Tuesday, July 23, 2019

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: To Catch a Stringer


Most birders think about things like, "Why don't juvenile Band-tailed Pigeons have neck collars?" or "Are the Mourning Doves in my yard now the same ones I see in winter?" or, shamefully, "What would a Mourning Dove x Band-tailed Pigeon hybrid look like?" But there are a few birders out there who are on an entirely different trip, contemplating how to convincingly fake a White-winged Dove sighting instead.

To be the Global Birder Ranking System's #7 U.S. birder, you have to have been around for a while. To achieve such an astounding rank, breathe such rarefied air, one not only needs to know birding, but to have a sixth sense about it...a sensitivity to The Force of birding, if you will. You must be able to predict the future, intimately know the past, and trust your instincts. This sixth sense comes to some after years of experience; other birders seem to lack this entirely, no matter how many years they have toiled in the field. You may not be lucky enough, or cursed enough, to feel The Force flowing through you...but if you are, not only will this preternatural sensitivity help you find birds of interest and identify them correctly, it will also inform you on the claims of other birders without necessarily knowing much about the people beforehand. The Force is an excellent judge of skill, and of character.

For some birders, this isn't important. Birding isn't about other people, is it? Birding is a personal experience....but these days that seems to apply to only a minority of birders. Most birders do not exist in a vacuum. We have birding friends, birding foes, we look for birds other people find, we go to places other birders recommend, we study bird photos online that other people take, etc. Other birders matter, even if we go birding specifically to avoid people. If Flycatcher Jen (a real person, as most of you know) happens to meet Johnny Nightingale-Thrush (not a real person) while out birding, and Johnny tells her "I saw an Intermediate Egret two miles down that trail", Jen will want to know if Johnny is a trustworthy birder before she goes out of her way to look for that bird. Or Stilt (also a real person) may be able to infer that the Cassin's Sparrow reported by Karen Chlorospingus (not a real person...though it should be) in a listserv post is probably not worth looking for, since Karen is new to birding and probably highly prone to sparrow misidentifications. Or The Eggman (legit) will know that David Diving-Petrel (fictional) is just a classic stringer and that there is a 110% chance that the Long-toed Stint David just reported is actually a Least Sandpiper. Knowing what should be followed up on, and what should not, is an incredibly helpful skill for birders.

So like I said, it pays to be strong with The Force (of Birding). You will see more birds, more rare birds, and spend less time on snipe hunts and wild goose chases. Weeding out claims from stringers is key. Most stringers go out birding, find a bird (or these days, find photos of someone else's locally common bird online and claim it is actually a rarity...estringing), and predictably try to turn it in to something uncommon or rare to pad some lists, convince others they found something great, convince themselves they found something great...or god knows why they do it. According to the Global Birder Ranking System's statistics, between 97-98% of the world's known stringers fall under this category...you know them well.

But that is not the only type of stringer. There are those who do not misidentify birds out of misguided optimism, overconfidence, or poor identification skills...in fact, they don't appear to misidentify birds much at all. These are the stringers that fabricate sightings without ever seeing a bird where and when they claimed, either by just creating a sighting out of thin air, giving no evidence at all, using photos stolen from somewhere online, or using their own photos they took in another place at another time to provide the basis of a sighting. These are the miserable, wretched, bottom-dwelling, maggot-infested stringers, and never will you find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.

BB&B has covered this story before. Almost every BB&B reader is aware of Swallowgate and what happened...or what did not happen...in North Carolina. That birder has since been excused from the birding community, his record Big Year purged from the record books in a firestorm of purification. Although I was privy to many details of that story, I was not a part of it...until now. I recently became a vigilante bird policeman in my very own county, to catch a stringer so twisted and evil that it is a wonder she even exists. The Human Birdwatcher Project takes great pride in bringing you this story today, for history is written by the Winners, not those who were vaporized on an exploding Death Star.

It all started last September. I occasionally go through the photos users upload to Santa Clara County (where I live) in eBird to see what is being crushed, misidentified, etc. I was surprised to come across a Clay-colored Sparrow, a solid if unspectacular rarity here, as it did not show up on either my Santa Clara needs alert or the rarity alert. And according to the date and location of the checklist, I had been at the same spot at the same time! What gives? Why wasn't it reported anywhere? Well, users can hide their birds from needs and rarity alerts, but still continue to contribute to eBird's public output. I didn't understand why this observer, who I will call "Lori Myers", wanted to hide their birds from everyone else, but it wasn't long before I figured it out. Looking at eBird's Top 100 for Santa Clara County for 2018, Lori Myers was doing a County Big Year.

Ugh. Ok. Lori wants to chase other people's rarities (evident by looking at her eBird photo gallery), but doesn't want to share the ones she finds? That's fucked up and pretty stupid...but in one respect it makes total sense. She is listing to win. I disagree with it, it makes big year birders even more unappealing than they already are, it could result in other local birders missing out on chaseable rarities...but I get it.

After being clued in to what Lori Myers was doing, and keeping an eye on photos she was submitting in the county, it became clear she was finding a lot of rare birds on an alarmingly regular basis. I guess Lori didn't have a job? I was briefly impressed, as I had never met this person and she was seemingly finding and documenting a lot of cool birds considering she was decidedly not one of the more skilled birders in the area - she seemed to be mainly a photographer. I even chased one of her birds, which is one of the low points in my life.

Strong with The Force I am...but not that strong.

It did not take long before I stretched out with my feelings, to listen to the The Force, and The Force started telling me that something was Wrong. I was wrong about her. Deeply, treacherously wrong. Lori Myers was finding too many rarities. Santa Clara County does not host as many rarities as the coastal counties, and Lori was finding vagrants at a clip that would be impressive for anywhere in the state. I then started looking more closely at the photos she was posting - *every* rarity she claimed had an accompanying photo, which just doesn't happen. And in the photos themselves, I started noticing patterns of irregularities...really weird crops, missing metadata, perches/backgrounds/weather that I knew were not consistent with what the locations looked like, or other photos in the same checklists.

My opinion of her quickly turned to the dark side, but for good reason...she had betrayed us all. For months I watched Lori post garbage, but mostly* plausible, rarities in eBird. It was torture...knowing exactly what was happening, but having no proof or power over it. Poor Billy had to listen to me rant and rave about this rampant stringing going on every time some horseshit vagrant hit eBird, which at times happened day after day after fucking day.

The turning point came when she attempted to take credit for finding a rarity I had found myself! I had found a flock of Mountain Bluebirds, less than annual in this county, then noticed later that week that Lori Myers had subsequently eBirded seeing one the day before me in the same area. An eBird policeman dug into it and confirmed that she did not submit that checklist until many hours after I had already reported the birds!

That was the last straw for me. Soon, I joined a cabal of eBird and state bird police that had one goal in mind...to form a rebellion and resist this Sith Lord of Stringing.

In the end, after months of surveillance, we were finally able to prosecute her for her heinous, cruel and unusual birdcrimes. Lori Myers knew that her charade was over, that she had been found out...in a final act of cowardice, she tucked her tail between her legs, changed her eBird account to anonymous, and hid all of her data and photos from public output....but it was too late. The eBird tribunal found her guilty as charged, and Lori Myers was banned from eBird's public output anyway, in case she ever wanted to attempt to "contribute" to eBird again. Her Big Year has now been erased from history, and I am told she has never submitted anything to eBird again, even for her own personal lists...but of course that was never the point for her. To protect the birding law enforcement and prosecution team from revenge killings, they will remain safely anonymous, but their valiant efforts will never be forgotten by those who were there.

This blog post is not just a story of a rising Darkness, and Light to meet it. Now, you too can identify an ultra stringer like Lori. Again, I'm not talking about your everyday, run of the mill stringer who tries to turn a Warbling Vireo into a Philadelphia, I'm talking about people like Lori who are making a conscious effort to lie. Here are some of the questions that are begging to be asked if you suspect you have the misfortune of encountering such a person.

Is the suspect a good birder? If the answer is "no", they are potentially stringer material.
How frequently do they find rarities? Think about how often the suspect reports documented/substantiated rarities relative to other birders in the area.
How thorough are their descriptions? A stringer of this magnitude is not going to go to Marantzian lengths to describe a rarity - they will probably offer two or three sentences and avoid any overly technical sounding field marks, molt terminology, discussion on distribution and migration, etc.
Does anyone bird with them? Stringers of this sort work alone.
Does anyone else see their birds? Lori Myers tried to get around this problem, partially, by reporting some rarities to eBird months after she had initially allegedly seen them - no one can chase an Eastern Phoebe from 9 months ago. She also hid her data from needs and rarities alerts and did not contribute to any listserv or Facebook group. If someone is really going out and finding rarities left and right at places that get birded a lot, inevitably some of them are going to be seen by other observers.
Where are they in eBird rankings? Stringers inevitably wind up at or near the top of a given category in eBird. What is the point of stringing if you are in 35th in a Top 100 list?
Is a big year involved? Nothing brings out stringing like a big year. It is known.

And some questions just about photos:

What does the metadata say? Lori's most blatant photos of fabricated rarities had no metadata visible to eBird users. The vast majority of photos in eBird have that data available. Indeed, most of Lori's pictures of expected, totally reasonable species had the expected metadata being displayed as normal.
Are the backgrounds and perches consistent with the location and season? This one doesn't need an explanation. Lori's November Ovenbird with vibrant, bright green deciduous leaves in the background was bizarre.
Any weird weird crops? A number of photos Lori posted appeared to crop out perches that were not appropriate for the location. For example, why post a extreme closeup of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak but lop off the bird's legs entirely?
Is the lighting and photo quality consistent throughout? Many of Lori's checklists had a lot of normal looking photos of common birds in addition to the strung rarity. In a great many cases, the photo of the rarity looked very different from the rest of the photo set - different quality, lighting, weather conditions, etc.
How many photos do they upload for each rarity? Lori Myers typically uploaded 1-2 photos per rarity of a bird she lied about finding herself; in contrast with this, she would often post more than one of known rarities found by other birders in the area. If you are going to fake a sighting, its much easier to just use a single photo than four or five.

Much like Luke respected and feared Vader's power, I will give Lori Myers credit where credit is due...her rarity selection of things she decided to string was very good, very believable if you did not examine her collection of lies as a whole. Tropical Kingbird, Northern Waterthrush, Magnolia Warbler, Indigo Bunting...these are all quality birds for Santa Clara, but not the sort of thing that would lead to dozens of birders from around the region dropping everything to chase. Her ploy worked for some time, but in the end she just couldn't control her crazed impulses and her reign of terror was put to rest. It was maddening, painstaking, and the entire treacherous experience filled my heart with hate, but in the end birding justice was served. She has never been heard from again.

Stringers beware...you will be seen for what you really are. For The Force is my ally, and a powerful ally it is.



*=One rarity in particular really stood out as being incredibly unlikely and significantly contributed in obtaining a warrant for her. She got cocky - her overconfidence was her weakness.

16 comments:

  1. VERY good post. I too know the horror of dealing with a notorious stringer all too well... you have described the agony of dealing with spurious sightings perfectly (I particularly liked the part about uncontrollable ranting in the presence of your largely disinterested SO). I have not yet had the revenge I crave on my stringer, but this post has given me hope... thanks pal, love the blog!

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    1. Thanks zones, appreciate it. Maintain your vigil. It also doesn't hurt to recruit others to your cause, even if absolute proof is not yet available.

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  2. Fascinating story which perhaps explains the "unusual circumstance" mentioned here:
    http://www.scvas.org/page.php?page_id=6812#November
    I see that you have changed names to protect the guilty, but I would have used a different pseudonym, perhaps something less prosaic like "Louise Liou."

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    1. Geez Joe...er, TaxMan...do you have ice flowing through those veins? haha

      I remember that email! The list of species mentioned there in that listserv post is a small fraction of what she actually claimed, but it is a nice sample of her BS.

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  3. God I wish I knew someone named Karen Chlorospingus, especially if that person was an admirable birder and Not a stringer.

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    1. Just start adding Karens to your life and one of them will eventually reveal herself as the Chlorospingus of them all.

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  4. A few years ago I chased a Western Spindalis for the 3rd weekend in a row in a small area in Ft. Lauderdale. I was there with only two other birders stomping around for 4 hours. They quit and I kept looking, Then the rain started. After 2 hours in the pouring rain I got into my truck to eBird my lame checklist only to see another birder tikked the bird during the downpour where I was at the time I was there... Nope nope nope...

    Birding is like life, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Celebrate the win and own your loses...

    eBird can be treated like a scoreboard but it is used by Scientists to learn more about birds for their conservation. Checklist wisely

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    1. Maddening. I wonder what compels people to do this. Do they really think other birders will be completely in awe of their lists? It's bizarre.

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  5. Seagull very much enjoyed this. I have nothing conclusive now but feel as if I am in the midst of a stringer in my home county as well, and it is extremely frustrating.

    I agreed with everything you said but have one more sorta stringy thing I have observed before. I wont cite examples but I have witnessed people bird sites were verified rarities have been in the last few days and just add them even without seeing them. Using the confirmed siting from days prior as cover for their lies. This is usually done by listers. Ugh I so dislike that

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    1. Deeply frustrating, especially when you know there is no traction toward putting an end to it. You mean like you know multiple people who intentionally submit false data? Not just misidentifying something?

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  6. Appreciate your keen-eyed analysis - wonder if you could turn it to a couple of vexing behaviors I see constantly on my local rarities alerts. One is a top birder who consistently posts rarities from a hotspot marked "restricted access". The other simply chases other people's finds and never adds photos or details beyond "continuing". Candidates?

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    1. Top birder like eBird Top 100 birder, or an actual top birder? There are many restricted access sites out there that have great birding, so that in and of itself isn't weird. Do they get photos?

      There are probably a lot of people out there who match the description of your second person, but yeah it could profile on the suspicious side for sure.

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    2. top eBirders definitely (though one periodically disappears from the list, then reappears months later), top birders - maybe, what do I know? But they tick off items 2-6 on your list for sure, as well as me. I mean, they tick me off a little.

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    3. 2-6? That's too many...hoist the red flag.

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  7. Brilliant investigative reporting from BBB. Are you available for hire-- something like a Birders #1 Detective Agency?

    Got a situation in my county, but very difficult-- more like a long-term serial killer that lays silent for years, pops two megas in a week, and then is gone from the radar.

    But some preliminary analysis has been done. While yours truly and another co-vigilante examined our 30 most recent county rarities and tallied a 90% re-find rate by the birding gen-pop, this individual has a re-find rate under 10%.

    - Suspicious in the Valley

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    1. I think we can work something out...I was recently just certified to be a bounty hunter (of stringers).

      Wow, over a 80% difference? If this person submits photos of these rarities, might be worth checking metadata.

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