This weekend, birders found a LeConte's Sparrow in a weedy field near my house. Dozens of birders have been there each day since then. Everyone has seen it. Except for me. So far, I have chosen not to chase it (photo:Howard Eskin).
Moment of full disclosure. I've seen hundreds of LeConte's Sparrows in Texas--so I do not need to see this as a life bird. Also, though I've lived in Pennsylvania for almost two years now, I am not actively pursuing a Pennsylvania State List. And though I do keep a Bucks County list, I haven't had a desire to really given it as much attention as it would need to be taken seriously. So, my bird listing interests are not as high as they have been at other times and places in my life. Given that, any other reasons I may give for not chasing this LeConte's Sparrow may be suspect to anyone who has other birding priorities.
That said, my biggest concern about chasing this bird is that it is a small shy bird that feeds on the ground in tall grass. The only way to see it is to stomp around in its habitat until it flies, and hopefully lands where you can see it. If it flies and lands on the ground again, you have to keep chasing it and making it fly until it lands up on top of a weed or somewhere else where you can get a good look at it. While I don't have a problem with doing this to a bird once and a while, with dozens of people chasing this bird every day, I have to wonder about the negative impacts that chasing this bird might have.
According to the American Birding Association code of ethics, the primary concern of birders should be the promotion of birds and their environment. Birders are to "avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger" (1b). Birders are also supposed to "stay on roads, trails, and paths where they exist; otherwise keep habitat disturbance to a minimum" (1d). While it isn't my job to be the birding ethics police, I do not think that it is possible to see this bird without violating these two parts of the birding code of ethics.
Some have told me that, what the heck, the damage is already done. Others are already stomping around in the grass. The bird is already being chased. We might as well all get in on the fun. This is the tragedy of the commons, the idea that as long as a resource is being exploited, we might as well get our due share. The "everyone is doing it" defense doesn't make me feel very good.
Others are claiming that the bird isn't being disturbed too much. Maybe just for a few minutes at a time over the course of the day. While the bird is only being seen that often, I'm not so sure that that it isn't being disturbed more often.
After the furor dies down, I'll probably wander over to this place to see if the bird is still around. I'll be interested to see how much habitat damage has been done, and will continue to puzzle over the ABA birding code of ethics. While its not easy to sit out a bird chase in your own neighborhood, its a bit easier to do when you aren't too worried about missing a bird for a precious list. Would I be so hesitant to chase a bird and join in a group habitat trampling exercise if the bird were an Arctic Warbler or Painted Crake, rather than a bird I've seen hundreds of times?