Friday, October 18, 2013

Fri-D: The Stringer Within

[Juvenile Peregrine Falcon at Cape May Point, October 14 2013. If Peregrines were the enforcers, stringers would be few indeed.]

It happens that a good friend hit 300 year birds for NJ the same day I did this week, and he suggested we meet for celebratory sushi and drinks. Why not, says I, so we did.

After the congratulations and the clinking of wine glasses came a hard question: now that 300 had come and gone, did I have any reflections on the accomplishment? On a year, or most of one, of serious birding, birding with the intent of seeing a lot of birds and a lot of species?

I do, I said. For one thing, I have met the stringer within.

First, let's clear up what a stringer is. If you google "stringer definition bird" you'll get some hits, none of which I found I completely agree with. Some of the definitions you'll find have to do with what other birders think of the apparent "stringer," mainly that a stringer's sightings are viewed with suspicion by other birders because of the real or perceived tendency of the stringer to identify birds incorrectly, and then report them as fact. But you can be a stringer without reporting birds to anyone but yourself. It's just that no one will know you're a stringer until you go public, which is when you are really in trouble.

To me, a stringer is someone who identifies birds incompletely, and then is satisfied with their identification, whether they report the bird or not. The act of stringing is not necessarily intentional; many birders, especially new birders, might not really know how easy it is to be wrong about an identification, and there are certain cases I'm aware of where new birders were informed of the errors in their ways, took heed, and became highly reliable as a result.

I think we've all got a little stringer in us. It's just a question of what you do with it.

The example I used during our celebratory dinner was Lincoln's Sparrow. I've looked at a lot of sparrows in the past two weeks, looking specifically for Lincoln's Sparrow, because I need Lincoln's Sparrow for a year bird.  I've glimpsed sparrows with marks not inconsistent with Lincoln's, but have not yet had a clean view of a bird with the full suite of characters I want to see before I call a Lincoln's Sparrow: a bird of the Song Sparrow ilk but more delicate, with fine crisp streaks, especially on the breast, with a softly buffy breast and malar and a peaked crown and an eyering. I not only want to see all that to call Lincoln's, but I need to - because if I don't, I'm a stringer. And, I should add, I need to see this bird at a season when Lincoln's are expected, which is now.

Believe me, the devil has sat on my binoculars and whispered in my ear, "Who would know the difference?" as I peered at one of the scores of murkily marked Swamp Sparrows around this time of year and thought, I could call that a Lincoln's right now and be done with it. But I didn't, don't, won't.

Truth is, I've known the stringer within for a long time. I just won't let him report birds.

There's an analogy here with one's credit rating. Establish a good credit rating by paying your bills on time, and banks will lend you money readily. Establish a good birding rating by birding carefully and only reporting birds you're sure of, and people will believe your sightings as valid.

The birding devil is especially good at spotting weaknesses, and I'll confess one line of reasoning my personal devil likes to pull out is, "Hey, you've got a good reputation, you can get away with a string now and then." This would be kind of like getting that good credit rating, then taking out a bunch of big loans and living high off the hog for a while until the money ran out and the bank comes looking for you and you have to move to Bolivia or something. I've actually heard of birders who, once their "credit rating" on stringing went bust, moved to another state or country and started over.

Some strung birds are correct calls. For example, during the Cape May Big Sit last Sunday, Tom Reed called out a Pectoral Sandpiper and by the time I got on it, it was a bird a quarter mile away I barely could distinguish from the milling throngs of Tree Swallows, but I could see it was a shorebird and I threw the name Pectoral Sandpiper at it and it stuck for me, too. Fine. Others were there to corroborate the sighting, something that almost always helps.

There are levels of stringing. If it's a bird expected for the time and place, and you glimpse it and call it, and it's not a year bird or heavens not a life bird, well okay, that's not too bad. I did that with a Blackpoll Warbler flyby this very day, and I'm really pretty sure I'm right about the call.

But. If it's a year bird, or a life bird, you are one lame individual if you claim an incomplete sighting for your list. Or, and especially, if it's a bird other people want to see, and you call it and make it publicly known that you saw it (like, if you eBird it), you better have identified it completely and you better be right about it, or you're going to wind up with a label you don't want and will probably never get rid of. Stringer.


  1. Good post, although I think many repeat-offender stringers aren't very innocent. Interesting anecdote about the stringers who run themselves out of town; in California, they just stay put and torture the rest of us.

  2. Of course, in the east: stringers' reputations precede them and they are greeted with skepticism on arrival.

  3. Of course, along the eastern seaboard: when stringers relocate to another state, they find skepticism waiting on their arrival. Someone with the initials D.A. springs to mind.

    We are still a very small community...