To Count or Not to Count
In my post about the pelagic trip I took on Sunday I mentioned a jaeger that was spotted, a jaeger that was initially (and erroneously) identified as a Parasitic Jaeger, but was later, thanks to photographs, identified as a Pomarine Jaeger. I didn’t get the greatest looks at the bird to begin with, and seeing as my entire experience with jaegers was from a previous pelagic trip in September, when a couple Long-tailed Jaegers and a single Parasitic Jaeger were spotted, I really didn’t have much to add to the identification discussion.
If the bird was a Parasitic Jaeger I wouldn’t be facing any kind of dilemma because I saw one already so it is on my life and year lists. Not that I could have confidently identified the one I saw in September on my own but seeing as I was surrounded by good birders familiar with jaegers who discussed the field marks that I had just seen I felt comfortable adding it to my lists. But because the bird turned out to be a Pomarine Jaeger, a bird I had never seen and therefore never put on any of my lists, I have the issue of whether or not to list it.
There is no doubt I saw a Pomarine Jaeger. Birders with far more experience than I have examined photographs and agreed on the bird’s identity. I personally can’t remember a single field mark. I saw enough of its powerful flight and shape to know it was a jaeger but that is about it. I suppose I could try to say that the interaction the bird had with a Herring Gull, when the gull essentially chased the jaeger off, indicated that it wasn’t a Parasitic Jaeger which makes its living stealing food from gulls, but that is a retroactive (and rather lame) rationalization.
Some 10,000 Birds readers have encouraged me to count the bird in their comments, some making some pretty good arguments. Particularly Jochen:
Of course you can count the Pomarine, come on!
How often have you relied on taking pictures of birds that are difficult to identify out in the field and relied on identifying them at home with the help of images and identification literature?
Many, many times!
Why not when it’s a lifer?
Or notes: of course we sometimes write down notes of difficult birds to check their ID at home. If you saw a strange dowitcher, took some notes and established back home it was a short-billed, would you not count it because you haven’t identified it immediately?
It’s still a record!
You’ve seen the bird, you noticed it, you weren’t sure out in the field and it was established later it was a Pomarine. Check.
While I agree with the sentiment of what Jochen wrote the fact is when I saw the bird I didn’t question at all its identification as a Parasitic Jaeger. I didn’t take pictures of the bird, nor did I make the identification off of others’ pictures. If I had taken shots and gotten home and looked at them and discovered that it had been erroneously identified or if I looked at others’ pictures and figured out the identification I would be counting the bird immediately but this situation is a bit different.
Compounding my counting crisis is the fact that my year list this year is really cool. And I am rock-solid on all the birds I have put on it, sure in their identities, from the Sedge Wren way up north that I got lousy looks at but good enough for the identification to my self-found Yellow-headed Blackbird. Even the heard-only birds, Chuck-will’s-widow, Eastern Screech-Owl and Saw-whet Owl, left no doubt in my mind as to their identity, even without my actually having laid eyes on them. At this late stage of the game I simply don’t want to adulterate my list with a bird that I wouldn’t have known I had seen if I hadn’t read about it in a later email.
I think Angus Wilson said it best, when, in an email to me, he wrote:
Birding in Britain we were trained to really get perfect views of a bird before counting it as a lifer, seeing all the important field marks etc, so I would have full respect if you wait for a rock solid bird to count. Much more satisfying that way.
It will be much more satisfying when I do get to add a Pomarine Jaeger to my life list if I know that I am seeing it when I see it. It would be one thing if I had been thinking to myself while looking at the bird on the boat, “Gee, these guys are saying Parasitic but it seems like a Pomarine to me,” but I didn’t: I just accepted their identification and, because of that, I will not count the bird.
And if you want to see pics of the jaeger in question and other great shots of the birds of the day check out Tim Avery’s Flickr page.