Thursday, October 23, 2008

What's in a name?

An Amur Falcon originally identified as a Red-Footed Falcon is causing some frustration on certain bird forums. The essence of the posts is “because you useless idiots failed to identify an obvious Amur Falcon I’ve been denied an opportunity to add a bird to my UK list”. People are drawing attention to the underwing pattern in various photos and reduced to spluttering incredulity, but even from my limited experience, I know that modern cameras produce much better images than were available to the eye at the time; light and colour balancing and magnification allow us to see features at our leisure that were not evident as the bird was hurtling past.

I don’t keep a close eye on these things, but I think over the last two years most additions to the UK list have been identified after the original sighting from photos posted on the internet. Good birdwatchers are being outed as useless because they failed to correctly identify a bird they weren’t expecting and had never previously seen.

Now fortunately we have a data point that should cheer up all those birders who are less than perfect. Graham Catley owns up on his blog to overlooking a 2nd for Europe. He even took a photograph of it, but only registered whilst news came through of the sighting.

Now I’ve never met Graham, but whilst a birder in Yorkshire in the 1980’s I was aware of his reputation as an expert birder, and its clear from his blog that he hasn’t spent the intervening twenty years sat on his backside. So if an expert birder like Graham overlooks a new bird, then what chance have you or me (particularly me) got?

Most things are obvious in retrospect. Einstein’s theories of relativity make sense once they’ve been explained to you, but it took a genius to see it. The banking collapse was inevitable once it had happened, but few predicted it before hand. The evidence all points to the fact that when presented with an unexpected and unfamiliar bird, many experienced birders don’t identify it correctly at the time.

On this occasion, I think the name has subconsciously influenced people’s reactions. An Amur falcon sounds completely different to a Red-footed Falcon – how could you possibly confuse birds with such different names? If the bird was known by its old name – Eastern Red-footed Falcon – then I think people may have been more prepared to accept some id confusion.

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