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.
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?
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.