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January 10, 2006

Judge Jimbito: 'A Birdwatcher Has No Agenda'

...or, "No one expects the Ornithological Inquisition!"

American BitternRemember when I went birdwatching for a local annual census event in December, and spotted a fairly uncommon bird for the region? I got a strange phone call over the holiday break where the coordinator for our local birdwatching efforts had to inquire about our spotting of the American Bittern, the only one spotted in the region on that day. (Two years ago I spotted the first red-headed woodpecker in many years. Now I wonder if it was actually counted in the census.) He asked me about specific behaviors of the bird, coloration, and who was with me when I spotted it. I understand their trepidation in accepting our observation, as newbies to the hobby can become exciteable and jump to crazy conclusions.

However, this week I get an e-mail from the Supreme Council of Birdwatching in the region with a veritable inquisition, including the following questions:

The requested information would include:
Time -
Location -
Observer -
Observation Details (optics used, distance from bird, viewing conditions, photo?, etc) -
Past experience with the species -
References consulted (if any) -
Report based on notes or memory -
Details of plumage, shape, size, vocalization, habitat,etc. -

Is this an inquiry for a Supreme Court Nomination or am I just a birdwatcher who got lucky? So now I'm starting to get pissed off as it seems they are questioning my spotting and identification skills. While this is an amateur organization I'm soon going to have to point out that my birdwatching posse that day consisting of Bryan, Rickie, and myself have a high combined level of expertise. Rickie has field experience in bird identification, with Ph.D. level coursework in ecology, which requires identification skills. I have gone birding with Bryan before and respect his knowledge. I have held a bird identification book in hand since age 8, hold two applicable undergraduate degrees - Biology and Natural Resource Management - and as a park ranger in Alaska on a ferry boat route that went through the habitat of two rare species I had to be able to identify these birds (pelagic cormorant and a murrelet) for visitors who came to Alaska to specifically spot these creatures.

Don't know what a murrelet is, do ya? Yeah, that's right.

I have gone on a wild goose chase - and won. I have been on a snipe hunt - and have come close enough to the bird to hear it 'hiccup'. I have seen pink starlings, vermillion flycatchers, indigo buntings, black-legged stilts and emerald kingfishers. I don't keep a 'life list' as I percieve it as an acquisitional practice rather than recreational. But listen up bitches, if I had one it would wrap around yours - twice. Size matters, and in this case mine is huge.

I have seen mot-mots, hoopoes, lapwings, dippers, shearwaters, and toucanets. I have gone out to open seas just to see one species of albatross and paid my dues by puking my guts out on the journey from seasickness. I have worked with field biologists who only spoke Russian, yet we communicated freely in Latin, the taxonomic language. I have traveled out to the edge of the Siberian steppe just to see the westernmost population of pink flamingos in Central Asia. I had my binoculars and identification book ready when I crossed over an extention of the Himalaya mountains going on foot from Kazakstan to Kyrgizstan. I've been around the world and I have a good handle of what any bird east of the Mississippi River is, and when I see one that has an easily identifiable plumage and behavior, my expertise is in question?

DO NOT QUESTION ME ON THIS MATTER! You can critique my rugby skillz, tell me I can't sing, disrespect my cooking, correct my spelling and question my taste, but when it comes to birds, you had better keep your mouth shut. Although I sense a bit of local elitism, and perhaps ageism, for most of the inner circle of good 'ol boys and girls in the Supreme Council of Birdwatching tend to be an older bunch. How could a youngster like me possibly know anything about birds? Especially when my optics are not top-notch, that is in excess of $1000 or more in binocular snobbery.

One more inquiry from these people and I'm gonna pull out my birdwatching street cred. I got this same attitude when I tried to join up with the local trail hiking group. The thinking around here seems to be "How could anyone outside the Mid-Atlantic region have experience in __hiking/birdwatching/etc.__?" This comes from people who think the Appaliacians are "mountains" where you will never be more than 3 miles from a road.

Posted by jimbo at January 10, 2006 10:30 AM



Little less caffeine next time, OK?

Posted by: TonkaManOR at January 10, 2006 11:53 AM

Oh, come on now. How can you be surprised by the reaction you're getting? Afterall, they call themselves the "Supreme Council of Birdwatching." That's very telling, don't ya think?

Posted by: Boo Augustus at January 10, 2006 11:54 AM

Well I definitely won't question your bird watching skills. No clue on that stuff.

When did you go to Kazakstan and Kyrgizstan? I've always wanted to go there and my friends look at me like I'm crazy. I just think it would be amazing.

Jimbo, don't let your birdwatching street cred lead you over to the dark side. You must use your powers to help the forces of good.

Posted by: Trey at January 10, 2006 12:03 PM

You should tell them exactly what you told us. Basically, don't fuck with me boys, this isn't my first time as a birdwatcher. Or something to that effect.

Posted by: stebbins at January 10, 2006 12:16 PM

Were our positions reversed, I'd have served up that cred on receipt of the second inquiry. And served it up cold.

Why so tolerant of intolerance?

Posted by: Baz at January 10, 2006 12:53 PM

I spent my 20th birthday on a goose roundup - we rounded up nearly 400 Canada's, banded many, and moved them from Indianapolis to a Fish & Wildlife area 2 hours away. Two years later in June, there was a terrible accident involving the trailer relocating another batch of geese - though most of the birds survived.

I'm sure the SCB just wants to follow you next time so they can check it off their list.

Posted by: Jim at January 10, 2006 12:55 PM

putting the old lawyer hat on here - but it doesn't sound to me so much as they're questioning your birdwatching skills as much as documenting the event as you admit the sighting was unusual for the region. Presumably this Supreme Council (love it!) keeps some sort of official records or publishes some kind of official report and they're probably just really big on documentation of the unusual stuff - I wouldn't take it personally.

Posted by: Andy at January 10, 2006 3:56 PM

I had no idea you are so well hung, birdwatching-wise, and presumeably neither does the Supreme Council... so why go nuclear on the first inquiry? Why not just answer their quesitons and let them know your credentials in a non-aggressive manner?

Isn't it preferable that you provide your info to the Supreme Council directly rather than relying on the coordinator's version of it? Isn't it a more scientific approach to have the information provided directly by the witness, with the witness's credentials detailed in the report?

You are usually so even tempered - could this be a manaifestation of cell phone withdrawal? (Are you experiencing the desire to tell someone of this outrage while walking aimlessly down the street? Speaking in a very loud voice?) For your sake I hope not....

Posted by: ZZ at January 10, 2006 4:18 PM

I didn't realize they were that unusal out there. They are pretty common in the plains during summer. One word though...they use that bill like an ice pick when you get close enough to their nest. It's a pretty impressive weapon.

But I agree...it's probably not so much them questioning identification, more just documenting the event.

Posted by: buk at January 10, 2006 11:13 PM

in washington there is an association for everything so a supreme council on birding or whatever isn't surprising at all! :-)

Posted by: TOS at January 10, 2006 11:22 PM

Hey Jimbo, we got a woodpecker the size of a crow in our neighborhood. Damn thing is HUGE! I've had to chase it off a few times because it keeps denting the siding on the house and knocking holes in the wood fence!

Posted by: Dinger at January 11, 2006 11:02 AM