Monday, October 5, 2015

Adventures In Birding Online: The Truth Is Out There...But Not Always.



This is a Least Sandpiper...but I could just post this as a Long-toed Stint, and most birders would be none the wiser. Kind of a bummer, huh? Photographed at Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary, Alameda, CA.

I am the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder. That means I am a great birder and an anointed expert*...there's no point in being modest. Being a leading light of the birding community, my gaze knows no bounds. And that is how I noticed that Dave Irons, an Oregon Bird Policeman, recently wrote to a listserv, "When unknown folks present themselves as authorities on the Internet, you really need to be cautious."

He is absolutely right.

Birding is hard. It is known. Finding birds is hard. Seeing birds is hard. Identifying birds is the hardest of all. And so, in the age of the internets, let us examine one particular aspect of bird identification...the Google image search!

That's right...not only do we have field guides, reference books, eBird and apps, we have the entire fucking internet at our disposal to use as a tool for bird identification.  If you have a bird you are trying to identify and it doesn't quite match your typical sources, you can just say "fuck it" and go cruise the interwebs to find even more pictures of species x and species y. It's really a fantastic thing. Ever wonder what Slaty-backed Gulls look like in Japan? Boom! I would say that covers it pretty well. Do you get stoked on American Dipper pictures? You do?! Well, try googling it, and you will see hella dipper pics. Amazing stuff, really.

So it's that easy, huh? Well...no. If something is too good to be true, then it is not a true thing. It is a lie, a dirty falsehood, just like all the misidentified Philadelphia Vireo photos that litter Flickr. Having just read these groundbreaking words, you might find yourself feeling filthy on the inside, and I don't blame you.

You will notice that the gull link above goes to a site operated the Ujiharas, esteemed experts on gulls who even put a gull book out. And you will note that dippers are singular birds...easy to identify, and lacking any relatives on the continent.

Well, what happens if I look for random Veery pictures?  I only have to scan through a few pics from an image search before I come across this bird, which clearly is not a Veery. Hmm...what about Willow Flycatchers? Wait, what the hell is that?  Well...Northern Goshawk? Yikes. I'm not sure if any of the photographers here are necessarily presenting themselves as authorities on their subjects (lets hope not), but whenever they say THIS bird is THAT species, that's a pretty authoritative act, I reckon.



Ok, why don't we call this bird a hatch year Western X Flame-colored Tanager, put it online, and call it a day? That's what this is, obviously, and who is going to stop me? I kid, my friends, I only jest...this is a Western Tanager, but it is a scary thing that I could just make some fanciful claim and lay it out there. It happens every day. If shit like this keeps you up at night, remember...you are not alone. Photographed at Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA.

So, there are two factors at work here with these blatant misidentifications. For one, there are a lot of birders with cameras out there who are just not highly skilled. They make identification mistakes on the regular. Go to someplace like South Padre Island and watch the inaccurate carnage unfold. Secondly, there are a lot of bird photographers out there (who are not birders) who are even worse at bird identification, and a lot of those folks are dying for you to see their images. That's really all there is to it. When surfing the web for bird porn, caution is warranted. Unless you know the source and know you have a highly discerning eye, be very careful about the birds you look up. This is where reputation is huge...trust the folks you already trust! I can peruse the Ujihara gull site and be pretty confident they are not fucking up, despite their difficult subjects, but blindly searching the web for Vega Gull images is a daunting task.

So next time you are having an ID discussion in your favorite birding Facebook group, be careful when referencing online images from people you don't know or trust. You might get burned, and things may never, ever, be the same again.

* = I do misidentify birds, and there probably is one...or two...or three, somewhere in BB&B's sprawling past. I'm not saying Trust No One, but as a modern birder, never turn off your bullshit detector, and you'll be just fine. 

16 comments:

  1. I'm not sure if I should be flattered or in fear for my life. Being identified as a "Bird Policeman" could put me in harm's way. The post you reference was made after someone shared a link (to Oregon Birders Online) with photos from an unvetted source in order to demonstrate that Sharp-shinned Hawks might offer a certain Cooper's Hawk-like appearance. Of course the problem was the birds in the photos on the linked Sharp-shinned Hawk ID page were all Cooper's Hawks. This same source had a similar page for Flesh-footed Shearwater. The birds in three photos of "Flesh-footed Shearwaters" were all first-summer Heermann's Gulls.

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    1. Dave wear the police badge with honor--and fear!

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    2. I remember thinking how similar FFSH and young HEEG looked. I was twelve years old when I thought that.

      Dave, thanks for the inspiration for the post. I suggest you take Tim's advice to heart.

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  2. Dude, thanks for the tip on the sweet Goshawk photo! I'm in for a $43 acrylic print.

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    1. I should be a broker for this shit. $$$$!!!!

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    2. Fine Art America will be rolling in the dough from this fine artist.

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  3. I think that Goshawk photo was taken by Dr Nelson Briefer.

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    1. The doctor approves of that photo. He is a master.

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  4. There's also genuine mislabeling, of course: for a long time I had a whole series of peregrine photos on my flickr that I had labeled Brewer's sparrows.
    This was a great entry in a great blog -- thank you.

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    1. Thanks Rick! Beware the Brewer's Sparrow of the sky, and enjoy the melodious trills of Peregrine Falcons as they wash over the verdant sage.

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  5. Steve, I virtually never comment on blog posts (go ahead, shame me), but this one is spot-on. Nicely done.

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    1. Thanks for breaking your silence Don. I try to make my posts somewhere between spot on and brilliant.

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  6. My head explodes at times when I see ID's that are wrong but the person insists that they are right. I have seen people ID a female American Kestrel as a Eurasian Kestrel and I am like dude, that would be all over the birding list servs if it were.

    I keep duct tape next to my desk and Jeep so that when my head explodes I can tape it back together.

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