Monday 5 November 2007

I Now Know How Sibley Knows

This post is dedicated to Peter, a friend's friend!
Keep up the fight!!

You can't escape it, you can't avoid it and even though you can't know when, what and why, you've got to have an opinion on it: the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.


Don't worry, this won't be about what I think of the current discussion or even the status of the bird. Instead, it's all about what Sibley says.

Apparently, he's quite a smart guy, that David Sibley.

How do I know?

Well, he's sold a lot of books and - something that must rank even higher - Nuthatch is fond of a lot of the things he said, but most of all he just published two remarkable posts on his blog that I'd like to refer to today, to show you that David Sibley is a guy that can apparently be trusted when he's talking about birds and birding.

Mr. Sibley recently wrote a well-balanced and rather neutral essay on the current discussion of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, as can be seen here. Possibly the most interesting lines, as they reach beyond the woodpecker, are his comments on the value of sight records and how easily even the most cunning and experienced observers can ... well, simply ... be mistaken and fooled.
To make his point more clearly, he wrote a nice follow-up here in which he demonstrates by his own example just how unbelievably wrong one can sometimes be.

Of course something like this has NEVER happened to me.
I have never mistaken a Grey Heron for a Peregrine Falcon, or a Great Grey (Northern) Shrike for a Hoopoe and certainly never identified a piece of candy wrapping as a Black-eared Wheatear.
Nope, that was the other guy who just happens to look very much like me.

My absolutely brilliant and perfect and clean birding record however got its first major scratch last Monday, the day I learned that Sibley knows...

It may be interesting to note that I am in a good position to judge upon Sibley's expertize as up here, along the Baltic coast of Germany, we have quite a similar issue to solve: the Black Woodpecker!

Okay, as with the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, we at least know it once existed up here. We have museum skins, old photos and so on. But recent records? Well, a few birders claim they have seen one, some even say they know of breeding areas. Heck, our breeding bird atlas even estimates that this part of Germany holds a healthy population of up to 1,700 breeding pairs.
But whenever someone comes up with such a claim, I ask: where's the proof? Where are the pictures, the video sequences, the recordings? Where the hay are the birds??

The problem with these records is that I even managed to have two birding experts flown in from abroad to do a thorough follow-up search on such claimed sightings, and both searches came up empty-handed (the reports are here and here).

Now, who do you trust? The claims of single observers, mostly based on fleeting glimpses of "large black birds flying off the back of a tree trunk", or do you feel that all those fruitless hours of searching sum up to form evidence of absence?

Well, I still do trust myself - incredibly - so I took and still take every chance I get at looking into the Black Woodpecker saga myself by looking into the forests of my home patch.

As you may remember from reading my last post, I spent my lunch break in the pine forests of Peenemünde a week ago. This area is known to be within the (former, claimed or whatever) range of the Black Woodpecker. This is always good to know, and I fear the possibility - no matter how massively unlikely - of an encounter was there in the back of my mind.

And then it happened, the moment that changed the way I look at bird identification.
While I was following a small path along the forest's edge as seen below...

...I caught a fleeting glimpse (!!) of something large and black moving amongst a few tree trunks not too far off.

I turned my head, something inside my head screamed "Black Woodpecker", then it got quiet again and I stood there and watched, observed, every nerve cell of my body programmed on visual perception.

There!! On the tree trunk facing me ...

... a huge black woodpecker with a red partial cap! This just HAD to be a Black Woodpecker, there's no mistaking such a unique and impressive bird!

Of course I immediately knew of the importance and significance of the observation and got all excited about the perspective of fame and fortunes, but in a sudden moment of sanity I remembered to re-gain my calm, concentrate and look again at the bird critically to make sure the important field characters are verified.

So I rubbed my eyes, cleaned my binoculars, aimed them well, focused and to my utter surprise...

... Not a Black Woodpecker after all, just some common forest bugger you see all over the place up here.

Gosh, the disappointment!!

It had happened. To me: the one immune to failure and mistake, the beast of birding!

This was the moment I fully appreciated the knowledge of Sibley. He is right:

"Such is the Power of Suggestion"

Cheers, Peter! Get well soon!


Larry said...

I enjoyed this post along with the Sibley posts very much.I have been trying to train myself not to jump to conclusions with species i.d. I've made plenty of these types of errors.

I would love the opportunity to search for a bird like the Black Woodpecker. It must be exciting to dream of finding and documenting it.-

Patrick B. said...

Jochen, you're quite the character.

Anonymous said...

Thanks my friend...thanks very much

Anonymous said...