Thursday, September 3, 2020

Stringer’s Thrasher

I neglected to mention in last week's post an additional meaning for the word "stringer" (thanks, Rex). I wrote the article below for Bird Watcher's Digest, where I worked briefly as a Stringer.

Stringer’s Thrasher

Kim and I drove from Gainesville to St. George Island in Florida’s Panhandle, stopping at four state parks along the way. We were excited to discover a new species of bird at Ochlockonee River State Park: a woodpecker that appeared to be a cross between a Red-headed and a Cockaded. As we were leaving the park we discussed how we would like it named. “Stringer’s Woodpecker”?

We showed our photograph to a ranger, who promised to show it to the park naturalist.

He phoned a few hours later to tell us it was an immature Red-headed Woodpecker – common in the area. This was a downer, but we were cheered knowing we had been famous for two hours, if only to ourselves and the ranger.

As the sun was setting in St. George Island State Park we pulled into a parking lot and, after our afternoon sand flea experience, decided not to hike through the brush. Kim spotted a bird that looked to me like our Northern Mockingbird, though a bit smaller. In retrospect, the colors and markings were entirely different - but I’m the kind of birder to whom all sparrows look pretty much alike. We followed our usual practice: take a photograph to check against our birding Bibles.

My guess was immature Mockingbird. Kim, not as lazy as me, actually looked it up, and she found it – a Sage Thrasher. One problem: according to the books, Sage Thrashers aren’t found in Florida. I privately dismissed the possibility, but Kim, who tends to believe her own eyes over what she is told in a book, said we should contact Rex, our local birding guru.

I emailed Rex our photo of the Stringer’s Woodpecker and our St. George Island bird, suggesting it might be a Sage Thrasher, but also mentioning my immature Northern Mockingbird.

Rex confirmed the Red-headed Woodpecker but was excited (“That’s a major find!”) by the Sage Thrasher. A series of emails made us more and more specific about where we saw it. Which parking lot? Which side? Which railing? He mentioned how rare this bird was in Florida, and he offered to post it on one of the Florida birding listserves that birdgeeks follow.

Rex warned us: The word “stringer” has a meaning in British birding jargon. A website put it this way: “Stringer: A birder who has built up a reputation in birding circles for identifying birds incorrectly, in particular with regard to claims of rarities.” 

Rex’s posting mentioned Kim Stringer’s name, and we started to enjoy our fame. Then we read the following:Rex - do you really expect us to believe this Sage Thrasher report? Most stringers do not wish to insinuate they are lying to us, and make every attempt to sound legitimate . . .. But Kim Stringer?? Posted on Hogwash Flickr account?? Are you serious??”

Fortunately, our sighting was rare enough that birders flocked [sorry] to St. George Island, and a non-stringer confirmed our bird.

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