The Reputation Paradox
Last month a very strange heron was photographed in coastal South Carolina. The bird was initially identified as a Reddish Egret and the photos of this fairly uncommon bird were posted to the Carolina Bird Club website. It was clear, fairly immediately, that this was not a Reddish Egret, at least not an recognizable one, and some birders began thinking Tricolored Heron. On first glance this doesn’t seem like a species pair that any birder given a relatively good look at (not to mention a photo) would have any trouble distinguishing. This individual however, whose photos are available here, seemed to completely split the difference between Reddish Egret and Tricolored Heron, and had a series of unusual traits that couldn’t be easily placed in either camp. I suggested on the listserv that it could be possible that the bird in question was an Egretta hybrid, Tricolored Heron with either Reddish Egret or potentially Little Blue Heron. I still believe that to be the case, though others simply see an abnormal (and it would have to be very abnormal) Tricolored Heron. I think reasonable arguments can be made for both.
What the bird actually is, though, isn’t the point of this post. What I found most interesting was how few birders decided to come out publicly and argue for what they thought the bird could be. I think any birder who considers themselves to be “skilled” would have an opinion, likely reasonably well informed, about the bird in question. No doubt many “skilled” birders in North and South Carolina do, yet with the exception of a very few, the listserv was quiet. Why?
Could it be that people generally don’t find strange herons interesting? I suppose the parsing out of parentage of what is a commonly occurring species in coastal Carolina is a preoccupation of very few birders when it’s all said and done. That’s to be expected after all, as most subscribers to the listserv sign up to keep abreast of local rarities and events. There are specific communities where those fascinated by what could kindly be considered “identification esoterica” can congregate and parse feather tracts and molt limits to their heart’s content, but local listservs generally don’t attract that kind of conversation for good reason. I actually spend a good deal of time on lots of different listservs from across the continent on a daily or weekly basis and I’ve found that the Carolinabirds listserv can be a pretty high-minded community filled with some phenomenal field birders, some of whom, it must be said, did indeed weigh in on this bird. But I also know several that didn’t, and I have a theory as to why this is.
As birders, it’s well known that the only thing we have to our name in this community is our reputation, one painstakingly built over years of convincing sight records and personal interaction. It is devilishly hard to get to the point where people are going to trust you on matters as complex as, say, to use a particularly pertinent example, hybrid herons. It is sadly way, way too easy to lose all that good will with a simple post that turns out to be wrong, or, at least, it’s too easy to be worried that that could happen. This is, of course, nonsense. Birders, even very good birders, make mistakes in the field all the time. Even photos can be misleading. But there seems to be something about the perceived permanence of the written word that prevents people from getting involved in what would generally be an illuminating discussion where all sides could learn a thing or two and come out better birders. I know this to be true because I feel it myself, and it too often prevents me from participating in conversations like this.
Now, I happen to think there’s a continuum line in play as well, at least I generally employ one. I tend to give more leeway for honest mistakes on genuinely difficult birds, as I do think this heron turned out to be (regardless of the prominent and excellent NC birder who is absolutely certain that this is just an abnormal Tricolored Heron). I think a birder would have good reason to believe otherwise – and I’m not just saying that because I do – and shouldn’t have that held against them. I certainly appreciate different views, and it forces me to re-evaluate what I see and defend myself much more vigorously. This is a good thing. But there’s still the stigma of being wrong that continues to die hard, and this is unfortunately even true when weighing in on something as clearly muddled as this bird. And as such, many voices that would offer great insights stay quiet for fear of coming out on the wrong side of the fence.
In the end, I think we should all get over being wrong from time to time and accept the uncertainty that’s such a big, and essential, part of birding. We certainly shouldn’t use that uncertainty to beat each other over the head. Some birds are notoriously tough, and some turn out to be tough once a closer eye is applied. But, as in all things, once egos and reputations get involved people are, perhaps justifiably, concerned with protecting theirs.
That’s fine, I guess. But I hope they’re willing to refrain from judging those willing to put theirs on the line.
Because I still think Egretta hybrid.