July 2, 2020
Ash-throated Flycatcher
Ash-throated Flycatcher
I recently had an email exchange with a casual acquaintance, an avid, well-traveled birder in the Midwest whom I have never met in person.  I had mentioned to her that I was not an ebirder, though I suspected she might be.  Her digital reply hit my inbox within minutes and, hard as it is to evince horror via email without benefit of tone of voice or facial expression, she certainly did an admirable job of it.

Please don’t misunderstand.  I am a firm believer in citizen science, applaud all citizen scientists for their time and dedication, and have myself participated in Christmas Counts, Backyard Bird Counts, and Breeding Bird Surveys in three states over the years.  I tried to ebird once, back before the term morphed through common usage from a noun into a verb, but as no less a presence in the birding world than Pete Dunne himself opined recently in an article, “I like birding, but I dislike bookkeeping.”

Back in the day before ebird was a thing I meticulously kept two lists, the first a Life List and, after my passion evolved into photographing what I was seeing, a list of the species I photographed.  It was all good.  The Life List led to study, friendship, and travel, and the subsequent photo list unquestionably made me a better birder—more granular research, more time spent observing, more pleasure in the mysteries and complexities of birds’ natural history.

But then I stopped listing.  The bookkeeping thing was part of it, though only secondarily, as I began to chafe at recording the most common species over and over again because it was taking time away from my being in the field with the camera.  To be sure, I still log interesting and unexpected observations.  A grackle softening a dried berry in a rain puddle may get a line in the log, but Peregrine Falcon copulation will merit a whole page.

Primarily, though, my listing ultimately ran aground on the twin shoals of competitive birders and clueless pseudo-birders carrying cameras.  Initially I was surprised when I realized many birders were using ebird simply to enhance and publicize their sightings lists and outdo their friends who also used the site.  And then I began running into photography enthusiasts who knew nothing about the birds but were using ebird to find locations for uncommon species to shoot and show off to their camera buddies.

Yes, there’s something about listing which fuels the competitive gene that lurks in the psyche of every human being, and there’s something about birds, their form, their feathers, and the beauty of their flight, which attracts camera buffs who wouldn’t know an eagle from a sparrow.  And, truth be told, every person with a cell phone now days fancies themselves a photographer.

Two incidents this past winter confirmed my decision to forego ebirding forever.  The first occurred when I posted a photo of an Ash-throated Flycatcher, the first I’d ever seen at my local patch in the middle of winter, on a site for serious birders.  Apparently, though, it wasn’t an uncommon enough sighting for one birder who takes himself way too seriously.  When I speculated on whether it might be an early date for the species in the Valley, he replied “not even close!” and proceeded to let me know if I’d checked ebird I would have known there were several earlier dates.  Well, excuuuse me for bothering you, you arrogant *$$%&@#!  Get over yourself!  Ebird seems to have both attracted and created wanna-be experts eager to become big fish in a small pond.

The second episode involved the pseudo-birders with cameras who invaded a communal roost of overwintering Long-eared Owls after gleaning their location on ebird and subsequently posting it for all to see.  Originally there were up to thirteen owls seen, but their number dwindled in inverse proportion to the number of invading owlarattzi.  By month’s end the owls had all departed, and real birders who had gone to enjoy the owls unobtrusively from a respectful distance reported some photographers with cell phones walking right up under the birds, and others with cameras yelling at the birds in hopes of getting flight shots.

So, no, I don’t ebird, and if citizen science continues to be infiltrated by arrogance and idiocy, birds’ welfare will be much better served if left only to real scientists .
Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl