Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Birders and Bullying

A MEW GULL (first state record pending NJBRC acceptance) was photographed at Spruce Run Reservoir Jan 10. The bird was with a few thousand RING-BILLED GULLS coming to roost near the boat launch area. No reports since.

The above was posted on the weekly Rare Bird Alert for New Jersey on Friday, Jan. 18. A mew gull, a bird usually found in the northwest, is a smaller and darker-eyed version of its more common cousin the ring-billed gull.

I saw one of the pictures posted and it was incredible that out of the thousands of gulls hanging around Spruce Run's popular (with birds and birders) boat launch this one gull would be picked out by a couple of dedicated birders. Talk about a needle in a haystack.

However, there is a darker side of this story and it can be seen on the daily New Jersey bird reporting site. It is a story of cyber-bullying.

No, not the type of bullying you hear about on the news that results in death. This involved a man who obviously knows when to say "stuff it" and walk away rather than a more vulnerable child or teenager being harrassed physically at school and emotionally on Facebook.

Here's the back story.

On Jan. 20, a man from Freehold, N.J., made a brief report to the list via his phone that he and two others had seen a 1st year mew gull in the same place as the one seen Jan. 10, which hadn’t been seen since that report.

I am sure the Jan. 18 alert set several hearts a-pounding in the NJ birding community. The Freehold man went out to Spruce Run and managed to find the gull. His report had others rushing to the same area to do the same.

A day later this same Freehold man wrote the list saying he was removing himself (you have to have a subscription to report but you don’t need one to read the posts).

He had gotten a number of inquiries to his personal email (listed on the post) for details of his sighting - this is quite common and I have done this myself with other reports. Most times the exchange is pleasant and people thank you for providing the information.

However, he also received emails, to put it mildly, questioning his ability to identify birds as well as his character!

He said in response that he made the best call identifying the gull that he could based on using multiple field guides and the thinking of other birders who arrived thanks to his report and looked through his scope. He also said that when he left there were no other birders around and he didn't realize he was violating birder etiquette by not hanging around indefinitely to show others the bird.

This would be funny if it wasn't so sad.

As a result of the abuse he has received he said he was not going to make any more reports and would turn over any more threatening emails to the people who run the list for further action.

I found this exchange fascinating because it shows how “bird watching” has changed and how degraded our society has become.

What was once passive “watching” has become the more active “birding,” a competitive sport. You see something of that in the film “The Big Year.”  (I recently saw a car commercial based on the film’s premise where two photographers are driving like maniacs over mountains and fields, no road in sight, to get a picture of a California condor, a majestic and endangered species. Oh, the irony.)

It used to be you went out with your binoculars, a spotting scope for distant ducks, perhaps a camera. That has changed - now everyone thinks he or she is Ansel Adams. Cameras with gun-like lenses swaddled in camoflage are the norm, as are, at the other extreme, the ubiquitous cellphone camera in the hands of people clambering over rocks in sneakers.

But there’s more - there is the Internet and tweeting and Facebook. All are designed to let you broadcast information widely and immediately, whether you’ve thought it through or not.

Even the NJ birding list, taken over last year by the American Birding Association, added a Twitter feed on the main page. Get the word out! Now!

The New Jersey birding list home page. Note the Twitter feed to the right.

There are programs for your smartphone to identify birds and play their calls to fool a bird into showing itself. There are GPS and mapping programs so people can go into the deepest part of the forest - way off the trails - and be able to find his or her way out, eventually, maybe, satellite willing.

These fake bird calls are considered bad birding etiquette because they stress the bird into thinking their territory is being invaded by a rival. The GPS allows people to trespass into areas where they are not supposed to be, affecting the ecosystem and potentially putting themselves in danger.

To these people, birding has become an extension of the X games.

All this is done in the name of finding that rarity, that needle in a haystack. Why? I don’t know. To make yourself look good? To make big bucks selling the picture? To tick off another name on your Peterson life list? To help you think you are young, virile and superhuman?

I don’t know if the Freehold man was thinking any of that but he was looking at hundreds of gulls on a boat launch and somehow happened to see one that didn’t exactly look like the others. Birders do that every day. Not everyone finds a rarity.

His note prompted an avalanche of responses from people who begged him to reconsider. Turns out he is far from alone.

Some said they had also received insulting emails that doubted their ability to identify a bird. One man, who constantly reports to the list and seems to be everywhere in the state at once, said he now never makes a report unless he has photographed the bird so he has proof of his sighting. When he started out his ability and his truthfulness were questioned. That has happened to me, too. That's why I am not a list subscriber although I look at it at least twice a week so I can plan my weekend birding.

One man summed up my feelings: This is supposed to be fun.

When I stopped passively watching birds at my feeders and started going out into the field, it was to get into the woods and get out a lot of the stress I felt from a job in the city that put me under more pressure than an uncorked champagne bottle. I walked and, sticking to the trails, discovered birds in their variety and beauty, high and low, in the air and on the ground and in the water.

Sometimes I even found a rarity. But I quickly learned that it is better to keep rarities to yourself, for the bird's sake and to save on aggravation to me and the environment. For instance, I am glad I didn’t report the sedge wren I found years ago in Somerset County because another one (or the same one?) found later that month in Montgomery, NY, created a birder stampede that trampled a field as they searched for it.

Bad etiquette? Guilty, I guess.

(A more recent example of this is in Somerset County involving a farm that had the luck - or misfortune - to host both a pair of sandhill cranes and several northern lapwings, the latter quite rare in New Jersey. If you go to the list you will see more on how this one sighting triggered a circus, including several reports of trespassing photographers.)

This is the problem the Freehold man had: he is not a recognized pro. The original report on Jan. 10 was made by a couple of “established” birders familiar to the listing world whose sightings are not questioned.

As my husband likes to say, the birds don’t follow the road maps and they are not waiting for you to arrive. So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a mew gull could be found, fly off and then return a week later to be seen by others. That’s part of the fun.

But not this viciousness that, thanks to the anonymity of the Internet, the immediacy of email and texting and Facebook and the general coarsening of human nature, is pervading what was once regarded as a modest outdoor activity.

We’re talking about birds here, people, not politics, war or the economy.

Unfortunately, birding has become a mirror of society. We want everything and we want it now. If you get it and I don’t, I use the Internet or Facebook or tell my 1,000 Twitter followers what an idiot you are and they pass it on. I act before I think because I can and I don‘t care about your feelings because I don‘t know you and don't want to. I want a picture of a rare bird because you don’t have one and I'm better than you and entitled.

Still, I would also like to think there are more good, thinking people out there than idiots. Sadly, the idiots are the ones who get the attention on the evening news and the birding lists.

So I understand why the Freehold man is no longer making his findings public. Life is too short to be dehumanized by small people, even small people who, like you, look for birds. At least this man is emotionally mature enough to walk away from this cyber-bullying.

Also, I understand the importance of people like the Freehold man to those of us in the birding community who have only a limited time during the week to go out and explore, and who want to be able to see as much as possible. I hope he doesn‘t leave birding altogether. People like him do the work and the rest of us get the enjoyment.

Without these people, we have nothing. To subject anyone - high school kid, adult reporting a rare bird - to abuse, in the words of one writer defending the Freehold man, diminishes us all.

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