Wednesday, July 29, 2009

How Social Dynamics Can Complicate a Rail ID

Huntley Meadows Park in southeastern Fairfax County, VA is a highly popular destination for birders, photographers, school groups, and naturalists. Much of its 1,425 acres is a freshwater wetland. A 1/2 mile boardwalk and observation tower makes wildlife viewing very accessible and enjoyable.

It has been 15 years since King Rails bred at Huntley Meadows. Speculation abounded about the reasons that this species, experiencing long-term declines due to range-wide habitat loss and degradation, no longer nested in the marsh. Some people may have thought the species might not ever breed there again.

The marsh has experienced great fluctuations in water levels in recent years primarily because beavers manage its hydrology and do it a bit differently than human engineers. They build dams and abandon them for their own good reasons. Rainfall is important too and this area has seen a number of droughts in recent years. But this year water is plentiful and the vegetation is lush, perhaps just right for rails?

Last year Virginia Rails bred successfully in the marsh. Here are a couple of photos I captured in 2008.

Again this season Virginia Rails have been observed and photographed with chicks. But, in the last week, a birder/photographer, Tony Coomer captured images of a King Rail with chicks that prompted skepticism and much discussion. Two of his photos are reproduced below with his kind permission. Others can be seen at his website

Some people were certain that these birds were the Virginia Rails, others just as certain that they were King Rails. The photos are quite good and certainly adequate for correct identification. So why the reluctance on the part of some to accept what the photos revealed? Why should there have been any controversy over the ID? Surely, everyone following birds at the park would want to believe that the long-absent Kings had indeed returned to breed again.

I considered Groupthink, a type of thought exhibited by group members who try to minimize conflict and reach consensus without critically testing, analyzing, and evaluating ideas. This kind of thinking happens all the time in birding. A birder, esteemed as an expert by all in a group, calls out an ID. Everyone assumes that he or she is correct and feels further scrutiny is unnecessary. Even when a mistake is recognized, only the most courageous among them will speak out and say, “Hey, I don’t think so.” But this is not quite the scenario we have here.

I’m more inclined to believe that it was a matter of overconfidence in experts, an overestimation of the ability of competent birders to find all breeding birds in a defined location.

These doubtful folks may have asked how the many expert birders who visit the park over the period could possibly have missed King Rails during the month or so of courtship, nest building, and incubation of eggs. They wondered how it could be that King Rails were first seen only when chicks were out and about. After all, they thought, bird sightings are reported to the nature center at the park by leaders of a weekly walk, attended by mostly experienced birders. A highly knowledgeable staff leads school children on regular trips into the marsh. Visitors record their observations on a ledger at the nature center. If King Rails hadn't been noticed before this, they couldn't have bred there, right? And the photos presented as King Rails must really be Virginia Rails. No, think it through again.

Consider the propensity of humans to see what they expect to see. Since Virginia Rails had already been known to be breeding in the park again this season, a quick glimpse of a mostly obscured rail, or the sound of a call, not dramatically different in the two species, could have been passed off by all but the most astute observer as a Virginia Rail.

Then, consider that rails are among the most secretive of species, flying infrequently, nesting a few inches from the ground in thick, inaccessible marsh vegetation. They work very hard to be sure their nests and eggs aren’t seen. They’re gotten quite good at this over the eons! Why should it be so hard to believe that these birds could be missed?

It seems undisputed now that they were missed. In the last few days additional reports and photographs of both King Rails and Virginia Rails have come in. So this story has a happy ending. Both rail species have produced young in the park in the summer of 2009! All those who love Huntley Meadows and its precious wildlife have reason to celebrate. Nature will always have surprises and we mere mortals should expect them and be humbled and appreciative.

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