Friday, April 22, 2016

An Existential Problem

White-faced Ibis (bottom) with Glossy Ibises
Photo: Skyler Streich
If you see a flock of ibises and one of them later, after examining a photo, turns out to be a White-faced Ibis, have you seen the bird? Can you count it?

This happened yesterday at Island Beach SP. While I was chatting on the beach of Barnegat Bay with Skyler Streich, we had a close fly-by of a flock of ibises. We both joked about finding the White-faced Ibis in the flock of what I estimated to be 25 birds, while Skyler lifted his camera and shot some photos. Last night, after examining his pictures, Skyler sent me an email with an attached picture: It turns out that there actually was a white-faced in the flock of 24 (good guess, on my part). I saw all 24 birds, but did I really see the rare one?  I certainly didn't recognize the bird at the time, but my life list would be a little shorter if it only had birds on it that I immediately recognized. I saw a lot of flycatchers in T&T that someone else had to put a name to, yet I count those birds.

When you fill out an eBird report, you're actually submitting a bird survey, so I can say, based on the evidence, that at around 8:30 yesterday there was a White-faced Ibis flying low over Barnegat Bay. But I don't have to, because Skyler already submitted his report and if I were to list it, it would actually make the bird seem a bit more common that it really is.

With digital photography, we have, in a way, returned to the birding style  of pre-binoculars days, when the best (and, really the only acceptable) way to identify an interesting bird was to  shoot it dead with a shotgun and figure out what it was later. A purely visual sighting was met with skepticism.  Now the birds have the advantage of only being figuratively shot.

If I had taken the picture, I probably would be inclined to count the bird; this seems absolutely irrational to me, but there is a sense of "capturing" the bird with the camera that I don't have looking at someone else's photo, even though I was right next to him what the event occurred. It's the same kind of irrationality that makes me want to see a bird in my scope before I feel like I've seen it. I will count a bird in someone else's scope. But this ibis I can't, in good conscience, list.


  1. Hi Larry, I would not count the bird in your position. You didn't get to study the bird in the field and note its differences from the other ibises (ibii?), deducing its identity. If you didn't know Skyler, you still would not know you saw a White-faced Ibis.

    But as others on JerseyBirds have said, it's your list, and this is supposed to be fun!

    Enjoy your weekend, D.

  2. Hi Larry,
    The only point I would disagree with is not filing an eBird list because it'...make the bird seem a bit more common that it really is.'. As you said, an eBird list is a survey and lets face it, White-faced Ibis probably are more common than they seem. Thanks for the blog. Walt gura