A while back, I was out salamandering with Neal Maine and my daughter Michelle at Circle Creek. I heard some chickadees and kinglets in the canopy and began tooting like a pygmy owl to see if I could draw them closer. Much to the surprise of our group, I got a pygmy owl response. We worked our way toward the call hoping for a photo opportunity. What we found instead was David Bailey tooting like a pygmy owl and looking for the one he thought he heard coming from our direction…
That was not the first time I thought I was on to an owl, but discovered something else. I’ve identified all sort of things as owls: chipmunks, Western toads, pigeons. I once chased a call I was certain was a Long-eared Owl only to find a very uncontented cow.
Bird ID by sound can be tricky, in part, because many sounds can be imitated. We imitate owls. Jays imitate hawks. Starlings imitate all sorts of things. Then there are all those nearly-the-same calls. I was pretty sure I was hearing a Swamp Sparrow at Wireless Rd the other day only have a Black Phoebe pop up (I’m still getting used to the idea of ubiquitous phoebes). Weeks earlier, I thought I was hearing a Black Phoebe only to have a Swamp Sparrow pop up.
Which brings me to metadata. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, metadata is data about the data. Adding the statement “heard only” to the details of a record would be an example of including metadata. It tells us something about how the data was obtained. I routinely add “heard only” to records when I think the information might be relevant to reviewers. In most cases, it’s probably not relevant. Most of the Golden-crowned Kinglets I encountered are “heard only” as are a majority of Fox Sparrows. I do a lot of ear birding. Listing all the heard only kinglets as “heard only” is probably over-kill and I would take it as a given that most Virginia Rails records are “heard only”.
However, If I heard a Eurasian Wigeon in a flock of American Wigeon without actually seeing it, I would probably note that it was heard only. Same with flyover American Pipits or a golden-plover. I will probably also continue to note Clatsop County Long-eared Owls as heard only until I actually see one. I think it is useful to those using the information I share. I have no control of the value judgements they might make as a result.
On the other hand…
There was a time when not hearing the Tropical Kingbird you were watching meant you probably shouldn’t count it as a Tropical Kingbird (how could you possibly know it was not a Couch’s?). Now that they’re annual on the coast in the fall and no longer subject to records committee review, nobody much cares whether you heard the Tropical Kingbird you claim, but you still better have auditory evidence if you go claiming a Couch’s.
Some birds are best identified by the noises they make and with all the recent splitting of cryptic wrens and flycatchers, heard only will have a much higher value than “seen only” for a growing list of taxa.
There is nothing wrong with “heard only”. I am absolutely certain that I was within 20 ft of a Least Bittern at Malheur. I listened to it for hours, but never saw it. It is one of maybe a half-dozen birds on my life-list that I’ve never seen. Yellow Rail, Highland Tinamou, Three-wattled Bellbird and a couple of species of Costa Rican wrens are all dutifully noted as “heard only”. I also have “heard only” Blue Monkeys on my list from a hike up Mt Mulanje in 1983. I view the “heard only” notation as important metadata that adds color my experiences.
I do not view the inclusion of “heard only” as devaluing or qualifying my certainty in my ID’s or the quality of “heard only” ID’s made by others. There are plenty of other more precise pieces of metadata I can and do add to express my uncertainty in what I think I’m seeing…or hearing…