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Birders and Bullying

Cyber-bullying comes in many forms and in places you do not expect, including the bird-watching world.

We hear a lot about cyber-bullying, usually when it involves a child or teenager who is relentlessly attacked both physically and emotionally, in part using the Internet.

Those sad cases are the ones that make the news. But thanks to being able to hide your identity with an avatar and say whatever you want via Facebook, Twitter and even regular email, this bullying shows up in other areas, including areas you might not expect.

On the New Jersey bird list this weekend, amid reports of barnacle geese and northern shrikes and a discussion on the habitat range of the Carolina chickadee, was a fascinating email where a birder from Freehold, N.J., declared he would no longer post to the list because of a series of emails that insulted him personally and questioned his ability to identify a bird.

His email prompted an eruption of support and sympathy from other birders pleading with him to continue reporting.

Let me back up a bit.

It started with this sentence in another online birding resource, the Rare Bird Alert for New Jersey, which usually comes out every Friday. This one was for Jan. 18:

A MEW GULL (first state record pending NJBRC acceptance) was photographed at Spruce Run Reservoir Jan 10. The bird was with a few thousand RING-BILLED GULLS coming to roost near the boat launch area. No reports since.

This note must've set a lot of hearts a-racin' because the mew is usually found in the Pacific northwest. The mew gull has a white head, a dark eye and is a little smaller than its more common cousin, the ring-billed gull. Spruce Run, in Warren County, is a popular place for birders, the boat launch in particular. You can find different types of gulls plus grebes and assorted ducks in the waters and in an area nearby you can find some of the more unusual winter birds such as horned larks and snow buntings.

I saw one of the pictures posted after the original report, and it was incredible that out of the thousands of gulls in the boat area this one gull would be picked out by a couple of dedicated birders. Talk about a needle in a haystack.

So now, two days later on Jan. 20, the man from Freehold, N.J., made a brief report to the list via his phone that he and two others had seen a 1st year mew gull in the same place as the one seen Jan. 10, which hadn’t been seen since that report.

A day later was when the Freehold man wrote his note saying he was removing himself from the list (you have to have a subscription to report but you don’t need one to read the posts).

He had gotten a number of inquiries to his personal email (listed on the post) for details of his sighting - this is quite common and I have done this myself. Most times the exchange is pleasant and people thank you for providing the information.

However, he also received nastier emails, the ones questioning his ability to identify birds as well as his character.

He said in response that he made the best call identifying the gull that he could based on using multiple field guides and the thinking of other birders who arrived thanks to his report and looked through his scope at the bird.

But as a result of the abuse he has received he said he was not going to make any more reports and would turn over any more threatening emails to the people who run the list for further action.

Now you might say, how silly. How childish. But it wouldn't have been silly if YOU had been getting these nasty messages from strangers. 

I found this whole online exchange fascinating because it shows how “bird watching” has changed and become a microcosm of our degraded society.

What was once passive “watching” has become the more active “birding,” a competitive sport for many. You see something of that in the film “The Big Year.” (I recently saw a car commercial based on the film’s premise -- two photographers are driving like maniacs over mountains and fields, way off-road, destroying the environment as they try to get a picture of a California condor, an  endangered species. Oh, the irony.)

It used to be you went out with your binoculars, maybe a spotting scope for distant ducks, perhaps a camera. That has changed - now everyone thinks he or she is Ansel Adams.

People are in the field with cameras sporting camoflage and gun-like lenses, or they are clambering over rocks in sneakers with their cellphone cameras.

But there’s more - there is the Internet and tweeting and Facebook. All are designed to let you broadcast information widely and immediately, whether you’ve thought it through or not.

Even the NJ birding list, taken over last year by the American Birding Association, added a Twitter feed on the main page. Get the word out! Now!

There are programs for your smartphone to identify birds and play their calls to fool the bird into showing itself. There are GPS and mapping programs so people can go into the deepest part of the forest - way off the trails - and be able to find his or her way out, eventually, maybe, satellite willing.

These fake bird calls are considered bad birding etiquette because they stress the bird into thinking their territory is being invaded by a rival. The GPS allows people to trespass into areas where they are not supposed to be, damaging the ecosystem and potentially putting themselves in great danger.

To these people, birding has become an extension of the X games.

All this is done in the name of finding that rarity, that needle in a haystack. Why? I don’t know. To make yourself look good? To tick off another name on your Peterson life list? To show how young and vibrant and superhuman you are? What I do know is when a report goes out caravans of birders are likely to converge, sometimes from other states.

I don’t know what the Freehold man expected but he was looking at hundreds of gulls on a boat launch and somehow happened to see one that didn’t exactly look like the others. Birders do that every day. Not everyone finds a rarity.

His note mentioned that some of the abuse came, in part, from his not waiting around for the rest of the professional birding world to arrive and have him point out the gull. He said there were no birders around when he left. But to those who came later he had transgressed birder etiquette.

Turns out he is far from alone in getting such abuse.

We all have, to some degree. You go up to a person and ask what he is looking at and he ignores you or gets up and walks away. You send an email seeking information and get no answer.

But others said they had also received insulting and nasty emails. One man, who constantly reports to the NJ list and seems to be everywhere in the state at once, said he never makes a report unless he has photographed the bird so he has proof of his sighting. When he started out his truthfulness had been questioned. This has happened to me, too. The "pros" can't believe you found something they didn't. So I don't report.

When the original mew gull report made on Jan. 10 it was by a couple of “established” birders familiar to the listing world. The Freehold man was not one of these "pros".

Another man summed up my feelings: This is supposed to be fun. But even fun is taken way too seriously by many people nowadays.

As my husband likes to say, the birds don’t follow the road maps and they are not waiting for you to arrive. So it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a mew gull could be found, fly off and then return a week later. That’s part of the fun.

But not this viciousness thanks to the anonymity of the Internet. It is another form of bullying. Because this was an adult, he can unplug himself from the list. Someone younger or perhaps more emotionally vulnerable could've done something far worse.

We’re talking about birds here, people, not politics, war or the economy.

Unfortunately, birding has become a mirror of society. We want everything and we want it now. If you get it and I don’t, I use the Internet or Facebook or tell my 1,000 Twitter followers what an idiot you are and they pass it on.

I act before I think because I can and I don‘t care about your feelings because I don‘t know you and don't want to. I want a picture of a rare bird because you don’t have one because I'm better than you and entitled to it.

So I understand why the Freehold man is no longer making his findings public, although I hope he doesn‘t leave off birding altogether. Life is too short to be dehumanized by small people, even small people who, like you, are looking for birds for whatever reason.

At the same time, I understand that the vast majority of birders, and people in general, are nicer by nature. People like the Freehold man provide a service to those of us in the birding community who have only a limited time during the week to go out and explore, and who want to be able to see as much as possible.

To subject anyone to abuse - be it a high school kid or an adult who has the luck of finding something extraordinary through his binoculars - diminishes us all.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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