Beginner's Luck


The people continued to give freewill offerings, morning after morning, until in time the artisans who were doing the various jobs in the building of the sanctuary came to Moses, saying, “The people bring far more than we need to complete the work which YHWH has commanded.” ~ Exodus 36:3-4

Sometimes our own gifts create problems seeing the gifts of others. I’ve seen this happen among gifted birders. When I encounter a birder in the field, I’m quick to assess their level of experience and skill before I trust their reports. It is really just an extension of the birding practices, identification applied to people just like to birds. But one important lesson, whether considering humans or birds, is not to limit expectations based on identification. I was taught that lesson when I saw my life White-faced Ibis.

It was a beautiful day on Plum Island at the height of spring migration. An experienced birder who regularly shared good sightings told me that there was a White-faced Ibis in a field not far away. So, we rushed there and were able to pick out the subtle differences on the one ibis that wasn’t a Glossy Ibis in the flock feeding about a hundred yards off the road. These were the days of when getting the latest rare bird sighting information involved calling Massachusetts Audubon Society to listen to a recording updated on Mondays. Being the weekend, I called and left a message. On Monday, when Simon, the ornithologist heard it, he had questions, so he called the birder named Lynch whom he knew and trusted, Mark, who told him that he had seen some Glossy Ibises that could have been confused with White-faced by a less experienced birder. Thankfully, the bird stuck around long enough that a week or so later while chasing a mega-rarity in the area, Simon saw it for himself and changed the report for “possible” to “confirmed.”

This tale is full of irony. The birder who told me about the sighting had doubts about its validity because it was reported by beginning birders. My own report was doubted because of my lack of experience, but when I sent my field notes to Bird Observer they were printed in an article which pointing out the value of documentation since that is what settles identification issues. They didn’t say it, but it is not hard to read between the lines to understand that reputation may be an important consideration in the process, but it can also get in the way. In this case, the lack of experience made the report possible in the first place. Had the first observers thought what us more experienced birders would have, i.e. that any group of ibises in Massachusetts is all Glossy Ibises, they never would have consulted their field guide and then look for the marks that confirmed the identity of this bird who had wandered far afield from its normally western range. It is easy to forget the truth that everyone has gifts to offer, even if we don’t think they could.

Prayer: God, grant us the chutzpah Moses showed asking a fugitive band of former slaves for gifts expecting that they would produce jewels and precious metals well beyond the need. Amen.

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