|Albertus Seba, 1735, from Strange Science|
Yesterday I was strolling around Friends Creek Park, in the north of Macon County, not expecting to see much of anything. After all, I was looking for passerines in the midst of the August doldrums, and if there's one thing my experience has taught me, it's that birding in the middle of August is kinda dull. You just have to enjoy the moment for what it's worth, and not hope for anything too exciting.
Thanks to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's website, ebird, I almost dislike spotting something "rare." I log every bird I see on ebird, telling myself that the "scientists" surely want to know about each and every pigeon and house sparrow I come across (but seriously! There must have been at least 30 pigeons flying over the stinky corn syrup factory in Decatur yesterday.... That's a lot of pigeons!), and every time I've seen something considered rare for this location and time of year, ebird flags my sighting and asks me to "confirm" it, with the message: Are you sure you saw a (fill in the blank rare bird), or similar language.
For most people, this is probably just a routine query. For me, this question throws me into an epistemological quandary. How do I "know" what bird I saw? Seriously, how do I know anything? I could (and have) see something really easy-peasy and common, like a goldfinch or a robin, and a few steps later asked myself, "Did I get a good look, or did I just assume?" I have contemplated striking a blue jay or a flicker from my day's list because, in retrospect, I couldn't remember all the details at the moment I saw it.
This probably makes me sound like a terrible birder, but I am not. In fact, objectively speaking, I consider myself to be an above-average birder, and (hopefully) getting better year by year. But questioning myself is just what I do.
I can totally understand how political prisoners not only sign, but come to believe, forced confessions...how therapy clients dredge up improbable memories and brand new personalities, only to renege on them later...how hostage victims come to question where their loyalties lie. None of these things has ever happened to me (thank God!), but I could see how it might happen.
For one thing, I am very imaginative, and highly suggestible, and am one of those people who seem to have a built-in guilty conscience even if I know I could not possibly have been involved. I have also read enough about how we humans perceive and remember things to find the whole business a shaky prospect. We are not the recording devices that we would like to suppose, but rather, both interpretation and recall are a fluid process.
In order to identify a bird, I must first see it, which is a terribly complicated process involving light hitting my retinas, creating an upside-down image, which is then sent to the brain and sorted out, and then a complicated array of chemical processes allow image to hit cognition in such a fashion that allows me to think, "Ah-ha, indigo bunting!" A lot can go wrong with this process. For one thing, our brains are so primed for pattern recognition that we will happily provide ourselves with patterns that aren't there, such as when hunters accidentally shoot each other, expecting to see a deer, or when I shouted, "pyrrhuloxia!" at what was clearly, a moment later, identifiable as a female northern cardinal. We see what we want to see, literally speaking.
And then we don't even remember it the right way! As the works of researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus has shown, eyewitness testimony is frequently flawed, people's memories change over time (such as when students are asked what they were doing at a pivotal moment right after the account, and then several years later), and it's not even that hard to convince people that they remember things that never happened.
So...am I sure what bird I saw? (It really helps to have a photo!) Well, this weekend, the answer is yes! I am sure! And there was never any doubt!
I was moping along the trail, noticing how still everything seemed and wondering, as I always do about this time of year, when I would see my first fall warblers. It would not be correct to say that there are no birds. I saw a family of waxwings, a couple of kingbirds, a nuthatch and a woodpecker or two. But there's a very different feel to the landscape at this time of the year, and it's a quiet feeling, as if Nature hit the "pause" button. It can be fascinating to compare the incremental changes in the season, but as birding goes, once one is bored with peeps in fall plumage, not that exciting.
And then...I saw a black and white warbler. Already? Well, it was a small, warbler-sized bird, scurrying along the trunks and limbs of a tree, as is their wont. It was white with black streaks, or black with white streaks, depending on your point of view. I was 100% certain, and so excited that I wasn't even wondering why it was so early in the season. Just as that was sinking in, I saw a blue-winged warbler, a beautiful yellow bird with slate gray wings and a striking black line across the eye. Nothing else remotely similar, and again, I was 100% sure what it was. Unless I was hallucinating, I saw those birds. They appeared to be hanging out together, in the company of a red-eyed vireo, and so I just assumed, mixed fall flock of migrants.
But, it's still too early for migrants, isn't it? Ebird sure thought so, and asked me to "confirm" both species. So do we have very early migrants, or were they hanging out there all summer? It's been a year for off-season sightings for me; I saw a pair of brown creepers at Rock Springs in June, and an American redstart at Weldon Springs in July, all unusual sightings according to the database.
But how unusual are they, really? I've never birded in summer at these places before; there's not a lot of records on ebird for them, either. How we would know if these species were hanging out here if no one was bothering to look?
For once, I am completely certain of what I saw. The question remains, are these species really "rare" for the time of year and location? And if so, what are they doing there?
And in the meantime, get out there and bird! Because we might all be astonished by what you see.