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Pins, Telegram, and crakes

"Pins," "the exact location of the bird," "the coordinates of the twitch"... or whatever you want to call it, is currently a hot topic in the Gauteng birding community.

Example of a pin

For those not in the Wider Gauteng Rare Bird Alert and Wider Gauteng chat groups on Telegram, the other day, a sighting of a Striped Crake on Zaagkuilsdrift road was posted in the group without the exact location given. Similarly, a few days later, a delayed report of 'a couple of Baillon’s Crake' seen in the Kgomo Kgomo floodplain, was also posted without the exact location of the birds. These reports ignited a fire of fury in some members of the community. Amidst the displeased and accusatory comments, keyboard warriors rushed to their keyboards to unleash their arsenals in retaliation. At the end of the day, various explanations were given as to why the 'pins' of the birds weren’t provided.

Striped Crake - Photo by Jandré Verster

Despite the embers still being hot, the dust (or is it ash?) is starting to settle, and I think we can all learn a thing or two about this debacle. In my analysis of the situation, there are three points of view: the 'ethical' birders' view, the twitchers' perspective, and the fear of birding elitists.

The ‘ethical’ birders’ view

These are the birders who defended the choice not to include the pins. Their argument for this was that these rare rallid species are often the subjects of 'unethical' birding practices—flushing, playback, baiting, and so on. These actions put pressure on the birds and often result in them leaving the area for good, not returning the next summer.

The main takeaway here is that there are birders with 'unethical' practices. Unfortunately, they do exist, and there’s nothing we can do about them.

Another concern is the number of people who would flock to the sighting. However, I do think this is a location issue. In March 2022, Marievale was the site of a few Baillon’s and Spotted Crakes. Despite the almost continuous flow of millions of people who came to see them, the birds stuck around for at least a month. I believe this is because no one wants to go trudging through the chemical-ridden water of Marievale to try to flush the Crakes, and therefore, the level of disturbance they experienced was kept to a minimum. In comparison, Kgomo Kgomo wetland, where the current Crakes reside, is a lot more accessible and appears to be safer to trudge through... although I have never tried.

Where the Crakes were at Marievale

Unfortunately, I did notice one or two comments on the groups from people supporting the ethical standpoint despite them doing the exact opposite in the past...

The twitchers’ view

Twitching is a significant part of birding. Whether it is 'good' or 'bad' for birding should not be an issue, as sometimes it is the only accessible way for many people to see a rare species.

Imagine if someone never posted the exact location of the Wood Warbler in 2022 or the Lesser Whitethroat in 2021 – we all would have gone dilly.

As I mentioned earlier, twitching is a great way to see a rare species that you may never see again. It is also perfectly alright to do, despite the recent negative comments made about it. The problem comes in when people start to misbehave at twitches, which results in the worries that ethical birders have expressed.

Wood Warbler - Photo by Joshua Winter

There needs to be a way to manage the goings-on at a rare bird’s location. Penalties should be given out, and certain rules should be strictly followed. How can this be implemented? I don’t quite know… suggestions are welcome.

The fear of birding elitists

Unfortunately, through my fairly youthful eyes, the birding community is often not the most supportive one out there and can be fairly toxic at times.

With this in mind, I understand the fearful perspective of 'underground sharing' taking place and birding reverting to its 'pre-2006' elitist status.

It would be a tragedy if birding became a caste system, with only the top elitist-like cult knowing the sites of rare species.

My opinion

I won’t deny it, I enjoy a good twitch, and I keep the locations of hard-to-find birds hidden. The latter is mainly because most of these sites are on private property.

Ultimately, I understand all three perspectives. This is a valuable discussion that should be continued in birding circles so that a solution can be agreed upon.

In my opinion, upload your sighting to SABAP, report it on eBird, and after that, it is truly your choice as to whether you’re going to share it with the wider public or not.

PS: One final request… please stop arguing about the new Swarovski AX Visio binoculars – 90% of us can’t afford them, and they are of no use in locating rare birds…

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