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The computer & the naturalist

In my last column, I started a discussion on whether computers, online resources and social media make us better naturalists. You might recall that I was torn about the answer as in some cases, the outcomes are positive, but in others, they are not. Let’s delve further into the subject, shall we?

I recall spending time in Madagascar a couple of years ago and seeing many interesting birds. I photographed a hawk I thought was a Malagasy Harrier but was surprised when one of the moderators of a science-based online group I subscribe to said I was wrong. He said it was, in fact, a Pallid Harrier. The most surprising outcome is despite the error I made, it was the first record of a Pallid Harrier ever documented for Madagascar! So my mistake turned into a fantastic success. Thanks to social media, this important observation was not lost to science, and I learned something. The point is I did try to do my research and made an identification mistake because the field guides available, both online and in print, at the time had poor quality photos of the expected hawk, and someone with greater expertise spotted my error reached out and taught me something. That’s the way it should work.

But can we always count on someone out there checking our findings and telling us we did good (or not)? Simply stated, no, we can’t. Many folks mine social media platforms for information, and the outcome is sometimes amazing. I see many colleagues looking at all types of Facebook pages and other forums looking specifically for rare species that were either misidentified or not reported to the scientific community for many reasons. One incredible find was made in 2018 when a novice birder posted a photo on iNaturalist of a flycatcher she had seen but couldn’t identify using her Canadian bird books. She tried to identify the bird but couldn’t because it wasn’t in her bird book.

Why wasn’t it? Well, it was a Great Kiskadee, a common Central American species, but never before seen in Canada! Someone saw her post, helped her identify it and then told the birding community. There were a lot of happy birders as a result, and the science was improved as the bird stayed a long time, so food preferences, hunting techniques and vocalization studies ensued.

Just recently, someone reported a Northern Saw-whet Owl near Stoney Creek, but it was misidentified and was the much rarer Boreal Owl. Once again, someone spotted the error, and many birdwatchers got to see it.

I have also seen many sightings posted asking for help where respondents were absolutely wrong in the advice they gave. So the observer needs to take advice with a grain of salt and check other resources, using the respondent’s advice only as a guide, not as a definitive identification.

I want to reiterate people must try to find the answer themselves and then reach out to others for clarification or confirmation if they want to improve as naturalists. There are many apps out there to help. Many are free and quite good, and others cost a few dollars. The best free bird app I can recommend is Merlin. This is written and supported by Cornell University. It has details on bird ID, calls and songs, habitats and range maps. It is an invaluable resource with bird lists for many parts of the world. I truly wish something like Merlin had existed in my youth, as this single source of information is amazing. The one drawback is that you have to identify the birds to a family to gain the best advantage. Another app I like is iNaturalist which covers many aspects of natural history study. In this case, you post a picture linked to a geographic location, and other subscribers help with the identification. The science behind this is strong, and the outcomes are surprisingly fast and accurate. I will continue next time with more on the subject.

Geoff Carpentier is a published author, expedition guide and environmental consultant. Visit Geoff online on LinkedIn, Facebook and Instagram.

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