But…can you count it?

by Greg Neise on September 27, 2011

Post image for But…can you count it?

In the comments of my last post (about the Chicago Sandwich Tern), Robert Hughes, a member of the Illinois Ornithological Records Committee, has this to say:

Very impressive detective work Greg. The next question is can the people who saw the bird count it as  Thalasseus sandvicensis sandvicensis if the relevant field marks weren’t seen? To my mind the answer is no.

He brings up an interesting dilemma. If you were one of the lucky few who saw the bird and,

a) it gets accepted as the first ABA record* of that subspecies and,
b) the AOU and ABA follow the BOU and split Sandwich and Cabot’s Terns

…do you count it as Thalasseus sp. or Thalasseus sandvicensis (assuming for the sake of this post that Cabot’s Tern is Thalasseus acuflavida)?

European birds wander to North America much less often than the other way around (especially in the U.K.), so North American birders aren’t as keen on watching for things like extralimital subspecies.

All of the people who saw the bird identified it as simply a Sandwich Tern. After the first photos of the bird began to circulate, Paul Clyne and others including myself, began to think this bird might not be a “Cabot’s” Tern, but rather the European Sandwich Tern.

The group of us who saw the bird at 64th St. beach had great looks at it, and were discussing the “hook-shaped” tips of the individual outer primary feathers, which turns out to be a key mark in separating sandvicensis from acuflavida. But we didn’t know what it meant at the time.

So—say, if after the dust settles— you weren’t one of the dozen or so people on 64th St. Beach in Chicago on September 15, 2010… say you were one of the other dozen or so who saw the bird, but didn’t see the wingtips…

…can you count the bird as T. s. sandvicensis? Is knowing for certain that it’s the same bird good enough?

Realizing of course that everyone’s list is personal, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. It’s somewhat of an unprecedented situation.

###

* I seem to remember reading somewhere of a record of  T. s. sandvicensis, a bird picked up dead on the east coast, from a few years back. But now I can’t find any reference to that record, and may have imagined it.

Share on Facebook
  • How different is it than getting another armchair tick such as Pacific Wren or Mexican Whip-poor-will? I mean, in those cases, you probably didn’t even try to tell the subspecies apart and accept the new tick based on where it was seen. At least here you have good photos of the bird you saw. 

  • Ali Iyoob

    I think it would be countable. How many people counted Pacific Wren when you know that they just jotted down a quick WIWR  in their notebook when they saw it.

  • amazilia55

    That really is an interesting conundrum.  While we all have our own set of personal rules, and most adhere at least loosely to the ABA rules and C.O.E. regarding what we count, I for one try to err on the conservative side.  Say for instance had I only seen one Winter Wren in Boise, Idaho, and hadn’t seen thousands in WA and elsewhere, I would not count Pacific Wren on my list.  So, for me, if I were in the group that hadn’t noticed field marks and done the work to make it T. sandwichensis, I would likely count it as Thalasseus sp., although I’m sure I would’ve just assumed that it was a “Cabot’s” Tern, as we all get lazy with familiar birds some times.  For me, this has meant a couple of birds going un-ticked, but it adds to the overall challenge of birding in general.  Interesting scenario indeed.  I remember when the Solitary Vireo was split and wrangling with whether or not I could really count Plumbeous or not, I ended up with no, and it added a wonderful adventure to my life, and I still remember hunting that Plumbeous down!

  • amazilia55

    That really is an interesting conundrum.  While we all have our own set of personal rules, and most adhere at least loosely to the ABA rules and C.O.E. regarding what we count, I for one try to err on the conservative side.  Say for instance had I only seen one Winter Wren in Boise, Idaho, and hadn’t seen thousands in WA and elsewhere, I would not count Pacific Wren on my list.  So, for me, if I were in the group that hadn’t noticed field marks and done the work to make it T. sandwichensis, I would likely count it as Thalasseus sp., although I’m sure I would’ve just assumed that it was a “Cabot’s” Tern, as we all get lazy with familiar birds some times.  For me, this has meant a couple of birds going un-ticked, but it adds to the overall challenge of birding in general.  Interesting scenario indeed.  I remember when the Solitary Vireo was split and wrangling with whether or not I could really count Plumbeous or not, I ended up with no, and it added a wonderful adventure to my life, and I still remember hunting that Plumbeous down!

  • Drew Wheelan

    That really is an interesting conundrum.  While we all have our own set of personal rules, and most adhere at least loosely to the ABA rules and C.O.E. regarding what we count, I for one try to err on the conservative side.  Say for instance had I only seen one Winter Wren in Boise, Idaho, and hadn’t seen thousands in WA and elsewhere, I would not count Pacific Wren on my list.  So, for me, if I were in the group that hadn’t noticed field marks and done the work to make it T. sandwichensis, I would likely count it as Thalasseus sp., although I’m sure I would’ve just assumed that it was a “Cabot’s” Tern, as we all get lazy with familiar birds some times.  For me, this has meant a couple of birds going un-ticked, but it adds to the overall challenge of birding in general.  Interesting scenario indeed.  I remember when the Solitary Vireo was split and wrangling with whether or not I could really count Plumbeous or not, I ended up with no, and it added a wonderful adventure to my life, and I still remember hunting that Plumbeous down!

  • Of course you can “count” it. If you ‘list’ by your own rules, then it’s obvious. And if you play by the ABA rules, rule IV.A.ii covers precisely this case. 
    http://aba.org/bigday/rules.pdf

  • Here’s what Rick is referring to:

    (ii) Identification of the bird may be made subsequent to theinitial encounter.  It is not always possible to secure a positiveidentification initially, but, using physical and/or writtendocumentation made at the time of the encounter, identificationis sometimes possible after the fact, upon consultation withreferences and/or other authorities.  In rare, tricky identifications,for example, photographs sometimes reveal minute, yet critical,details, that were not visible during the initial encounter.Furthermore, our knowledge of how to separate similar species inthe field is continually advancing.  On rare occasions a speciesmay not be identifiable until after it has been captured andstudied in the hand, or feather and blood samples analysed.  Insuch instances of “after-the-fact” ID, the bird may be counted onone’s life-lis

  • Drew Wheelan

    Of course you can count it after the fact, according to the rules, but counting a bird is about knowing a bird (for me).  For instance I watched 2 Bridled Terns after Hurricane Irene last month.  They were identified by the majority of the group as Sooty Terns, (in very bad light).  Most of these people left, and several others got different looks at the birds that suggested that they might not be Sootys.  After my photos confirmed that they were Bridleds, I’m sure that most everyone counted Bridled Tern on their list, though they never got good, identifying looks at the birds.  It’s like counting a distant probable flyby without being certain.  Once a bird is positively identified by a group, or other birders, to me it doesn’t automatically mean that’s what I saw and that I can count it.  It just doesn’t seem black and white for my own purposes.  Of course those people were looking at Bridled Terns, but did they actually “see” Bridled Terns?

  • Michael Retter

    Of course it’s countable. The argument against it is ridiculous.

  • Michael Retter

    The argument for counting it, however, is straightforward and logical. “Counting” means “hearing or seeing something to *your* satisfaction”. If you saw X, and didn’t know it was X, but the bird was photographed and later identified as X, the truth remains: you saw X. I don’t understand why this is a topic for serious debate.

  • Drew Wheelan

    I don’t think that this has been a serious debate, but an exploration into the gray areas of listing.  I certainly never argued that the bird or birds in that scenario aren’t countable, we’ve gone over that. However, if we extrapolate  the status quo logic here, it would follow that a birder need not bring binoculars as long as someone is identifying the birds in front of you and later posting those sightings, you can count it all.  If you look at a group of shorebirds, and someone later posts that they identified a Red-necked Stint in the group which you didn’t identify, but there were only 150 birds, and you obviously “saw” them all, according to your logic that would be countable if the person felt ok about it.  Just like the Bridled Terns in my previous example, non-identifying looks were gotten at the birds, although there were 2 and not 150, yet they were likely counted.  There is an obvious gray area here that is not ridiculous.

Previous post:

Next post: