camera.”

The most shocking example is the last year’s fuss over the reports of Ivory-billed Woodpecker. The controversy has revolved almost exclusively around the now famous, and still utterly useless, video showing a black-and-white something flying away from a canoe, and there has been virtually no attention paid to the couple of sight records by normally credible observers: they have been neither rigorously criticized nor held up as evidence of the bird’s survival, and all eyes have been turned (and all loud mouths devoted) to a couple of frames of inscrutable digital video.

We’ve lost something, thanks to this affair: not just the Ivory-bill, which probably wasn’t there to begin with, but also our willingness to look to other birders, not the computer monitor, for answers to our questions. Let’s go back to talking to each other.


Drama at Carter Lake

Sorting gulls this morning at Carter Lake, Iowa, we were startled by the sudden appearance of an adult Peregrine Falcon, which flashed past us to land on a hapless Killdeer. It took off with its squirming prey, only to find itself beset by a brash immature Herring Gull, which chased it acrobatically until it dropped the Killdeer, which flew a short distance and dived into the water, only to be plucked from the surface by a 3rd-year Bald Eagle! The eagle landed in the shallows and plucked and consumed the plover. What a way to go!


Southeast Arizona

Alison finally got back from Washington, DC, so she could join in the birding I’ve been enjoying with MaryMargaret, a good friend from Princeton days. This is MaryMargaret’s first real birding trip to the southwest, so we’ve been birding pretty much non-stop and seeing lots of lifers, including one of the best Mountain Plover days I’ve ever seen. The flock at Western Sod was only 17 birds, but they were incredibly close, and watching them doze in the furrows just a few feet away was more than memorable—and knowing that even those few birds represented a precious percentage of the world population of the species was chilling.

MaryMargaret has decided to beef up her owl list, so we spent some time checking likely spots. Our Western Screech-Owl is still resident in his box, and we ran across Great Horned Owls a couple of times. This morning, on our second try, we succeeded in getting good looks at the Burrowing Owls at the Marana Pecan Grove. And our hike up Scheelite Canyon yesterday morning was typically birdless, until we spotted (inevitable verb) one of the world’s most-watched Spotted Owls perched right above the trail; I walked back down canyon while MaryMargaret lingered a minute or two to enjoy this rare and wonderful sight. And we heard, but unfortunately didn’t see, a Mountain (Northern) Pygmy-Owl in West Turkey Creek Canyon while listening for chickadees—in vain, alas. But still not a bad way to finish up the 2005 year list!


A Surprise Houseguest!

Nearly a year ago, I spent a pleasant hour cobbling together an owl box out of scrap lumber and salvaged nails, then another, less pleasant hour trying to fasten the thing into our mesquite tree. This spring, Gila woodpeckers and Gambel quail showed an interest (those quail will nest anywhere, it seems), but the box was empty until today, when I looked up at it–less hope than habit after all these months–to find a tiny gray face staring back at me!

Western Screech-Owl in our yard, Tucson

We have a western screech-owl, finally, the first owl ever to occupy any of the clumsily constructed boxes I’ve put up over the years. But now how to keep him in there? I spread some extra seed on the ground under the tree, hoping that perhaps it will draw kangaroo-mice or some other suitably tasty morsel for his dining pleasure.