Sunday, 6 November 2016

Why Stringing is to be Avoided

Veteran NQS readers might recall the following strange episode...

On Thursday, 11 November 2010 I experienced a rare twitching urge and headed to Turf Lock (adjacent to Exminster Marshes) to see the American Robin that had been found the previous afternoon. Jammily I got quite a decent photo.

1W American Robin at Turf Lock, 11 November 2010

All very nice.

Shortly afterwards I stumbled upon another blogger's account of his own twitch to see this bird. He too was thrilled to have got photos, and showed two of them to his readers. Unfortunately one of 'his' photos was actually mine (reversed, to show the bird facing left) and the other was of a completely different individual (an adult!) and likewise lifted off the internet.

Of course I had heard of various birding frauds perpetrated over the years, but this was the first I could recall being personally affected by. At the time I was pretty annoyed, but to be honest that feeling was quickly overtaken by bafflement. Why would anyone bother doing it? What was wrong with them? Soon I just found it all rather sad.

To be honest I'd almost forgotten about it, but recently it came to mind again in a different context.

Stringing.

Of course, passing off someone else's photo as evidence of something you have seen isn't stringing. No, it's just plain lying; it's fraud. But I can easily imagine it's the kind of dark place the stringer is in danger of ending up if he isn't careful, actually committing this kind of fraud in order to back up a stringy shout. Maybe after years of patient tolerance, someone has finally challenged yet another of his dodgy records, and in a desperate attempt to save face....

And once you do that - and are caught - any shred of integrity you might ever have had as a birder is gone. Who wants that? No one. So how can we make very sure that we never, ever end up in the Land of Pariahs?

Okay, let's start at the beginning.

What is stringing? Well, it's easier to describe what a stringer is: a birder who repeatedly claims dubious sightings. Dubious species or dubious counts, often flyovers, or 'passing through' in some way, and characteristically NEVER seen or witnessed by any other birder.

How, or why, does it happen? Well, I can only guess. There are probably various reasons, but a logical one might be this...

I suppose we generally identify birds by weighing probabilities, perhaps subconsciously for the most part. A Robin perched on a garden fork at 10ft for half a minute will be easy - the probability that it's actually a Robin is clearly 100%. But what about a Starling zipping past as a silhouette at 50 yds, seen for just a second or two? Well, that might be just 10% or so, due to the potential number of other species it might have been, like Waxwing for example. But as a birder we are totally safe calling it a Starling, and even if it wasn't one, there is no danger of us ever being labelled a stringer in this scenario. But what if we did call it a Waxwing? If we were in North Norfolk in the late autumn of a true 'Waxwing Year' we would easily get away with it, but in South Devon in July we'd be laughed out of town. And tucked away in that last sentence lies the reason stringers wind up with the label, I think. Because between the extremes of those two examples there is a wide spectrum of relative probability, and I wonder if some birders are simply bad at weighing that probabilty in a way that brings them to a reasonable conclusion. Perhaps they are incorrectly calibrated in some way, their needle already set way off into the 'optimistic' quadrant before they even start? I don't know, I'm guessing really, and trying not to be too uncharitable.

I'm kind of hoping that a birder might be able to recognise in himself the insidious rot that is the tendency to string, and do something about it before it's too late. Asking oneself a few searching questions might help.
  • Is caution your watchword when it comes to ID?
  • Are you acutely aware of the relative scarcity of species in the area where you bird?
  • Are nearly all your decent birds single-observer jobs?
  • Have you noticed that your sightings are in a different league (a much higher one!) than everyone else?
  • Do you find that other birders no longer bother going to look for goodies you tell them you've seen?
  • Etc...

Whatever the case, winding up having no one believe any of your records unless they've seen them with their own eyes is a sorry state of affairs. Please avoid.

14 comments:

  1. Great read Gavin - every county has one or two sadly! Eventually, their records only get as far as their own head, thank goodness for records committees.

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    1. Thanks Mike. I've encountered a few over the years, and still can't decide whether their fabrication is willful and deliberate, or simply borne of ridiculous optimism. Perhaps both? Very baffling folk.

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  2. Gavin, I read this post before I left for work and have spent much of my shift thinking about my own stance on the subject. There are many parallels between birding and angling - this being one of the most obvious. If a guy is prepared to lie to themself, then there really is no helping them. Yet what we need to remember is that accurately weighing a fish or identifying a bird, butterfly, moth, etc ... is not important, which is very different to it not being interesting!
    I rather enjoyed Mike's comment, but in a perverse way - "thank goodness for records committees" In my experience, they are the stringers strongholds, who's going to disbelieve a record from a committee member? "When will I be famous"
    No-one who has ever raised a pair of bins, or caught a fish, hasn't made a genuine error at some time or other. As Albert Einstein recalled "the only person who never failed is the one who never tried!"
    Your dilemma over deliberate deceit v's optimism fails to recognise a third option - the factory floor wind-up. When folk are so far up their own selves, that they can't see the wood for the trees - just such activity is great for bringing them crashing down.
    A couple of weeks ago I met a young guy who introduced himself as a "specimen pike angler" Interesting? He claimed to have fished the drain, to which I was walking, for many years. Strange how we'd never previously met? He then went on to tell me a about a "forty" - I must look as silly as the cabbages that grow all around Newlands Farm. I wasn't offended by the guy, just amazed that he had the conviction to relay the tale. No-one got injured by this encounter, and it is of no importance yet has relevance to this stringing debate.
    Birding has become victim of its' own publicity machine - thus those involved deserve all that they get. You can't have it both ways - instant info, but only if it's correct, there's no time for the committee stage. Really glad you've rediscovered the enthusiasm for a spot of dangling - tight lines and enjoy the time with your son - Dylan

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    1. Exactly Dylan, those who totally castigate the stringers and view it as the worst thing imaginable fail to realise that none of it is actually important at all. But that's birding for you.

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    2. Dylan, interesting parallels with the angling world. You're right, I can recall meeting plenty of Walter Mittys in that sphere. "Hello, I'm a specimen pike angler". Classic! Chuckling as I type.

      Your experiences with records committees were evidently not good, and you've given me an idea for a future post there.

      Genuine error is part and parcel of bird ID of course, which can so often be a more subjective process than we might like. I accept that everyone makes them, but I reckon most will stop short of being dogmatic about their sighting in the face of evidence that they were wrong. Errors do not the stringer make, I think.

      And I agree that the birding world is just begging for the attentions of a good wind-up artist! But again, that's not really the kind of person I'm aiming at here. To be honest, I usually enjoy a classy wind-up!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. And for the good wishes re the dangling. First trip tomorrow.

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  3. Funny, I've been thinking about this recently. Personally, my view of a stringer is this. Four options.
    1). An inexperienced birder. It is easy, with a lack of knowledge of what is quite a complicated pastime, to innocently convince oneself to have seen a particular species. I must admit to belonging to this category myself in the past.
    2) A pathological liar. Some people just are. Like Donald Trump. I'm not a psychologist, so can't explain the reasoning behind it. A bit mental.
    3). An attention seeker. I've met a few of these. People who aren't very good at birding but desperately need to be accepted. Need help.
    4). A wind-up merchant. Someone who just likes to wasting everyone's time for their own amusement. Bloody annoying.

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    1. Cheers Neil, those four types cover quite a spectrum. I expect all of us can recognise no.1 in our former selves, but hopefully not 2 or 3! Number 4 is in a different league, and while I am partial to a good wind-up, it would always be of the relatively harmless and good-natured kind. Thankfully I've never experienced a malicious wind-up in the birding arena. That said, I can well imagine that such people exist.

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  4. I’ve only had one experience of a real stringer, here in London about five or six years ago. I actually wasted time trying to see what were presumably made-up birds, and then gradually it all unfolded due to some excellent/neurotic detective work from our good friend the Prof, who was able to prove that the photographic “proof” had in fact been snapped/snaffled from elsewhere, and at which point the stringer went to ground and has not really been heard of since. I think the tipping point in this particular tale was that a year record was being chased, and the thought of not breaking that record wasn’t palatable after all the effort, hence resorting to some last-minute falsifying. All about the glory in other words, but you’re only kidding yourself surely. You would know that you didn’t really break that record/top that list, and I just don’t understand that. What’s the point? A shame, as no doubt 90% of what he had seen in the earlier part of the year was almost certainly fine. So that’s the top end of the spectrum, the stringer who knowingly and deliberately decides that the truth is irrelevant and sets off on the path of no return. Very foolish given the high percentage of OCDs present in birding - none of these gambits ever last very long, and as you say once found out it’s essentially terminal unless you are a young person, in which case some more forgiving members of the birding community may decide to ascribe it to the folly of attention-seeking youth and allow you back “in”. I still think this level of deceit is very rare though, in ten years I have seen it only a handful of times.

    At the other end of the spectrum are those with what you called a misplaced sense of optimism. Specifically, over-optimism! I’ve seen this a few times, and whilst I can’t say I like it very much, I find it hard to really condemn it in strong terms. Birding should be fun at the end of the day. But that’s not to say it isn’t irritating, especially if it’s local. It comes down to appreciating that rare birds are rare, local birds are local, and common birds are common. And that if you see something badly, the very high likelihood is that it’s one of the common ones rather than one of the rare ones. Unfortunately some birders’ thoughts immediately turn to rare, who knows why this might be? I don’t think it’s at all malicious, it’s just their default setting, the way they think. I was lucky in that I got pounced upon fairly early in my birding career by people who had an abundance of caution, so any desire - intentional or not - to claim rare birds was quite quickly snuffed out. It makes me appreciate the genuinely good birds much more as they are so infrequent. So when I see news of something that I just don’t think is inherently likely I just have a chuckle and move on, and yes local patch lists might move up somewhat rapidly/curiously but it’s not anything that personally I can get too worked up about. Then again I also cannot get too worked up about the uber-stringers of the type mentioned above, as ultimately it isn’t really important. It’s why the big dips don’t tend to sting very much either. Just a bird. In fact now I think about it I struggle to get worked up about most anything…..

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    1. Jono, congratulations on writing the longest comment on this blog, ever. Possibly any blog...

      The case to which you refer in the first paragraph was exactly the one I had in mind when I talked about the dark place where stringing might lead. I remember it well.

      Your observations on the over-optimistic type tallies with my own really, that some have a default setting that tends to 'rare' every time. They are poorly calibrated, so to speak. What you need in order to 'set them to zero' are good teachers, mentors, experienced mates, etc. As you evidently had, and I did. Some of the worst I have known of this type are birding loners in the main. Perhaps that's their problem? Again, I'm trying not to be uncharitable - after all, they could simply be types 2 or 3 in Neil's comment above.

      Re your and Dylan's point about it not being important: no, I suppose it isn't really. From a county avifauna point of view their records soon all get filtered out anyway, as per Mike's point above. From a personal-irritation-because-they-work-your-patch point of view, well, I guess after the first few bum calls you end up employing that very same filter on everything they say. Except then they go and find something real and you don't bother to go and see it! Actually, that last sentence might be redundant - I can recall a bit of a stringer that worked Staines Res who, when he found something gen, bent over backwards to get people to see it.

      Anyway, many thanks for taking the time to add to the discussion.

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  5. One of my early birding companions used to talk about getting a "buzz" from a rare find. Perhaps it's their need for a 'hit' that encourages some stringers to lose their grip on reality? It's an addiction!

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    1. If you could get an adrenaline hit from your own stringing, that is some serious self-delusion!

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  6. There's one way to deal with stringers and that's to surpass their exaggerations with actual results. Difficult, but possible.
    I've had that with running, and I've had the same with fishing. Satisfying in a cruel sort of way.
    As for birding. One Jan 1st, Gav and myself nailed 90 species in the London area. Even now if I sat down and compiled a list of possibilities, I couldn't find that many, and that includes birds which didn't exist in the area at the time.
    I'd like to see someone string that one. For a start, they would have to be trained runners. We were, and boy did we run.

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    1. 90 in London on Jan 1st might be a bit more do-able than it was 30 years ago, Ric. Rainham Marsh might almost get you there on it's own these days! Well, maybe I exaggerate a little, but it would certainly get you most of the way there.

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  7. Yes, Rainham Marsh is a good bet. I looked at the (1989) list yesterday and noted several species we saw then which would be awkward now.
    As we discovered once, it's possible to plan where everything might be on the day, but seeing how short that day is, luck, tight scheduling and running are all needed.

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