Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: Swallowgate



I have written of sketchy birders. I have written of stringers, assholes, liars, and the clueless. What the Human Birdwatcher Project has not covered are birders who take dishonesty to such a level that it is truly staggering. As the nation's #7 birder, you can bet the Global Birder Ranking System has me plugged deeply in to the national rumor mill. My little birds are everywhere, as Lord Varys would say, and they sing many songs to me. You would not believe what they have been telling me lately...

It all started out innocently enough...a young birder doing a Big Year in his home state. He set out to conquer the state's big year record, and he succeeded. There was press coverage, much fanfare, and glory. But very quickly, things turned for the worst...he tumbled from those lofty heights like a Snow Goose full of birdshot . His big accomplishment was nothing more than a vulgar display of myopic arrogance.

Let's set the stage. The year before he set out to shatter the record, he found a state first Violet-green Swallow, which was photographed...but no one else ever saw it, despite other observers rushing to find it. Of course, it is always suspicious when a single observer has a pattern of finding rare birds that otherwise go unseen...but if there is a photo, who can argue with that? During his big year, more than one of his self-found/single-observer rarities were photographed, so there was no real reason for concern.

The obvious problem with photos is that they can be faked...but no birder would ever do that...right? What would be the point? I can only see one...where you want to convince people that you are a hot-shit birder. You want that reputation, which ostensibly sounds crazy, but that is something that some birders find to be very, very important...perhaps because you have nothing else. In fact, for whatever reason, you want that reputation more than you care about watching birds themselves...which seems to defeat the whole idea of "birdwatching" in the first place, and violates the golden rule of birding: don't lie. You can be a dipshit, you can be unskilled, you can be a bad person, and birders will still tolerate you as one of them. But for god's sake, don't lie.

It has come to light that this birder has done just that...through some brilliant detectivework that make other bird police forces look sloppy and lazy by comparison, his state first photo was discovered to have been taken not in his state at all, but in Colorado. It was a farce, and he got caught...there was something amiss with the bird's tertial pattern, and data associated with the photo put the observer in the wrong state at the wrong time. My little birds tell me that after a period of complete denial that anything was wrong, he eventually claimed that the bird was real, he just thought that he could lubricate the record's passage by The Bird Police by using a decent photo. Of course, no one really believes that, and Violet-green Swallow turned out to not be the only rarity he documented with a photo of a different bird taken in a different state. The big year suddenly wasn't so big at all. State birders were plunged into a dark malaise...the light at the end of this tunnel was a long way off.

This is the closest thing one can get to "treason" in birding. With a fake state record and a fake record-breaking big year to claim as his, this birder is, for all intents and purposes, doomed. No birder will trust him for years to come...he will be haunted by the nightmare ghost of a Violet-green Swallow forever. His betrayal is known to many, and not only is he being actively shunned in his own state, but the entire American scene is taking notice. Ironically, instead of being a high-profile birder in his home state, his name is now in the toilet, and it will be for the foreseeable future.

Birders don't need this. Young birders do not need to have suspicions of stringing and lying cast upon them...hell, I'm in my 30s, and I still get doubted by old white birders who don't know they are dealing with #7. No birder needs to have the idea put in their head that they can do this and get away with it. Birders do not need to sacrifice a lot of time and money chasing after birds that exist only to serve as a "tick" on someone's fabricated list.  EBird does not need fake data. Birders are hard to get along with as it is...if we can't trust what we tell each other, what do we have? Not anything that can be called a community, that's for sure.

And there you have it. Swallowgate. Take it to heart.

14 comments:

  1. Great commentary. I've tried to point out for quite a few tears now (well, to be honest, I haven't really ever pulled out a decent soapbox) that birding has come full circle in this respect. In the "old days" during that period between shotguns and easy cameras a birder's reputation was paramount. Often a documentary photo was a blurry black and white image that most experts could generally agree was a bird. Now, with Photoshop and the internet, someone could fake almost anything rather easily and, once again, someone's word is worth at least as much as the image.

    Gary

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    1. Thanks Gary. "Word is bond" as they say...well birders don't say that, but they should.

      Sorry about all the tears ;)

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    2. I had no idea this scandal had been made public....time to cruise the Sialia.

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    1. YES. That's a sick scene, too bad it was deleted.

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  4. "Two people, rope, bottles, gravel, and three bird dogs all went into the Yellow Rail hunt."

    Got me curious as I've been interested in documentation of fraud ever since the notorious female Eastern Towhee photographed at Circle Z Ranch in Arizona.

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    1. This towhee is news to me. What happened? When?

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    2. Is the above a quote from the perpetrator? I notice the person who said that claimed a VGSW a few years back, that doesn't show up in ebird...

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  5. Some idiot Photoshopped a stolen image of a female Eastern Towhee into an image he took of Arizona's first Eastern Towhee male to make it seem like there was a pair. That would have been in 2000. When he got caught he took down his website. I still have a copy of the forged image.

    This same person submitted a photo of a Pied Avocet from a zoo and claimed he took it at the Salton Sea.

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  6. Of all the bird photos to fabricate...even the mightiest can be undone by the smallest of birds...it can be hard to Swallow.

    Nah that really is the capital crime in birding. The streets will administer their own justice

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  7. Some of us have had this stringer pegged since well before Swallowgate. Here is what did it for me:

    The same now-suspect observer claimed to have resighted the Olive-sided Flycatcher I found + photographed on the NC/SC border last fall (during his Big Year). But other birders were present throughout the time period claimed, along the slow, narrow mountain road. None of them saw a person matching the stringer's description in cars going past, or at all.

    And since he is such an accomplished photographer, where was the photo of such an easy perching-out-in-the-open bird like an Olive-sided Flycatcher?

    And even more damning: even if he did manage to not get noticed by the gang of birders, what kind of birder would have slipped back past them on the way out without passing the word after seeing such an uber-rarity for South Carolina?

    Three strikes and you're OUT!

    -- The quote above - ""Two people, rope, bottles, gravel, and three bird dogs all went into the Yellow Rail hunt." was in reply to my skeptical reply to his post on the local Listserv:

    https://lists.duke.edu/sympa/arc/carolinabirds/2014-01/msg00080.html

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