Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The great Brown-headed Nuthatch mystery of 2009...CASE CLOSED!

For those of you who were birding in the fall of 2009 you'll remember that early November was pretty amazing - the Phainopepla showed up in Brampton, a Sulphur-bellied Flycatcher was found in Oakville and an Ash-throated Flycatcher showed up at Pelee (those are just the highlights that showed up during that time!).  So when a report surfaced at that time of a Brown-headed Nuthatch in Brantford you can imagine that at least a few of us got real excited...

What was even more exciting was that the finder had photographed the bird! I was one of about 30+ birders who showed up in a quiet Brantford neighbourhood the next morning hoping to find this mega.  However, after spending some time there and after Andrew Keaveney talked to the finders and we all did some investigation work, we began to become suspicious.  You can read about it on Andrew's Ontbirds post here

Basically, what the consensus was was that the lady saw a bird in front of her house.  She looked online and found a photo of what she thought it was and posted the photo on her blog claiming it to be taken by her. Unfortunately for her, this little lie aimed at her friends and readers of her blog (which, by the way, requires a password to read now) quickly spun out of control.  Myself and several other birders emailed her to ask for detailed directions and she gladly gave them to us not wanting to admit she hadn't even taken the picture.  That's where the story ended.

Until now.

Hold on a sec...I'll get to the conclusion.

So today, I noticed a post on the Ontario Birds Facebook group. Kellie Superina posted a note saying that when you do a google image search for birds now the results also give you options for similar species and in some cases different age/sex classes:
The new google image search results shows similar species
That's pretty cool I thought...I wonder when that was launched? So I tried a web search to try to figure that out.  Instead I landed on this post on the ABA Blog by Ann Nightingale. I hadn't read this post until today but the gist is that Google has this new "search by image" tool that mostly fails miserably at matching photos of things.  But what it can do is look for photos on the web that have appeared elsewhere....

So that set me on a search to see if I could find a picture of the Brown-headed Nuthatch to test with this fancy search tool.  Well, I found the photo, and what do you know? The photo first appeared in March, 2007 (two and a half years earlier than the report) on the KennySmith.org blog! Finally, we can close that mystery forever! Here's the original photo.

Anyways, that search tool definitely could be handy to screen out bogus reports of rare birds in the future.

And of course, the lesson to be learned here is that no matter how small of a lie you start with, you could quickly find your house surrounded by angry birders!


  1. Wow, nicely done Mike! I had all but given up on this one. I remember at the time I spent probably an hour searching flickr, google images, etc to find a match unsuccessfully.

  2. http://www.tineye.com/

    reverse image look up. Many great uses for those who were unaware!

    Great detective work Mike!

  3. Amazing! This makes my morning.

  4. This surely fits into the category “Who cares?” Birders bear at least some responsibility for this kind of behaviour by their eternal quest for rarities, encouraging some misguided people to seek their fifteen minutes of Warholian fame by falsifying records. If birders were not maniacal in seeking out every waif and stray this practice would not exist. I am sure that not a single person who tried to see this alleged Brown-headed Nuthatch had an interest in the bird as an organism, wanting to see the delicacy of its form and plumage, perhaps experiencing a moment of sadness in the fact that it was so far from its normal range. It simply represented a tick on their list. Birders will invade a neighbourhood, abdicate all environmental responsibility to see a rarity. A pox on all your lists, big years, big days, big sits etc. In your world the list triumphs everything. The bird is a mere incidental.

    1. Well, obviously I have to completely disagree with the comment. I am proud to call myself a birder, birdwatcher, bird conservationist, twitcher, naturalist and many other things. Like many people I enjoy seeing new species that I have never seen. Yes, I keep a few lists. But guess what? I get just as much thrill out of observing a new behaviour or spending hours watching a flock of juncos at a bird feeder. There are as many types of birders as there are birders and none of those classifications are mutually exclusive. I am sorry to hear you feel otherwise, but it is ultimately your loss.

      And as far as who cares? Well, if no one else cared I would be fine with that, I write the blog for fun, but obviously you care because you took the time to read it (or at least visit the page) and leave a comment...

  5. Awesome post Mike! I know it's not the outcome we had hoped for, but I still find it to be a fantastic birding memory to have. I can look back and smile...

  6. Good job, Mike. Good memories for sure; the genuine naturalists among us more than make up for the "bad apples"; poor ambassadors do leave a fermented taste.