By: Bob & Lucy Duncan
THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A BIRDER’S REPUTATION
Dr. Henry M. Stevenson, senior author of “The Birdlife of Florida” and professor of Ornithology at FSU (now deceased) and one of our mentors, told us once that “a birder’s reputation starts at zero and goes down from there.”
Boy, was he right! The year was 1973 and Lucy and I had been birding for only a few years, with just enough knowledge to feel comfortable reporting birds on the Florida hotline. And as the saying goes, “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
In those days without the internet, when a birder found a rare bird he or she telephoned the contact in the next city (remember landline phones?) and that person called the contact in the next city until finally, the message went all the way from one end of the state to the other.
I had seen a loon on Choctawhatchee Bay and just knew it was an Arctic Loon (Arctic Loon was split into Pacific and Arctic years later). I came home and excitedly called the contact in Ft. Walton who passed it along. After some organization, I agreed to meet birders at the spot where I had seen it the next morning.
Lucy and I met a battalion of birders from all over the state the next morning at the appointed spot on the south shore of the bay. One birder, Paul Sykes, one of the nation’s top birders, who later became a good friend, and one of the nations’ top listers, had driven all night from Broward County!
And yes, there was a loon near where I had last seen it. Paul asked if that was the bird I reported and I excitedly said it was. Numerous scopes were trained on it but there was dead silence from the group. A couple of veteran birders said that it was just a runt Common Loon and pointed out why.
Humiliation, dejection, embarrassment! All these people, some having driven so far… and I am wrong! I felt like crawling into a hole! Now in my defense, the only field guide available was Peterson’s which was far from the detailed sophisticated guides we have today.
But that hardly assuaged my feelings. In a feeble attempt to placate them, I mentioned that there was a Mountain Plover over in Baldwin County which was not that far away. Surprisingly, since it was a life bird for several birders, many asked us to lead them over to see it. We went and we did see it, but it hardly made me feel better about the whole affair. Needless to say, my reputation among the top birders in the state was in a precarious position, if there at all!
We had kept a fairly low profile although being among the charter members of the Florida Ornithological Society in 1973. We attended meetings downstate and learned much in those early years from awesome experts.
Fast forward to March 1976. Lucy and I were leaving Ft. Pickens after a morning birding.
Lucy suddenly hollered, “Sage Thrasher! Stop!” Yes, there on the edge of the dunes was a Sage Thrasher! It was the first we had ever seen.
We just had to break our quiet, “low profile” in the Florida birding community and make a hotline call! We did, lots of birders came and all got to see this second state record! We were finally “sitting in the Catbird seat.”
In birding, one’s reputation is everything. You don’t have to see the most rare birds, or the most birds, or take the most photos for ebird. A good reputation is earned with consistent, solid, and correct reporting, and a willingness to accept identification help and learn from it.
All of this comes from experience in the field as you learn more and more about a bird’s appearance, habitat, behavior and vocalizations. And when finding something rare, getting others to see it is a bonus!