At once a retreat for solipsists and egomaniacs and a tonic for the anxious and alienated,

At once a retreat for solipsists and egomaniacs and a tonic for the anxious and alienated, birding is also a force of enlightenment. These essays explore the culture of birding in relation to science and society. Instead of seeking the frontiers of ornithological knowledge around the poles, in tropical forests, on remote islands, or far out at sea, I’ll focus on the heart of Megalopolitan suburbia, where ideas, birders, and birds from all parts of the Earth converge.

Monday, July 8, 2013

From Messidor to Thermidor!



Whether history really repeats itself is a difficult question. To answer it properly, one would need to study enormous numbers of events, meaningfully identify the actual or perceived qualities that might plausibly link some to others as repeats, and accurately quantify all of these events’ overall probabilities and apparent periodicities in relation to each other. The role of human memory in all of this is another puzzle. The most familiar cliché contends that memory of the past might help us to avoid repeating particular errors in the future. To me, it seems equally likely that it is our memory itself that causes us to recognize in our present experiences echoes of things that impressed us before. Either way, nobody really likes these cycles, and the repeats tend to be less inspiring and more banal than the things they remind us of—Al-Sisi is no Nasser, for instance.

In one of his most often quoted essays, “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” Karl Marx argues that it is a predictable consequence of the ways in which humans construct and perceive history that we should re-experience memorable people and events, and that it is a perverse side effect of capitalist social relationships that the second event (e.g., Louis Napoleon's coup of 1851) should appear degraded and absurd compared to the first (e.g., his uncle's ascendancy in 1799). Perhaps history really is such that, following every ennobling achievement, “a grotesque mediocrity can play a hero's part”—and that our faculties of mind are such that we should be helpless to prevent these echoes but very much able to discern the dismal comparisons.

Can a series of birding convulsions around Moriches Inlet be aptly compared to the reaction of 9 Thermidor An II against Robespierre’s excesses, the 18-day restoration of the Republican Calendar during the Paris Commune of 1871, or the two Napoleons? Well, aptness is in the eye of the beholder, and this is how I choose to introduce some very puzzling statements and postures emerging lately in the New York birding community and its public conversations. 

At a minimum, many New York birders will recognize parallels between this summer's frenzied twitches around Moriches Inlet (of a Red-necked Stint and Elegant Tern) and those that occurred during July 2000 (of a Red-necked Stint and Cayenne Tern)and some will surely remember that these events didn't burst forth without precedent, but were rather quite in keeping with example after example (there are too many to list) of this site's traditions as a vagrant trap. 

Although my parallel is admittedly strained, it really seems to me that we, as a community are doing worse, not better, as we race about in the tracks of our predecessors. And to make matters even more uncomfortable, it seems that our discourse about what we are doing is cheerier, blander, less incisive, and more self-congratulatory than ever. It seems as though even the simplest statements of fact or corrections of public error are perceived as hostile and untoward, whereas the grossest ineptitude is tolerated provided it be stated sweetly enough.

***

The farce.

Here are some of the awkward facts from the past few days:

On 3 July, an Elegant Tern was identified and documented on the Cupsogue flats by birders who were not looking for an Elegant Tern, but rather for a reported Western Sandpiper that was not, in fact, a Western Sandpiper, but rather a hybrid between two other species, probably Dunlin x White-rumped Sandpiper.

On 4 July, many people searched all day for the Elegant Tern but did not find it. Until, that is, one of them did re-find it, 10 miles to the east--but did not notify his fellow searchers, who were naively scoping the ocean down the road.

On 5 July, someone claimed not to know what or where the Cupsogue flats are, despite detailed descriptions of their location, complexities, and ornithological dynamics having been recently and repeatedly offered, not to mention a voluminous literature elaborating their history and importance as a birding site readily accessible online, via a few keystrokes on any search engine.

That same day, another person offered as an aid to the person just mentioned an erroneous map that completely mis-represented the position of the portion of the flats in question and routes of access--despite the fact that the map-maker had personally been on the flats himself the previous day!

When this was pointed out, the map-maker felt aggrieved and objected that the correction--but not his own erroneous map--was somehow injurious to those unfamiliar with the site. It was never explained how such a map was likely to be helpful to the unfamiliar when its own maker could not recognize on it the places he had just visited himself!

On 6 July, I'm aware of at least four instances when Royal Terns were mis-identifed as the Elegant Tern, in only one of which, to my knowledge, the error was later acknowledged.

On 8 July it was suggested that the manner in which these events played out reflected well on us, somehow.

Although erring is inevitable and forgivable, I don't necessarily agree that it should be praised. Furthermore, when people profess an intense interest in something, it is not too much to expect them to exert a modicum of effort to learn about it themselves.

***

The lessons of the past.

Not so long ago, I seldom encountered other birders during my visits to the sand and mud flats around Moriches Inlet, Long Island, but nowadays their prominence has expanded greatly, each interesting discovery there is followed up by many, and the flats are often crowded.

This area has a venerable history of ornithological exploration, from Giraud's mid 19th Century shooting trips, which produced numerous significant records at a time when the avifauna of North America as a whole was still very imperfectly known; to J. T. Nicholl's early 20th Century studies, often still in the guise of shooting trips, but also motivated by and intimately bound up with our nation's hard-fought political battles for the legal protection of wild birds; to the festive mid 20 Century boating outings by the Moriches Bay Audubon Society, still recalled first-hand by many; to the present day, whose rapidly accelerating field coverage and burgeoning datasets for scores of marsh-, shore-, and seabirds can be read at will in online eBird range maps.

My fascination with Moriches Inlet began in the mid-90s, when I was first discovering Long Island's unique geographic and sociological scene. Long Island's array of beaches, inlets, and baymouth bars reminded me of my childhood haunts in Rhode Island, but on a much larger scale, and one of my first personal projects here involved deciphering how the various inlets compared and contrasted with one another, using bird occurrence as the most personally appealing and natural approach. In those early years, 1996-99, I was spending most of my time around Fire Island Inlet, but I relished exploring the others, from Breezy Point to Napeague, as opportunities presented themselves. Like all active birders in this part of the world, I understood the enormous ornithological potential of Jamaica Bay, Jones Beach, Shinnecock Inlet, and Mecox Bay; but my field effort has always tended to focus, for both practical and analytical reasons, on Fire Island, the largest and most majestic of Long Island's outer beaches, and on the two inlets that bracket it: Fire Island Inlet and Moriches Inlet.

Dick Veit spurred many of my early visits to the Moriches Inlet flats, in searches for seabirds after hurricanes, and for shorebirds during migration. We used to visit mostly by small boats, rented from outfits such as Silly Lilly on the "mainland" bayshore. One of the first times I ever stepped across the gunwale of one of those boats, I remember Dick warning me with mock urgency"Be careful not to cut your bait!"--only to look down and read the faded admonition, blandly stenciled on the plank seat: "DON'T CUT BAIT ON SEAT." We timed our visits during the peaks of shorebird migration, and we had a lot of fun.

Spending time outdoors on the south shore of Long Island one will see a lot of interesting things. We once found a Glossy Ibis with a large clam clamped onto its foot, which was so inconvenienced that we captured it and decided to help it. With ibis (and clam) in hand, we realized that someone had to get hurt; I ran back to the boat for a knife, and we decided to injure the hapless mollusc to save our vertebrate kin. Another wildlife sighting was less tragicomedic but far more influential in my life: on 19 July 1998, we found a tern sitting on a sandbar that looked like it was in winter plumage. We deduced that it was a yearling, or first-summer, bird, and Dick said, "That's a Roseate TernI don't know if I've ever seen one in this plumage before." We noted a couple of same-aged Common Terns later that day, and an idea formed in my mind.

I was intimately familiar with both Common and Roseate Terns, having grown up birding among them, and with his much greater experience, Dick had seen far more of them than I. How could it be that yearlings should be so generally scarce that I'd never really noticed them before? And given that, how were we able to find and study them here, on this day, when, seemingly by chance, the urge to do so had struck us and diverted us from dowitchers, knots, etc., etc.?

These questions were still with me a year later on 13 June 1999 when, with Patricia Lindsay, I discovered a first-summer Arctic Tern at Fire Island Inlet--and a year after that, on 13-14 June 2000, when we found four more sub-adult Arctic Terns there. In those days, almost nobody had ever recorded this species on Long Island (P. A. Buckley and Tony Lauro were two major exceptions). As difficult as it is to imagine now, Arctic Tern was regarded then as a mega-rarity hereso much so that the authorities basically chucked me under the chin when I tried to explain that the two birds of 14 June were actually different from those of 13 June (see NYSARC #2000-64-A), and I was greeted with ponderous and nearly implacable skepticism when I found another at Mecox Bay around Memorial Day 2004. For better or worse, that scene was a huge twitch, of Ken and Sue Feustel's Bar-tailed Godwit, and a positive side of this was that Andy Guthrie arrived later and managed some, at that time fairly novel, digital photos. But the code had been cracked: check the flats and bars around the inlets during June and early July--not just during the peaks of shorebird migration--and look for sub-adult birds! Pat and I used this approach to find another Arctic Tern at Moriches Inlet on 3 July 2005, and the formula has yielded scores more in the years since.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Warren the Ape is an Angel at Heart!

In between watching re-runs of Warren the Ape on the MTV website, I read Michael Washburn’s brief review of Paul Bloom’s How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like. In addition to such chestnuts as biology vs. culture, instinct vs. intelligence, and apes vs. angels, this short essay also critiques essentialism—a mindset that poses enormous problems for popular understanding of biology in general and for birding in particular—and ridicules the perverse discernments of pretentious connoisseurs—thus providing a convenient tie-in to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, discussed at length in my opening post. So, in between fits of frustration that the cable company has arbitrarily rescinded my MTV, I intend to batter these two bug-bears, essentialism and errors in discernment, from the vampire’s point of view—I mean, the birding point of view.

According to Washburn, “Bloom argues that an ever-present ‘essentialism’ conditions pleasure. This is the belief that everything has an ‘underlying reality or true nature that one cannot observe directly, and it is this hidden reality that matters.’” The way I understand essentialism fits with the first part of this definition, the part positing that things have an essential character that is at the core of their true nature; the second part of the definition, that things’ essential characters are hidden and can’t be observed directly sounds more like philosphical idealism to me, but, either way, given that both of these mindsets are pet peeves of mine, their possible conflation is hardly going to discourage me from ranting against one or the other—in this case, my narrower version of essentialism.

No one ever said identifying birds was easy (at least nobody one ought to listen to), but even the most talented birders have a tendency to lapse into a version of essentialism that damages their biological understanding and ultimately hinders their ability to assess some kinds of identification challenges. Because field marks are useful for identifying birds, it is tempting to reify these particular features and ascribe disproportionate biological importance to them, rather than to recognize that what is special about such characters is simply their utility to us as observers. Ernst Mayr used the term typological thinking to describe this conceit, whereby observers use one or a few core characters to define the essence of a species.

It is obvious, for example, that if a Thayer’s Gull Larus thayeri were to develop white wing tips, by virtue of a simple mutation or some environmental factor affecting pigment deposition in its plumage, no one would argue that it was really an Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides glaucoides. Similarly, if an Iceland Gull were to develop black wing tips somehow, this would not transform it into a Thayer’s Gull. But many of the best birding minds in the world, when confronted with a motley bunch of Kumlien’s Gulls Larus glaucoides kumlieni, showing variably gray patterned wingtips, simply cannot resist the notion that the individuals with whiter wingtips must be somehow more related to Iceland Gulls and that the ones with darker wingtips must somehow be linked with Thayer’s. Moreover, if the average wingtip color of a population of Kumlien’s Gulls were shown to become darker over a number of generations, some very smart people would conclude that the change was a consequence of hybridization with Thayer’s Gulls. This is typological thinking. Pigment in the wingtips is the essence of Thayer’s Gull; lack of pigment in the wingtips is the essence of Iceland Gull; everything in between is an indication of the relative influence of these two types.

Many decades of research in population biology and genetics provide robust evidence that this is not the way populations work. Limited hybridization between Thayer’s and Kumlien’s is unlikely to alter the average appearance of the latter, but natural selection could blacken the wingtips of nominate Iceland Gulls with startling rapidity. Yes, the variability observed among Kumlien’s Gulls might owe something to past hybridization, but no, the appearance of an individual Kumlien’s Gull can’t be used to infer how recently it had a non-Kumlien’s ancestor.

Essentialism is ubiquitous in popular debates over human biology. Our fixation on “those things that are essentially human” would be less annoying if it conceded that apes, and their (often disturbing) essential qualities, are utterly meaningless constructs unless one conceives of apes as including humans; ditto for primates and their not so charming essences, mammals and theirs, animals and theirs, and so on. Contrasting an “animal mind” with the human mind is a particularly popular form of this intellectual delusion. While acknowledging that human brains are very special (some of my best friends have human brains), it is important to realize that the nervous systems of Iceland Gulls (and those of butterflies and ctenophores) are special too—and that the only common identity shared by all of these organisms is one that we humans share as well, as descendents of an ancestral animal. The basis of identity for all of us living in this world is not an essence at all; it is recency of common ancestry. Ctenophores share a rather distant ancestor with us; butterflies share a much more recent one. The most recent common ancestor of Thayer’s Gulls and humans lived on this planet not much more than 300 million years ago and bequeathed its more or less charming amniote schtick to all of its roughly 20,000+ descendent species, including reptiles, birds, and mammals. Whether Thayer’s Gulls, humans, or any of the others have squandered or abused their inheritance over the last 300 million years is another debate—and the same can be said for the unsavory exploits of Chimps and humans over the mere six million years since our mutual progenitor cut us loose.

The reference to angels and apes above relates to an instance in which this problem reared its head in Washburn’s essay on pleasure, via a preposterous little dualism attributed to anthropologist Robert Ardrey: “we are born of risen apes, not fallen angels.” Rejecting the supernatural is really just picking on an unworthy opponent, and there’s no reason I can see to say anything nice about apes—any of ‘em. Yes, we humans are one of five or so species of ape, and if some of us must strive not to feel ashamed about it, the rest of us certainly ought to recognize that it’s nothing to be proud of either! We are also one of 50,000 or so species of fish—perhaps a more promising basis for phylogenetic jingoism.

The tie-in to Dunning-Kruger involves Bloom’s observation that subjective notions of pleasure are often disconnected from physiological sensation—for example when sommeliers grossly misjudge the basic type of wine they are tasting, even as they claim to discern much more subtle distinctions; or when “people find dog food succulent when it's labeled foie gras.” Although Washburn describes these revelations as “startling,” I don’t see it that way at all. Our society is replete with snobby aesthetic pretensions, and incompetence is not an obstacle but a foundation for our culture of phoniness.

Bloom’s argument is fine as far as it goes, but it can't provide a general solution to the problem because not everybody is incompetent and full of shit. I know people who can distinguish the subtlest variations among the artistic traditions of Late Antiquity, others who can detect the esoteric stylistic bounce-back influence of Swedish disco on American popular music, and birders who can master astonishingly difficult problems of field identification—and prove it to the bitterest of skeptics. Finding a species for the first time in a particular region is like noticing, and then proving, that a particular bottle of wine was labeled incorrectly. The tens of thousands of individual birds one ordinarily sees fit more or less neatly into familiar slots. Even for skilled observers, a one in a million rarity might be shoe-horned into an expected category and therefore overlooked. Nevertheless, on the odd occasion when such a bird arrives, it is there for anyone skillful and focused enough to recognize it.

In Massachusetts, which has been birded longer, more competently, and more intensively than any other part of North America, Richard Forster personally added six species to the state list, and he did so during the late 20th Century, when one might expect a pattern of diminishing returns, with more birders than ever, and fewer undiscovered novelties remaining. A peculiar fact attached to his discoveries that renders them still more astonishing is that he made three of them on his own birthday, in 1982, 1984, and 1986! It is difficult to imagine how much more he might have discovered had he lived longer, and applied equal effort throughout the rest of the calendar. Meanwhile, what are the rest of us waiting for? There are plenty of birds out there—and even some new episodes of Warren the Ape—vying to engage our 21st Century human minds.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Birding vs. the Dunning-Kruger Effect, or how Rummy never got over "The Doors of Perception"

I don’t know if Aldous Huxley shared his brother Julian’s interest in birding, but I’d expect he was aware of the hobby’s mind-expanding qualities. Although visually impaired, Aldous was deeply concerned with visual experience and its relationships with various categories of subjective and objective knowledge—an appealing combination to me during my late 80s college days, when birding and philosophy competed successfully for my attention with school, work, family, friends, girls, etc. In those busy days and nights, nothing seemed so important as the nature of knowledge, and it was obvious to me then that my knowledge of nature, gained through birding, gave me an edge over some of my fellow seekers.

I thought of Aldous recently during a cell phone conversation with a birding friend.

“Don’t tell me you’ve got an Arctic Tern!” my friend implored, “We were there yesterday at low tide for the faunathon, and the place was dead.”

“Hugh,” I said, standing thigh deep in salt water and mud, “you’ll need a rising tide if you want to get higher!”

My reference was to Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in particular the depiction of Dr. Gonzo’s grotesque drug frenzy as a meritorious alternative to mid-20th Century American depravity, in the style of the Vegas strip and the people who voted for Nixon. Aldous saw all of that coming and more, but that didn’t stop him from keeping his sights on better things. Standing in a flooded marsh, I wondered where I lost my 60s paperback imprint of Antic Hay—probably left it in somebody’s room, back in the 90s.

The mind-altering effects of birding are familiar to anyone who’s tried this popular form of nature study, but, of course, they are difficult to explain to those who haven’t. Birding is not necessarily the sort of thing that will get you into a bathtub full of green water, listening to Surrealistic Pillow, and longing for electrocution; nor is it apt to make you regard a vase of flowers as divine or a lawn chair as imponderably dangerous. But it might find you thigh deep in green tidal muck, elated, and aware that you’ve solved a simple question that had frustrated hundreds of very talented people for more than a hundred years—in this case, “How might one find an Arctic Tern in New York?”

No doubt Hugh suspected I’d gotten a bit twisted on rare birds (he might also have suspected Ma Huang, formerly a popular birding pharmaceutical until the bad behavior of a few irresponsible professional athletes and serial dieters ruined it for everyone) but, at the very least, he had to acknowledge that I knew how to find Arctic Terns—and that I knew how to have fun.

Birding is edifying not only because it yields knowledge of the natural world, but also because it gives its practitioners the rare ability to gauge their own strengths and weaknesses. Birds are real organisms, living in real populations within actual ecological communities. Two birders visiting the same forest will record very similar lists of bird species detected. Comparing notes, the objective and subjective dimensions of knowledge will snap into focus effortlessly. You missed Blackburnian Warbler because you can’t hear high frequencies; I missed Great Horned Owl because I’m lazy and don’t enjoy patiently searching through potential roosting trees; we both missed Pileated Woodpecker because they occur at low density and might be encountered about 20% of the time during an hour-long walk; and I pulled out Red Crossbill because I’d been told this nomadic species was on the move recently and was therefore better prepared to detect and identify a faint and distant “gip-gip-gip” that might have reached your ears but gone un-noticed by your naive cerebrum. So and so reported an Ivory-billed Woodpecker? The less said about that, the better, but see, the Pileateds are still here after all.

Contrast this situation to a popular culture where writhing tendrils of multi-media data contest like Medusas, disdainful of refutation, verification, and interpretation alike, and it should be clear that birders have an opportunity to enjoy remarkably accurate—and therefore consistent, from person to person—insights into how much they know, how much their peers know, and whence springs the difference. Active birders cannot fake skill or knowledge. Those who try are readily exposed and gain none of the esteem that presumably motivates such deception.

For instance, although we have seldom discussed such matters in many years of birding together, I know that Hugh is better able than I to discern the subtle shape of a White-rumped Sandpiper at long range; that Tom is better able than I to distinguish the song of a lone and distant Blue Grosbeak from a chorus of closer Orchard Orioles and Indigo Buntings; and that Patricia is better able than I to detect the shape of a motionless Least Bittern, partly concealed in the reeds of a marsh. They are aware of these differences too, I’m sure, just as they probably can think of examples where my skills or knowledge exceed their own, or those of others among our peers.

This sort of clarity seems rare and precious in a popular culture where journalists compete to repeat BP’s incomprehensible and contradictory assertions (e.g., that it’s not worth even trying to estimate the flow rate of their oil spill but that they must nevertheless continue to apply a particular volume of a particular toxic chemical to disperse the plumes); where self-styled proponents of fiscal propriety denounce taxes but embrace lay-offs and furloughs; where most people regard the statements of the Old Testament as more factual than those of researchers who study evolution or climate change; and where one of the architects of the Iraq war scored points for epistemological insight by trotting out his own variation on the theme of “to do is to be, to be is to do, or doo-be-doo-be-doo.”

A recent piece by Erroll Morris in The New York Times explores the Dunning-Kruger Effect, people’s tendency to deny or remain unaware of their own ignorance or ineptitude. Might birding offer a solution? I think so, because, in addition to yielding verifiable and deeply satisfying connections with the real world around us, any kind of genuine nature study tends to shift huge spheres of potential knowledge out of the realm of “unknown unknowns” into that of “known unknowns,” where they might at least inspire a modicum of respect and concern in the hearts of our planet’s self-appointed stewards.