Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Where's the "oops!"?

Last week a birder posted photographs of a carpodacus finch on the Wisconsin Birding Network thinking it might be a Pine Grosbeak, but sought verification, and the listserv is a great place to do just that. It wasn't a Pine Grosbeak and a more experienced birder quickly responded and suggested diagnostic features for House Finch:

"Your Grosbeaks are House Finches. They're red, carmine, almost vermilion. Pine Grosbeak males tend toward the pink side of things. Male Pine Grosbeaks are also evenly pink on the face, and your bird has that brown patterning on the cheek and ear that is characteristic of House Finches. And that's another hint - male PIGR aren't very brown anywhere and your bird has a fair bit of brownish on the wings. He also lacks white wing bars."

End of story, right? It should have been. But shortly after this post another birder (I'll call him Starling) offered his thoughts on the finch:

"For reference purposes, photos are of a Purple Finch. The bird in photos has a larger bill than would be expected on a House Finch, lack of any streaking at all, brilliant red coloring all the way down through the chest, flanks and belly, and, most importantly, has a brown line through the eye which accentuates the red supercilium. I've found this combination of field marks to be highly reliable when identifying Purple vs. House Finch."

So the bird is a Purple Finch? Not so fast!

An another experienced birder and member of the WSO Records Committee offered his points for House Finch:

“This bird looks like a classic House Finch with a little more red than normal. Although it is rosier than normal it does not fall outside the lines for House Finch. Don't let the bill confuse you, the bill can look large in zoomed in pictures like these, especially depending on the angle. Most important are the gray wings and gray eyeline and cheek, neither of which a Purple Finch will have. Purple Finches should have a pinkish wash on top of the gray in the wings which this bird does not have. This bird does lack streaking but I don't consider that important for out ruling House Finch either. The shape always seems different too, Purple Finches seem chunkier. Of all the House and Purple Finches I have seen, I would not think twice about this being a House Finch.”

Several other experienced birders provided opinions on the bird, reaching what seemed to indicate a House Finch consensus. Phew! But Starling could not let it stand and offered an even more thorough (but errant) analysis:

"With all due respect, not even the House Finches of southern Arizona have that much red. House Finch will always display a white belly. The red on this bird (or rather, deep crimson) extends all the way back and through the flanks, something no House Finch would display. Bill size in proportion to the rest of the bird is far more Purple Finch-like than House Finch. Also, the brownish stripe through the eye, which creates the distinctive facial pattern, is indicative of Purple Finch.  As you mention, Purple Finch is typically chunkier than House Finch. Something I'm seeing quite evident in the photos rather than the more streamlined shape. Most Purple Finches have some purplish wash through the wings, but not all. This is a pigment distribution that isn't displayed on some birds. Also, if you look at the nape and the upper back, that whole area is a deep purplish color. While this can show on House Finch, it is much more common on Purple Finch.  Another thing to note is how evenly the coloring is spread throughout the chest, underparts, head, back, etc.  House Finch generally has a focused area of color that is brighter than the rest where Purple Finch is typically much more even in its color distribution. Sorry, but unless more photos are produced that can clearly support either identification, I'm going to have to stick with Purple Finch on this one. This is a bird I get at my feeders all winter every winter. They're pretty easy to pick out among the few House Finches."

See? Purple Finches are easy to identify. Starling really seems to know what he's talking about, so maybe it really is a Purple Finch after all. However, when even more arguments supporting House Finch were entered into the discussion by other WSO Records Committee members and experienced birders, Starling changed his position to a possible House Finch x Purple Finch hybrid, or perhaps even a European species, because it couldn't possibly be an ordinary House Finch:

"I'm not sure I'd rule out the possibility of a hybrid since there are several things wrong for a House Finch ID as well as for a Purple Finch ID. I actually saw someone put the possibility of Common Rosefinch out there as well with a photo of a Rosefinch that looked almost identical to the bird in question."

There was nothing wrong for House Finch ID; Starling just couldn't see it ... he didn't want to see it.

So, we've gone from a super common bird to a less common bird, to an ├╝ber rarity ... just like that. Moments before it was undeniably a Purple Finch, but now there are "several things wrong" for Purple Finch ID. Naturally, all birders are fallible and capable of error when it comes to species identification. However, whether in the field or behind the computer screen, the overwhelming majority of birders handle being corrected by their peers with more grace and humility.

This isn't the first time Starling has shown he profoundly lacks those qualities of character. For example, for as much as Starling goes birding one might wonder why he doesn't have a single WSO record rarity or early/late bird report. He's submitted plenty sightings, but all were rejected by the Records Committee. And just who does Starling blame for this? The committee, of course. He even stopped entering his sightings into eBird on account of his rare bird reports being rejected. More recently there was his impish rant about his Wisconsin boreal bird trip earlier this winter, blaming everyone else but himself for whiffing on his target species.

Consider the Dunning-Kruger effect:

For a given skill, incompetent people will:

1. Tend to overestimate their own level of skill. ✓
2. Fail to recognize genuine skill in others. ✓
3. Fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy. ✓

Risking consternation of people I respect in the Wisconsin Birding Community, I'm not above deploying ridicule when I feel it's due. There are more civil ways of dealing with people like Starling, or best of all just ignoring them. However, to avoid this round of poking fun, all Starling had to say was "oops!" and admit he was wrong about the finch ― but he couldn't. Why not? Some say it's because Starling is still young, so maybe there's at least some hope he'll molt out of his narcissistic plumage.

Why I wrote this:

"I don't talk to Mike M at all. He's an evil, sadistic, off the deep-end left-wing flaming liberal. We've never been friends, and we never will be. Furthermore, I not only won't go chasing his COWA [sic], but I almost don't believe there ever was one."

~ Starling, August 21st, 2010

Hmm ... any particular reason I should have cut him some slack?