Tuesday, November 13, 2007

How to Drive Birders Loony

The primary method of dispersal of information among birders, at least in this region of the world, has become the email listserve (see birdingonthe.net for recent posts from most lists). The post content and expectations vary dramatically between listserves, from posting only rarities (for example, Metro Birding Briefs for the the NYC area) to a liberal mixture of rarity alerts, general birding reports, observations, and discussions on various aspects on birding. Consider also the lists are composed of mixtures of people posting, from those who like to go out and bird but don't really 'chase' or 'twitch' rare birds, to those who enjoy the science, sport, and art of chasing, observing, and documenting rare birds.

I would say that on many listserves, the dominant voice is now from the more twitcher/documenter side of things, and coming with that voice are certain expectations. It is generally accepted in the birding community that rare birds should be reported in adequate detail, and records submitted, or information reported so others may do so. There is certainly no reason to expect everyone to care about documentation, but when people don't play at least somewhat to these expectations, it can really rile other birders.

The example I am speaking specifically about is the recent report of an Arctic Loon (
Gavia arctica) on Lake Champlain in Vermont. Arctic Loon is extremely similar to Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica), differing primarily in the extent of the white color on the flank patch, and in very subtle details of size and structure. In fact, the Pacific Loon was considered conspecific with Arctic and was only split to species status by the AOU in 1985. Pacific Loon is a widespread breeder in the NA Arctic, while Arctic Loon is primarily Old World and barely breeds in Alaska. Pacific Loon has a history of vagrancy in the lower 48, indeed here on Cayuga Lake there has been a Pacific Loon sited repeatedly for two winters at least. Arctic Loon, however, has little to no accepted vagrant records. It has never been accepted on the NY Checklist.

So we have a bird that is extremely difficult to identify, and does not have a vagrancy history as compared to its extremely similar relative. Now check this out:

On November 5th, 2007, David Hoag reported on Vermont Birds:

An Alert Arctic Loon (current whereabouts unknown) was parked on the lake earlier today. Perhaps the lack of a north wind will keep the loon on the lake for a while?

Dave Hoag, with a Carolina Wren, Grand Isle.
(email archived here)

Thats it, in its entirety. There was an Arctic Loon on Lake Champlain (which is huge, mind you), no other details. Clarification was of course immediately requested:

Do you mean an Arctic Loon (Gavia arctica) or a Pacific Loon (Gavia pacifica)? I'm not sure, but I don't think there are any accepted records of Arctic Loon on the east coast.
(email archived here)

To which David replied:

(Gavia arctica) continued negative sightings from 3 miles along west shore (with a super-scope), as of 1615.
D J Hoag, Grand Isle
(email archived here)

Can you see where birders would be vexed and frustrated? A casual report of a mega rarity, with vague directions and absolutely no description.

On Nov 6th, David Hoag, with others, refound the bird:

Finally .... a positive sighting, late November 6th. A couple of intrepid birders reported finding the same bird as it eventually swam into view from the north late (from 16:00 on) at the Vantine fishing access on the west shore of Grand Isle.
(email archived here)

Still no details on the bird. To really complicate matters, a Pacific Loon was reported that very same day, mere miles away right across the lake. Details from Northern New York Birds:

Charlie Mitchell and I found a juvenile Pacific Loon from Gravelly Point on Cumberland Head 11/6 at ~10:00AM. It was smaller than Common Loons in the area with a smaller bill and thinner neck. It carried its uncurved bill horizontally. Its white foreneck and breast had a discernible chinstrap. Its head and hindneck were a lighter brown than its back which was lightly mottled. Its head lacked the flat appearance of Common Loon's. There was no white at the waterline - the white flank patch of Arctic Loon was not present.
(Email by Bill Krueger to NNYB, Nov-7 2007)

Dave Hoag provided his first detail on the sighting, denying the Pacific was his bird:

Grand Isle (VT) bird seems to be adult arctica in non-breediing plumage. Cumberland Head (NY) bird seems to be juvenile pacifica -- definitely a different bird.
Both birds seem to move around.
(email archived here)

Finally someone posted what everyone was thinking:

This sighting doesn't seem to be generating the excitement it deserves. As far as I know, yesterday at least one, possibly two, very experienced birders refound the probable Arctic loon sitting alongside another loon which they ID'd as a Pacific Loon. There is potentially a Pacific and an ARctic loon up on the Lake! I can't get up to the lake until this weekend, but i would strongly encourage birders to look for this bird and document it as best they can. As far as i know no one has taken photos of this bird. There are no accepted sightings of Arctic loon anywhere on the east coast.
This is a great find by David Hoag and let's hope it sticks around long enough for more birders to see it.
(email archived here)

I really don't know where the side-by-side with Pacific Loon part came from, adding to the confusion. The word of Arctic Loon was spread amongst many regional listserves (such as Mass and NY) and discussions popped up about the identification of this species, and many calls for more details on the individual in question.

David decided to add to the confusion:

Grand Isle VT's Patagonia-picnic-table-effect

11:30 November 7th: three professional birders reported

a DOVKIE heading south, mid-lake, off the Vantine Vt State Fishing Access on the west shore of Grand Isle.

a KITTIWAKE flew south past the shore shortly afterwards.

no sign of the loons yet.

Dave Hoag, Grand Isle ( bring on the Cave Swallows ! )
(email archived here)

"Three professional birders"? What??? Dovekie inland???

Now for the icing on the cake: in response to several negative searches and many pleas for details on the observed bird, David replied:

For those apparently concerned about the characteristics of the apparent Arctic Loon as studied by this observer on Monday, and by three observers (L.Haugh, T.Murin, D.Hoag) on Tuesday, merely study closely EVERY detail of the non-breeding adult arctica as illustrated by Sibley.

Good to have a bird on the water, rather than in flight!
(email archived here)

WHAT!?! Just refer to the field guide, thats what we saw? That violates all unwritten code of bird reporting and would never be accepted by anyone as a legitimate record.

The discussions and searching continued without success, and finally on Nov 8th David posted a description (but not his own):

Note to all concerned: While watching the loon early Monday morning (5-Nov), I was ignoring any white flank patches since I already knew that white flanks were reportedly an unreliable feature of Arctic/Pacific. Instead, I was desperately concentrating on other features, at least one of which I notice is still not mentioned in the description below, but will be included in the final report to the rare bird committee. An additional note: Monday: the bird was close. On calm water. Sun behind observer. Loon not swimiming, just actively LOOKING around.
Dave Hoag, Grand Isle

Great, there were important features observed but he won't bother discussing them here. He continues with the description from the other observer:

Arctic Loon update from Ted Murin
I concur with Dave Hoag that this bird is an adult Arctic Loon in non-breeding plumage. Look for a compact, "cute" loon with a shortened body and head, unimposing bill, and dramatic black and white plumage. The black/white border on the face and neck is particularly well defined. It has no white above the eye or white intrusion into the black along the side of the neck. It has no chinstrap. The head is relatively flat on top with an obvious "corner" at the back of the crown. The upperparts are black and the bird sports a large white flank patch. (Keep in mind, as has been pointed out, that the flank patch is only one of the key field marks. Common and Red-throated Loons can show apparent flank patches and loons often roll up to preen or just rest listing to one side.)

The bird was seen well on 11/6 from 4 to 5 p.m. off the Vantine state fishing access. Several observers and I attempted to photograph a reasonable candidate this morning (11/8) from the same vantage point. We were more involved with attempted photography than observation though - so I believe the bird is still in play but am not certain.

There are at least 50 Common Loons in the neighborhood although most of these have been hanging out about 1 mile from shore. This putative Arctic Loon seems to favor the 1/4 to 3/4 mile zone.

Good luck if you go and please try to get photos if you're able. We're picking through pictures as I type but it appears our extensive attempts, including a (non-aggressive) naval excursion this morning, have been unsuccessful (so far).
(email archived here)

Two days and flurry of activity later, a description! A description to allow birders to judge for themselves the merits of the sighting, before they make a potentially long trek to try to find this bird. Personally, I feel the description is strongly suggestive of Arctic Loon, and there likely was both a Pacific and an Arctic Loon on Lake Champlain last week. To fully document this record would probably require photographic proof as well. It is just too tough of an ID. This description was perhaps too late, though, as no one else saw the bird besides David, Ted, and accomplices, and despite many people reporting going to search, the bird was not seen again as of today (a week later).

So what to make of this weird situation? I don't really know. I have no personal connections to the Lake Champlain birding community and don't know David Hoag personally, so I don't know how to judge things. Did David actually do anything wrong? No. The decision not to document or provide specific directions (except after much prodding) to provide an objective report of a rare bird on the public birding listserves is personal - they made no agreement to do so when they joined. Does it confuse, rile, and irritate the birding community? Definitely.

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