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.