Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Human Birdwatcher Project Presents: The Murrelet Incident

"I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror...and were suddenly silenced". - Obi-Wan Kenobi

While Obi-Wan was describing the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star, he is also feeling what I felt on November 26, 2014, when the legendary Japanese Murrelet chase came to an abrupt and psychically violent end. Many birders arrived at Point Reyes that morning with the highest of hopes...that they would be lucky enough to see a Japanese Murrelet from a California shoreline. After many hours, only a brightly-marked Ancient Murrelet was seen, and when the photos of The Bird were finally posted to the ABA Blog, a collective scream of terror was uttered by birding America. The large chase crew left broken and defeated...many have since gone silent, locked in their bedrooms, enduring an incapacitating catatonic depression. The entire California birding community was completely crushed, and we have still yet to heal. Bitter memories of the Mile Square Park "Cape May Warbler" came rushing back to more than a few birders. A misidentified Red-footed Booby (it turned out to be a Brown, of course) at Point Reyes a few days later was just more salt in the wound. Some have suggested that this may be as good a time as any to completely quit birding.

What happened? How did this tragedy come about? The Human Birdwatcher Project ("Birders are people too!") and BB&B have put together a timeline of all relevant public communications about The Murrelet Incident...and you can see exactly when the "apparent" Japanese Murrelet becomes something more.

November 24, 2014. A Bird Policeman posts to the California Rare Birds Facebook group:

I haven't seen it on any email lists yet, but Keith Hansen called to tell me that Steve Howell photographed an apparent Japanese Murrelet (Synthliboramphus wumizusume) at the Point Reyes Fish Docks. Unfortunately he did not identify the bird visually, it just showed up in his photos. A number of people were looking until dark today and the bird was not seen.
Just acting as the messenger.

November 25, 2014. A birder posts to a listserv:

Just got a call from Keith Hansen. He, Steve Howell, Ed Harper, Jon Dunn and others saw the bird from a great distance off the Fish Docks on Pt. Reyes this morning. It took several hours of waiting and the bird appeared for 15 minutes, then disappeared. It has the characteristics of a breeding plumaged Japanese Murrelet and was compared with nearby Ancient Murrelets. This bird was first found closer to land and photographed by Steve Howell yesterday afternoon, but not seen after it quickly vanished. I have not seen the bird nor the photos.

November 25, 2014. Another birder posts to a listserv, this time with a very different tone:

…ahem…ahem..excuse me, 

So that everyone gets the word, there is a distinct possibility that a Japanese Murrelet has been found in Drakes Bay at Point Reyes yesterday afternoon by Steve Howell. Today other excellent birders saw it again and now it seems to be a Japanese Murrelet. Identification is difficult from distance (photos were taken yesterday and appear diagnostic) but we up here have been convinced to look tomorrow for it. This would, of course, be a first county record. Actually, a first continental record. 

Seeing is believing so I along with others will be there at first light. 

Remember, a large storm is coming in this weekend so sooner is better….unless your optimistic…and stupid. 

November 25, 2014. A birder posts to eBird a Japanese Murrelet observation. He describes the bird as having a crest, which is an absolutely diagnostic field mark for Japanese Murrelet. This report has subsequently been disappeared.

November 26, 2014. Many of the state's best birders converge at the Fish Docks, searching for the Japanese Murrelet. These included many past and present members of the Bird Police, and some folks came all the way from San Diego. Many Ancient Murrelets were seen, including one in breeding plumage with giant white eyebrows that converge at the back of the head, very similar to how a Japanese Murrelet would appear. In the early afternoon, two days after the initial sighting, Steve Howell posts on the ABA blog the full breakdown of the bird, complete with photos. At no point does he claim that the photos show proof of the bird being a Japanese Murrelet, nor does he claim he is convinced it is a Japanese Murrelet. He makes no mention of the bird having a crest, and bemoans the fact that birders have somehow turned a theoretical Japanese Murrelet into the real thing. The photos showed an intriguing bird (to me, anyway), but ultimately lacked anything truly convincing.

According to multiple witnesses, when the birders at the Fish Docks searching for the murrelet saw the photos on somebody's cell phone, everyone died a little bit on the inside. The chase was off.

Most birders, at least privately, now suspect that there was never a Japanese Murrelet...that the bird in question was an Ancient Murrelet in breeding plumage (like the one above). Since November 26, no one has publicly claimed to have seen a Japanese Murrelet. So what went wrong? How did more than 80+ birders converge from all over the state to twitch a bird that was not real? Birders have turned on each other left and right, reputations are being shredded, and more than one angry twitcher desires actual bloodshed.

Some things to consider:

1) Was there really a Japanese Murrelet out there, as some thought in the beginning? Was the bright-browed Ancient Murrelet seen November 26 the same bird from the photos? The same bird seen, very distantly, on November 25? Will all of this one day air on a new episode of Unsolved Mysteries? Personally, I don't know...I certainly didn't see any of these birds so I really can't comment. But I know that a bunch of birders can simply will a rarity into existence, given the right circumstances. Much like those who have once claimed success in the Ivory-billed Woodpecker hunt, there is no longer anyone willing to publicly admit that they believe they saw a Japanese Murrelet.

2) Some have whined that the photos did not go public until 2 days after the initial sighting, which is a long time when it comes to coverage of a MEGA. This certainly played a role in contributing to the mass hysteria and panic that briefly gripped California birders, but think about it...the person who found the bird was not actually convinced the bird was a Japanese Murrelet, so what was the rush? Despite his status, he doesn't owe it to anyone to get the photos out to the general public ASAP...I'm sure he sent it to a few friends for consideration, which normally would be the wise thing to do. If I had poor, undiagnostic photos (accidental photos, no less) of a potential continental record, I might not be rushing to have every birder in the country scrutinizing it either.

3) While Steve is not California's birding Godfather, he is viewed as a sort of deity by many. Not many other people write entire books on rare birds, gull ID and seabird ID...in fact, no one else has those credentials. Steve's opinion on bird ID is considered gospel by the masses. Even if he thought the bird could be a Japanese Murrelet, that was enough to make people think the bird was real. Attaching Jon Dunn's name to the bird probably didn't help things either.

4) On November 25 a notorious county lister, who had never seen the photos of the bird, claimed that the photos were diagnostic. To quote a famous birder, "that's not how I would have done it". This statement, and then the following eBird report, is where the bird appeared to jump from "apparent" to "confirmed"... and a lot of people were probably convinced to make the long drive to Point Reyes. He also stated that those who were not going to chase the bird were stupid, which did not work out very well for him and 80+ other people in the end.

5) The eBird report from November 25 mentioned the bird having a crest, the most crucial field mark to see. No one else has ever mentioned seeing this, at least publicly. This is seriously sketchy.

6) Birders nationwide have been concerned that so many good birders were involved in The Murrelet Incident. One retired bird policeman from the east coast was quoted as saying, "This shit wouldn't even fly in New York" (I guess New York has a lot of sketchy birders? News to me.). Indeed, many of our Bird Police and alumni were out looking for this bird, but I cannot fault them. If birders are people too, then so are the Bird Police. Almost every birder has a bit of Fox Mulder in them...we want to believe. We all wanted a true-blue Japanese Murrelet to be out there, because we want to see the damn thing.

7) Ancient Murrelets can be in breeding plumage in winter. And they can have huge white eyebrows that meet in the back of their heads. Now we know.

8) Things will never be the same.

Many thanks to John Puschock/Zugunruhe Birding Tours for supplying the Ancient Murrelet photo in today's post.


  1. 9) Californians are so spoiled for fantastic rarities and variety that there is no bridge too far. Where was the initial and healthy cynicism from the start? Sure, no one likes the negative Nancy, but when it's alcid and done there are less broken hearts. People probably called off weddings to chase that bird, and a birder wedding is a rare and precious thing!

    Thanks for the relay Seagull and HBWP.

  2. never noticed the likeness of a bearded dan maxwell to obi-wan until now.
    bearded? beardeder?

  3. It's true. There are and have been many sketchy New Yorkers. We're not proud.

    Thanks for doing this post as a service to birders everywhere.

  4. Great coverage of potentially the year's best birding scandal. I particularly appreciate the "your...stupid" part.

    I really love when people throw out field marks from their field guide into their eBird reports that they never actually saw in person.

  5. More evidence that the spelling error of "your" instead of "you're" is a solid field mark for idiocy

  6. I had the pleasure of being part of the murrelet scene on the 26th and running into Steve a few days later as I was coming back from the "Red-footed" Booby. Steve said that the ABA bloggers seemed to want to publish more certainty than at least he was claiming. Well, as you mentioned, everyone WANTED it to be a Japanese Murrelet. I know I did...
    But the same damn thing happened over the booby! People were gawking at the very slight rosy wash to its clearly very YELLOW feet. They also seemed to completely disregard that the bird had pale underwings when it flew in, and that there was nothing particularly inconsistent with Brown Booby. I think over-hopefulness is really the biggest issue here.
    Also, I think I should mention that, speaking to Keith after he saw the breeding-plumaged ANMU on the 26th, he was very convinced that it was a different bird than the one the day before. Of course, murrelets at "1-1.5 kilometers away" can be a little tough...

    1. As the ABA blogger, I feel I need to clarify a bit. By the time I'd heard the news about the murrelet it was already wearing the qualifier "apparent" and had hit the CA Rare Bird circuit. Obviously, I would have liked to get that online ASAP but I had seen nothing beyond the report on the California Rare Birds Facebook page.

      When I emailed Steve, he basically said "we're not sure *what* this thing is", and I said that's fine, if he gets confirmation let me know and I'd like to publish. If he'd pulled the plug on it, I would have let it go. I wasn't going to publish anything without the photographs, which he was obviously, and justifiably, not sure about making public.

      By that time, however, things had reached a fevered pitch independently of anything I'd done, and Steve seemed to feel like he needed to say something about it. So he sent me the photos, and the post, and I ran it unedited (including the title "apparent", which was his).

      I'm not sure what he may have meant about ABA bloggers pushing the ID, things were certainly a little crazy around that time, but by the time I got involved that horse was out of the barn and halfway to Sacramento.

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  8. I feel like people are starting to take this a little too seriously. Nate we all appreciate the excellent work you do for the ABA blog and the efforts you put into publishing the photos online for everyone to see. I feel like there is a healthy dose of sarcasm and joking around in this piece especially with the line; "The entire California birding community was completely crushed, and we have still yet to heal" and the comparison to the death star's destruction of Alderaan. On the bright side at least Northern California is now enjoying a Rustic Bunting.

    I especially love the line of the "Bitter memories of the Mile Square Park "Cape May Warbler" came rushing back to more than a few birders." However maybe it was because I was somewhat relieved when it turned out not to be a Cape May as I had missed it that morning for my county big year :). At least us OC birders made it up to everyone by getting the word out very quickly on the Olive-backed Pipit, which I ironically identified using Howell's Rare Birds of North America!

    Hopefully we continue to have some good birds pop up, I know Curtis is certainly hopefully at least a couple more things pop up for his CA big year attempt!

    1. Hey Tom (right?), I think Nate was addressing Logan's comment about SNGH. Thanks for the kind words though, and I'm glad someone got the warbler reference!

    2. Yeah, I was replying to Logan, specifically the line, "Steve said that the ABA bloggers seemed to want to publish more certainty than at least he was claiming."

      I thought I hit reply, but for whatever reason it didn't publish as a reply. Computers, whatever.

      I didn't mean to imply I missed Steve's tone.

  9. Old saying, "If I didn't believe it, I wouldn't have seen it."


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