Thursday, January 26, 2023

Stringer’s Thrasher

Sometimes my blog posts present a modest suggestion, or perhaps even a nugget of wisdom, about how to live one’s life, especially as we age. Well, this entry clearly does nothing like that. I wrote it about ten years ago, and it was published in Bird Watcher’s Digest.



Stringer’s Thrasher


            Sometimes your fifteen minutes of fame just flies up to you, lands, and waits for you to take its picture. And sometimes you are only famous for about fifty people. But still . . ..


            We drove from Gainesville up to St. George Island in Florida’s Panhandle, a four-hour trip that we turned into eight by stopping at four state parks along the way. The parks were mostly deserted – it was November – and most of our stops were brief. But we were excited to discover an altogether 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 Kim and I discussed how we would like it named. Perhaps the Stringer Woodpecker?


            We showed our photograph to the ranger. She copied our photo with her phone and promised to show it to the park naturalist, an avid birder whom we had met when we arrived. We left our phone number for confirmation.


            He called a few hours later to tell us it was, in fact, an immature Red-headed Woodpecker – commonly seen in the area. This was a bit of a downer, but we were still cheered by knowing we had been famous for about two hours, if only to three people: ourselves and the ranger.


            But this was just a prelude.


            By late afternoon we had explored much of St. George Island State Park, where we had not seen many birds, though we did make contact with a large population of sand fleas. Kim’s bite totals might have qualified her for the Guinness Book of Records, but I neglected to count them.


            As the sun was setting we parked in the lot that was as far in as we could drive. After our sand flea experience we were not up for a hike through the brush and trees. Kim spotted a bird that looked to me like our common Northern Mockingbird, though a bit smaller. In retrospect, the colors and markings were entirely different. Not surprising that I did not notice. I’m the kind of birder to whom all sparrows look pretty much alike. We followed our usual practice: take a photograph that we – that is, Kim - checks against our birding Bibles that fill a shelf near her computer.


            My guess was an immature Mockingbird. (One thing I’ve learned about bird identification is that, when confused, preface your guess with the word “immature.” The guess is always wrong, but at least people know that you have the word in your vocabulary.)


            Kim is not as lazy as I am. She actually looked it up, and she found it – a Sage Thrasher. One problem: according to the books, the Sage Thrasher isn’t found in Florida. So, I privately dismissed the possibility, but Kim, who for some reason tends to believe what she sees with her own eyes over what she is told in a book, said we should contact Rex, our local birding guru who often helps us with bird identification.


            I sent him an email with our photo of the Stringer Woodpecker and our St. George Island bird. I suggested the latter might be a Sage Thrasher but also, to cover my bet, mentioning my Immature Northern Mockingbird theory.

            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? What side of the parking lot? On which railing? What day and what time? He mentioned how rare this bird was in Florida, and he offered to post it on one of the Florida birding listservers that birdgeeks follow closely.


            Then Rex sent us a warning: The word “stringer” has a clear meaning in British birding jargon. The link to 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. Twitchers [serious British birders] think twice before chasing rarities that have been recorded by a suspected stringer. A stringer often has a large lifelist which is considered with scepticism by other birders. Difficult to prove that a person is a stringer, and thus birders are sometimes unfairly branded as such.”


            How amusing! We looked up Rex’s posting, which mentioned Kim Stringer’s name, and we started to enjoy our fame. Then we read the following posting: “Rex - do you really expect us to believe this Sage Thrasher report (not a record until confirmed by someone else...)? Most stringers do not wish to insinuate they are lying to us, and make every attempt to sound legitimate, such as DF, Sir Harry, and a few others that will go un-named in case some bimbo decides to pass on this email. 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 one of them, a non-stringer, took a photo of our bird.


            At Rex’s suggestion we contacted an official Florida birding sight to record details of our find. And we signed up at three different birding listservers, so now we get twenty or more notices of sightings in Florida, some of them rare and some not so rare. Our moment of fame has passed in the blizzard of digital communications.


            Though our moment in the spotlight has faded, it has had at least one lasting benefit. The ancient Greeks taught us an important lesson: Know Thyself. And now I know that my name means “bullshitter.”


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