A Great Ornithologist’s Plea: Scale Back The Playback
This Rufous-capped Warbler was seen and photographed without the aid of playback. It was a very pleasant experience. Florida Canyon, AZ.
Not long ago, my dear colleague Seagull Steve (Global Birder Ranking System’s U.S. #7) had a blog post that got me thinking. Here are a couple excerpts.
[The Rufous-capped Warbler] quickly skulked off, but I was happy. A few minutes later my avian company was replaced by a haggard-looking dude with a massive camera setup, his arms covered in cuts. He was sweating profusely, had a thick southern accent and kept calling me “Slick”, which I’d never heard before outside of movies. He had obviously been trying really hard to see/photograph the Rufous-capped Warbler, and despite being there for hours had failed up to that point in the morning.
“It used to come into tapes,” he said, with obvious disappointment in his voice.
“Well, yeah. When everyone is using tapes on a bird, it will tape the bird out”, I observantly pointed out to him.
I told him where I last had the bird and he stumbled over to the spot, looking forlornly at the slope that the warbler had previously occupied a few minutes earlier. Eventually he came back to me and said, “Hey Slick. I drove 3,000 miles for this, I’m going to play a tape.” I responded unenthusiastically and got the [expletive deleted] out of there.
That’s not all Seagull had to endure that day.
…the [Buff-collared Nightjar] began calling in earnest, and I could tell the bird had moved off the hill and was coming closer and closer. I drooled horribly, knowing that I had a chance of actually getting eyes on the thing. But as the suspense mounted, I heard some other birders pull up on the road behind me. They were not good birders. The nightjar was singing loudly, almost incessantly, and from the snippets of conversation I could hear it was obvious that the new birders had no clue they were listening to it (New York birder eventually pointed this out to them). New York birder later told me that they then asked if they could do some playback, New York birder said “no”, and they responded by saying they had driven too far and they were going to do it anyway. Sound familiar, Slick?
And so they began blasting nightjar song while the bird was still singing, and of course it immediately shut up. Heads were about to roll…
As you know, the common theme here is playback. This isn’t anything new, as the use of playback has been debated over and over again by birders everywhere. But today I am approaching it from a different angle…I will speak not of whether or not it causes stress or disturbance to birds (the usual point of contention), but rather how it causes stress and disturbance to birders.
Personally, I do not use playback. It’s not that I’m completely against it, it’s just that the whole aesthetic of it bothers me, for reasons that are both tangible and also difficult to describe. I know that a lot of birders share this sentiment. For those who do not understand this, I’m not sure you could actually pick up what I’m throwing down here. Birding is often more than getting a tick, and not all birders are conscious of this. Too often I’ve walked up to a flock of birds only to find an oblivious birder blasting pygmy-owl calls at them. It makes me want to run away, every time. Not because I think the birds will be traumatized by the experience, but because I just don’t want that experience to be my experience. Doing that on your own is one thing, but using playback when other birders around is something else.
And then there are cases like Seagull Steve mentions, where birders use playback specifically on a target bird. This can disrupt a bird’s behavior, causing birders to dip on something they may have otherwise had a chance of seeing. Seagull Steve easily could have had his Buff-collared Nightjar meeting cut short, with the bird going silent or flying the opposite direction from where playback was being used. Ironically, he eventually saw it because as it was making it’s escape, it flew right by him. He was the only birder to lay eyes on it that night. It should be stated that the two locations mentioned above, where the warbler and nightjar were, were the only places in the whole country these species could reliably be found. Do those birds really need to be bombarbed by playback by countless visiting birders? Do birders want to risk mistaking someone using playback for the real deal?
That’s right. It happens. Birders can, and do, mistake someone using playback for a real bird’s real vocalizations. This has happened to me too many times to count. This is incredibly frustrating, at best. When I heard a Least Flycatcher in San Francisco the other day (a quality bird here on the west coast), I had to find the closest birder just to make sure it wasn’t him using his phone. This should not be necessary. It is sad that we birders who have fought tooth and nail over the years to learn bird vocalizations now have to contend with this problem on a frequent basis. Who knows how much confusion and how many false ticks this phenomenon had lead to already?
So there it is birders…if you don’t want to be conscious about your playback use for the birds themselves, maybe you can do it for other birders. I know it’s tempting to use it (particularly for tour guides and field trip leaders), but many of us consider it poor form. So please, mind your birding manners…I will be very appreciative, and don’t forget; the Global Birder Ranking System is watching.