Argh! Ivory-billed Woodpeckers.... you gotta love ’em. I suppose the fairytale ending to the recent Ivorybill saga is that one pops out on a branch in front of someone with a camera for a couple of minutes, or the robobirders get an image, or something. But at the moment it feels like it’s the only bird in the world that is impossible to get onto properly. They can be calling from both sides of you (apparently) you can hear them repeatedly, but you can’t see one. It’s in a club of 1 of species that can be that bad to see. So until the day when the question is resolved, I’m taking a tour of this club of 1, from a birding perspective. Here goes...
A parable... let’s suppose I have a friend. No! That’s tooooo far- fetched. Let’s assume someone else, maybe you, has a friend who is a keen birder. This friend knows his local area very well and is very familiar with the normal common birds that occur on his patch. There’s lots of Common Whitethroats there. He’s seen thousands over the years there. He can identify them expertly on jizz on very brief views, because he sees them all the time. Then one day in the middle of May migration he rings you up and says he’s been out looking for good birds and has seen a *very* rare bird, say a vagrant Spectacled Warbler (something very different from a Common Whitethroat, but possibly confusable on brief views) in a dense patch of scrub. Actually he only saw it in flight, but he’s adamant that it was too small to be a Common Whitethroat, and he saw the face pattern. The news is on BirdGuides so you and your pals all go round to see this Spectacled Warbler, and you take your cameras, and when you first arrive at the site you see a Common Whitethroat, but that’s OK cos you know there’s lots of Common Whitethroats around, you wander round trying to relocate the bird. More people arrive and time drags on. And then something funny happens... there are a number of claims of the bird being sighted. Unfortunately, it’s only ever seen in flight. It appears to be very elusive. And scared of people. Most Spectacled Warblers are a bit elusive, not always easy to see, but with a bit of patience very good views can normally be obtained. Like most Sylvia warblers, as it happens. But not this one. Lots of people getting excellent views and photos of Common Whitethroats. But all the views of the Spectacled Warbler are either millisecond-brief, and/or flying away. Whenever a bird comes out into the open to be grilled at close range by the masses, it turns out to be a Common Whitethroat. In fact the behaviour of this Spectacled Warbler is quite at odds with the reported behaviour of Spectacled Warblers. And another thing – most of the people looking for this bird see nothing. I mean, they see Common Whitethroats quite well, and they see Common Whitethroats quite poorly, but they don’t see anything they feel is the Spectacled Warbler. Meanwhile, your pal, and a couple of other people, who aren’t any better at birding than the other would-be observers, are claiming to have seen the Spectacled Warbler flying away several times. Multiple sightings by a small number of people, zero sightings by the majority.
Now, I’m kind-of being careful not to refer to any particular incident :-) but scenarios like this do happen, all over the birding scene. From a birding point of view, there are a lot of things here that don’t add up. The unusual behaviour of the bird, the unusual non-random spread of successful observers, the failure of anyone to see the bird on the deck, the non-normal distribution of length of sightings. Cos as birders, we ‘know’ that birds don’t behave that way. If the bird was still present, then anyone with sufficient patience and an average supply of luck would eventually get tickable views. The reason why this is not happening is that the bird (if it was ever present, of which more in a tick) has gone, or died. Whichever, it’s not there, and all reports after the initial claim are erroneous claims by a small number of observers.
Again, maybe the fairytale ending is that in the evening, after all the twitchers have gone away, your pal does actually get a decent photo of the Spectacled Warbler – it was present all along, and what we birders ‘know’ was wrong. A moral: not to listen to the naysayers and doom mongers, and a triumph for real field birding and to have the courage of your convictions. In fact, I can’t think of a situation where that has ever happened. What happened instead is that your pal got a video of what he thinks is the Spectacled Warbler in flight. He passes it round you all for a look, and in fact it could possibly be one. Actually, it could be a Whitethroat too, and some people point out features that favour Whitethroat, whereas others think it’s too small and has too much rufous in the wings to be a Whitethroat, and favour the possibility that it was a Spectacled Warbler. Whichever way people lean, they all accept there is some doubt, EXCEPT your pal, who against all reason, given the very poor quality of the images, is adamant that there is no possibility this was a Whitethroat, that it had to be a Spectacled Warbler. He submits it to the rarities committee, but the evidence is inconclusive. Your pal continues to search for the Spectacled Warbler, and for a few weeks he keeps getting frustratingly brief views of the bird in flight, or behind branches - enough to encourage him to keep looking, but not enough to clinch the identification. Of course you support your friend, you help him out as much as you can, but eventually, if you're a real friend, you point out that the bird has not been seen for some time now, and that for his own sake, it's time to LET GO!
So... how did he get to this stage? First, perhaps not fully relevant, but may be a factor, is that we see what we are looking for. Your pal was out looking for a rarity, and he saw a bird flitting across a gap between two bushes, and he was in a mindset where a rarity was possible, so he hadn't identified this bird and it looked small and looked like a Spectacled Warbler. So why wasn't it one? Well actually no reason. It could have been one, although given the balance of probabilities it was probably something commoner, so he's going to have to be sure. Frustratingly he didn't get a better view, although he explained what he saw to another birder passing by who also has a look round and this person also thought they had a brief view of 'the bird' moving off through some dense foliage, obscured. Now your pal had a problem. He had scribbled down his notes, honestly, about what he saw as soon as he could, and he reviews them after a couple of hours searching round for the bird, and he is convinced that he saw a Spectacled Warbler. He has described a diagnostic feature - the face pattern. But he needs help, so he makes the decision to release the news. Now an unconscious process starts; his description of the bird starts to develop feature 'creep'. As more people ask him about the bird, everything becomes a bit more definite. He doesn't even realise he's doing it. He's not lying, but in his own mind he is satisfied he saw a rare bird, and he wants it to be confirmed. After a bit of light questioning by the Bird News Services, the news is released as Spectacled Warbler. People arrive and start looking, and some people ‘see’ it, briefly, flying away, behind a branch etc. All very unsatisfying.
After a day or so of unsuccessful searching, the majority of the twitchers start to mumble among themselves that actually no one has seen this bird very well, that the video could be anything, even a Muscovy Duck, and start to wander off muttering the possibility of the ‘s’ word, i.e. string or, more charitably, the bird has gone. In fact, most people on the outside, who haven’t been to see the bird and in many cases are miles away in another country, are of the general opinion by now that a mistake has been made, and some say so quite rudely. Maybe they even set up a blog to slag your friend off. Your friend, however, has now invested so much of himself and his energy into this bird, that he cannot accept this – he needs it to be accepted, partly through saving face, partly because he’s having an internal crisis of confidence. He crosses a line from conviction to delusion, and keeps going back searching for a bird that is frankly, not there. Quite possibly there never was a Spectacled Warbler. The moral of the story, as rarities committees around the world will tell you, is that very brief sightings and honest field notes based on brief sightings of birds in flight are liable to be inaccurate because your brain ‘overlays’ the image on your retina with the ‘interpretation’ based on experience and expectation.
And there is a final twist to the story. When news was released of the Spectacled Warbler that your pal thinks he found, some birders a couple of hundred miles away realised that it was spring, and migration was happening, and they should be out birding, and maybe they could find their own Spectacled Warbler. So they headed to likely looking piece of habitat, some coastal scrub at a migration hotspot or something, and as they got out of the car the first bird they saw was a Spectacled Warbler! Or, at least they thought it was. It was flying off, only a millisecond view, but they saw it was small and saw a diagnostic feature, lets say the face pattern again, so they had a good look round and saw the bird in flight again a bit later – this time they saw the extent of rufous coloration in the wings, and release the news. Indeed, this report looked better than your pal’s sighting, because they have seen more of the bird and produce immediate honest field notes. Twitchers came, they searched, but no one saw it apart from the two pals and their uncle, who came along afterwards – always in flight, brief views. Everyone saw lots of Common Whitethroats– sometimes well, sometimes poorly, but whenever a potential Spectacled Warbler came out into the open, it was a Whitethroat. But it didn’t matter, because the original report had legs, it was a firm sighting backed up by a sighting of the same species elsewhere – an influx! Only later, when your friend’s original sighting on his patch a couple of hundred miles away had been widely disparaged, did rumbles start to mumble(!) about this second sighting too. ‘Another example where no one can get a clear view of the bird’ and damagingly ‘it’s too much of a coincidence that these last 2 birders would see the species they were looking for as soon as they arrived on site’ and ‘most damagingly ‘if the first record was bollocks, what are the chances of the second one being a mistake too’? In hindsight, it becomes obvious – without confirmation of presence of Spectacled Warbler at either site, it stretches credulity to think of the second report as anything other than a Disney-esque story. Of course, a group of birders keep searching for this second bird. Maybe they’re still there, working towards the Disney-esque ending when the princess wakes up and everyone cheers. Maybe they're right.
Now, this tale is MADE UP. FICTION! But it is based (without even mentioning Ivory-billed Woodpecker) on my 20 years experience of the birding scene, as a twitcher, patch-worker, occasionally ornithologist, of scenarios and behaviour that have been seen, in greater or lesser form, time and time again. Usually with no harm being done in the big game of birding. Bill Oddie’s Little Black Bird Book covers some of these issues more succinctly and with more wit. But then, coming as an outsider to the whole Ivorybill episode (of which the video is only a small part), some of the same little cameos would appear to be being played out. All the alarm bells are ringing:
1) rarity behaving atypically,
2) rarity seen briefly soon after arrival at site, but very elusive afterwards,
3) all views of rarity are brief, or distant, or handicapped by lack of optics or photos,
4) birds seen well, for long periods and photographed, are of the common confusion species,
5) small number of observers with more than one sighting, majority with none.
In the apparent continued absence of confirmation of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers in the USA, it is possible to postulate a potential alternative scenario whereby the species is in fact not present, and that all the reported sightings fit a well rehearsed pattern of genuine error compounded by human psychology of reward behaviour. In fact there would be nothing at all unusual, on the basis of my experience, for these post-2004 Ivorybill records to all arise out of woodlands where there are no Ivorybills. This does not necessarily mean, of course, that Ivorybills don’t exist or that the observers are necessarily wrong.
Maybe Ivorybills don’t exist. Maybe they do persist at the edge of extinction in very small numbers in areas of good habitat and have mysteriously developed behaviour patterns that make them virtually impossible to see. What I’m getting at is that we could get the same pattern of sightings (or ‘sightings’ – your choice!) in either case. Until the killer photo, please.