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How birdwatching’s biggest record threw its online community into chaos
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How birdwatching’s biggest record threw its online community into chaos

In late 2023, Peter Kaestner, a birder in his 70s, was close to achieving an unprecedented goal: observing over 10,000 distinct species of birds in their natural habitats.

The idea of reaching such a record was once unimaginable, but advancements in technology have made it possible for rare bird sightings to be more easily recorded, DNA testing to identify more bird species, and public databases to be used for sharing and keeping track of findings. As a result, more avid birdwatchers are getting closer to reaching five-digit numbers in their observations.

As Kaestner was nearing the end of his attempt to break the record for observing 10,000 birds, a new competitor, Jason Mann, suddenly appeared and surpassed his record.

The unknown bird enthusiast surprised Kaestner and others by unexpectedly listing over 9,000 species on the now-inactive birding website Surfbirds.com, which he had spotted over many years and recently uploaded after a long delay.

“Is it possible that two individuals discovered 10,000 species on the same day? This seems unbelievable,” questioned a surprised bird enthusiast in a post from February.

After closer examination of Mann’s assertions and the subsequent chaos that erupted regarding their truthfulness, there was widespread unrest in the online birding community. Despite there being a small group of websites, there is no central governing body for this community. The intense competition to see who could record the most bird sightings raised doubts about the need for better oversight in a contest where sightings are primarily based on trust.

Kaestner stated that anyone can share whatever they please on the internet. She has refrained from addressing the accuracy of Mann’s posts. The main issue is determining who has the authority to determine the validity of these claims when they are not harmful or against the law.

An older white man in a collared shirt speaks into a microphone and gestures at a projected image behind him of a blue-colored, red-throated bird perching on grasses.

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The study of birds has greatly evolved since ornithologist John James Audubon set out to meticulously record all the birds in North America through hand-drawn illustrations in the early 1820s. With the advancement of digital cameras, birds can now be captured in high-quality photographs, and artificial intelligence technology is able to recognize birds by their vocalizations. In the past, bird enthusiasts would keep written accounts of new species they had observed, but nowadays most hobbyists use online platforms to document and share their bird sightings. Popular applications such as iBird, iGoTerra, and eBird allow hobbyists to keep track of rare bird sightings and attempt to spot them themselves.

The debate between the two bird enthusiasts revolves around these platforms.

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Describing ‘Listing’ as a competitive sport with minimal rules

There are various levels of seriousness when it comes to bird watching. People who dabble in the hobby are commonly referred to as “bird watchers”, while those who aim to record different species in a more competitive manner are known as “birders”. Those who have logged a large number of species and rare sightings often identify as “listers”. Individuals like Kaestner who strive to set world records in birding are known as “big listers”.

Although bird populations have been rapidly declining and facing extinction, it may seem surprising that it has taken until now to reach the milestone of 10,000 birds. However, this delay can be mostly attributed to changes in bird classifications over the past century, including during Kaestner’s time as a birder.

“In college, I recall the initial publication of a book documenting the world’s bird species, which included approximately 8,600 varieties,” he mentioned. “At the time, the concept of 10,000 different birds seemed unattainable.”

As knowledge about birds evolves, taxonomic classifications also change. This can result in existing species being divided into two separate species, or occasionally being grouped into one. For instance, in 2023, the northern goshawk species was split into two distinct species – the Eurasian goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) and American goshawk (Accipiter atricapillus) – when significant differences were observed in their genetics and vocalizations. With advancements in genetic technology, the rate at which species are splitting seems to be increasing, as it becomes easier to identify biochemical indicators that distinguish species.

The diversity of known bird species posed a challenge in attaining the goal of reaching 10,000 species. The prominent site eBird relies solely on the Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, while iGoTerra provides access to both the Clements and International Ornithological Community’s (IOC) World Bird List taxonomies. The latter includes 189 additional bird species, making it easier to create longer lists.

Kaestner utilizes both platforms, but he achieved his highest count through the IOC classification system, which he accessed through iGoTerra. As eBird information is utilized for scientific and conservation purposes, observations are reviewed by volunteers globally. If a user reports a sighting of a rare species or a larger than usual quantity of a species, a reviewer may contact them for additional details or ask for visual or audio evidence as validation.

On the contrary, iGoTerra does not verify sightings. It hosts a platform where users can record plants, insects, and other types of species along with birds. According to Björn Anderson, vice-president of iGoTerra, eBird’s emphasis on gathering and utilizing vast amounts of citizen science data causes moderation to have a larger impact, while iGoTerra is more tailored towards individual users.

The speaker described iGoTerra as a gentlemen’s agreement, explaining that they offer the necessary tools for tracking, but it is ultimately up to the individual to decide what they have observed.

Anderson stated that the policy resulted in a sensitive situation as the goal of reaching 10,000 species was pursued. iGoTerra’s official stance was to refrain from involvement in the dispute, trusting that the openness of their product would allow individuals to form their own conclusions.

The competition to observe 10,000 birds.

Kaestner has been observing birds for as long as he can recall, joining his older brother in birdwatching at the young age of four. As a career diplomat, he used his travels to see a wide variety of bird species, even setting a record in 1986 for being the first person to witness every bird family in their natural habitat – a remarkable achievement recognized by Guinness World Records. Through publicly sharing his lists and photos, he gained a respectable reputation within the birding community.

In 2018, Kaestner reached a total of over 9,000 bird species and became determined to reach the 10,000 mark. His pursuit was featured in a May 2023 issue of Outside magazine and gained attention on his popular Facebook page. He shared his objective, strategy, and timeline, but now he is second-guessing his approach.

After reflecting on it, I understand that sharing that information could have made me vulnerable,” he stated. “At the time, I couldn’t have anticipated that Jason Mann would use it against me.”

An American birder named Mann, who is not well-known and currently residing abroad, recently emerged on Surfbirds.com, a bird forum, and would sometimes make posts. His LinkedIn profile indicates that he is a medical doctor and healthcare investor based in Hong Kong. In October 2023, he published a record documenting his sightings of over 9,000 species throughout his life. This came as a surprise to the birding community, including Kaestner, as nobody had heard of him before. In such a tight-knit community, where the top players are well-known, this was a rare occurrence. Kaestner, who has been involved in birding for many years, personally knows most of his high-level peers and has gone on birding trips with them in a friendly competitive manner. Unfortunately, Mann did not respond to numerous requests for comment regarding this story.

Kaestner was taken by surprise when a previously unrecognized competitor joined the race. In response, he rescheduled his scheduled trip to Taiwan, hoping to spot a few remaining species. His rival, Mann, was aggressively adding a new species to his list every day, prompting Kaestner to increase his pace. On February 9th, 2024, Kaestner rushed to the Philippines for another bird-watching adventure, where he ultimately claimed victory by spotting an orange-tufted spiderhunter – a small bird distinguished by its long, curved bill and preference for banana plants. Excited about his accomplishment, Kaestner shared his sighting on bird-watching apps and Facebook, providing photographic evidence. He believed he had emerged as the winner.

A small, white-breasted bird, with gray wings, a red eye, and a long curved bill longer than its head.

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Amazingly, Mann reported that he had observed his 10,000th species in Colombia, a chestnut-bellied flowerpiercer, only a few hours before Kaestner on the same day. Mann’s accomplishment was subsequently announced on a blog for a Colombian nature tour company, with the post written by Mann himself.

The surprising defeat caused internet detectives in the bird-watching world to examine Mann’s list more closely. They discovered “numerous suspicious species” that, aside from Mann, “no one has reported seeing for many years”, as stated in a BirdForum post. BirdForum is a popular community for bird-watchers with over 100,000 monthly visitors. The post generated over 400 comments, debating the credibility of Mann’s reported sightings. These included the Manipur bush quail and the New Caledonian nightjar, both of which had not been observed since the 1930s.

One member who was checking Mann’s list either believes that he is extremely lucky to have found multiple lost species, or does not believe in the reliability of his list.

In response, Kaestner remained unfazed by Mann’s observations and offered his congratulations while focusing on his own achievement. He clarified that he did not participate in discrediting or publicly attacking Jason, and is uncertain of his legitimacy, misguidedness, or possible deceit.

After some items on his list were proven to be inaccurate, Mann eventually shared on BirdForum and emailed Kaestner to admit defeat. The blog in Colombia where his achievement was initially mentioned was removed and an apology from the organization was added. Mann stated that while he stands by most of the items on his list, he acknowledges that there were a few mistakes made in haste. Because of these mistakes, he believes that it is best to support Peter as the first person to reach 10,000 bird species.

“I strongly believe that there should be no doubt about it, and in my opinion he is highly deserving,” Mann expressed. “I applaud Peter and other top-level achievers, and do not see myself as competing with any of them.”

After the excitement of the drama has subsided, Kaestner is continuing to travel and pursue birding. While participating in competitions and setting birding records may provide a rush, he believes that they only make up a small portion of what makes birding appealing to him.

“Receiving recognition for dedicating a significant amount of time and effort towards something is a pleasure – it’s undeniable. However, it is not my primary motivation for birdwatching,” he expressed. “I have a passion for travelling, exploring unfamiliar destinations, and observing bird behavior. I also enjoy educating others about birds. Any fame or attention received is simply an added bonus.”

The aftermath

After a public scandal, Mann has decided to make his iGoTerra list private. He revealed his identity on BirdForum and admitted to making some mistakes when entering his sightings into iGoTerra. He explained that he is not experienced with sharing his birding accomplishments publicly. Mann mentioned that compiling his notes from 37 years of birding all over the world was a huge task. The process was made more challenging by the different taxonomies and technical difficulties with SurfBirds.com, which prompted him to switch to iGoTerra.

“It was an honor for me to experience such a tightly-fought competition in the end,” he stated. “I wish that any attention this generates helps to progress the activity of birding, bringing attention to it for more individuals to appreciate and conserve nature.”

After displaying both lists from bird experts, Kaestner’s personal logs were examined due to achieving 10,000 sightings. As a result, he deleted three species that were mistakenly included in his iGoTerra listings, even though he had already removed them from eBird. The legitimacy of one sighting was brought into question over three years later when new evidence proved that it was physically impossible for him to have seen that particular species in the location where it was recorded. However, even after removing these species, his total number of sightings was still above 10,000.

“If I happen to make an error, it is often due to my understanding of the bird at the specific moment,” he stated. “The essence of science is to progress in knowledge, and as the information regarding the bird evolves, I am open to correcting any mistakes and removing a bird from my list.”

The platform iGoTerra does not have plans to alter their moderation methods, according to Anderson. However, recent events have prompted increased transparency and examination of lists, which he believes is beneficial. He believes that validation from the public can hold more weight than that of a single reviewer due to the abundance of knowledge available. Ultimately, Anderson stated that the competition is intended to be amicable.

“Despite being in close competition, two skilled bird enthusiasts would benefit each other in discovering new species or even carpooling during a trip to spot a rare bird,” stated the speaker. “In my opinion, this camaraderie is special and adds to the charm of this competition.”

After excluding three questioned species, Kaestner’s current list of birds stands at 10,002. He has not set a new goal and remains focused on promoting bird conservation and leading educational trips. The support he received during the recent controversy reinforced his love for birding, as individuals he met on bird-watching trips many years ago came to his aid.

“According to him, there are bird watchers who fail to realize that birding is a collaborative activity. Gathering and exchanging information, building rapport with others – it cannot be done alone. It has always been a team effort.”

Source: theguardian.com