I've contemplated this many times, and have never been able to follow through with any kind of analysis. It's just too darn complex! So, what is it?
Active birders are much more likely to find cryptic rarities than obvious rarities.
There. I said it. And i'm not talking "slightly more likely". I mean "WAAY more likely". Why? Two reasons.
1. The number of "records" a bird has for a given region, isn't representative of it's actual occurrence.
A few years ago a Brown Pelican showed up on Lake Erie. The darn thing was observed FOUR times from Point Pelee, Rondeau, Long Point and Buffalo in a matter of days. Why? It's a freaking obvious bird. That's why.
If a Neotropic Cormorant shows up on Lake Erie, the thing could circle the lake for weeks on end before it was observed. Why? It's a boring and non-descript bird. That's' why.
2. Active birders are more likely to recognize a cryptic rarity.
The more you bird a given area, the more familiar you are with the locals, and the more likely you are to recognize something that is out of place. I started "birding" at my local hawkwatch. I spent years hoping to see a Black Vulture, but it just never happened. Countless people focused on the field marks required for an ID... Under primaries whitish. Short tail. etc. Then I went to South Carolina and saw my first Black Vulture - and I identified it from 7km away as a spec on the horizon. Why? I'd studied 25,000 Turkey Vultures in detail waiting for a Black. I knew them so well, that the "real deal" (the would-be odd bird out) was soo freakin obvious it hurt.
If I hadn't studied all of those Turkey Vultures, the unique appearance of the Black Vulture wouldn't be "obviously different". Context I say!
Some (personal) case studies:
I've came across SIX Neotropic Cormorants in Ontario to date. Yes, it's a recent phenomenon... But I would be willing to bet that every single Canadian record of NECO was found by someone who had previously found a "rare bird". Then there's Varied Thrush - a bird I would KILL to find while out birding. I can't help but think I may never stumble across one - yet it's considered a "regular rarity". Why?
Neotropic Cormorants are ugly and non-descript rarities that spend time on large bodies of water.
Varied Thrush are beautiful and obvious rarities that visit backyard bird feeders.
The number of records of each is not a true representation of the species occurrence. Half of Ontario's NECO records have been found by 3-4 people. There aren't many people who have come across more than 1 VATH. If NECO's were hot pink and liked to eat french fries, there would be a LOT more records.
Some other species to consider:
- Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Brown Pelican, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Wood Stork, Glossy Ibis, Swallow-tailed Kite, Black Simmer, Brambling, Painted Bunting - all probably get noticed pretty regularly and the total number of records probably indicates how often they occur in Ontario.
- Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, Black Rail, Little Stint, Long-tailed Jaeger, Common Poorwill, Dusky Flycatcher, Violet-green Swallow, Sprague's Pipit, Smith's Longspur, Baird's Sparrow, - all probably end up in Ontario far more often than the number of records suggest, but for various reasons go unnoticed or unidentified.
Likewise, the rarities that DO occur in Ontario may be more likely to be dull and indescript than you'd think.
A high percentage of the records for the following species are adults or (specifically) adult males: Lazuli Bunting, Tufted Duck, Hooded Oriole, Cinnamon Teal, Slaty-backed Gull, Black-headed Grosbeak, Little Stint, Lark Bunting, Common Teal - If we could readily recognize the females, young or non-breeding plumages of some species, there would be more records.
Finally, and this is especially true at a place like Point Pelee - but the more time you spend looking, birding, recording - you're only likely to observe MORE of these challenging birds... If you double your time spend birding/observing/recording... I would guess that the odds of stumbling upon something stunning like a Roseate Spoonbill increases relative to your effort. Whereas doubling your effort on cryptic birds would quadruple the observations you have. Why?
- The "further" you can identify birds (eg,/ lakewatch, hawkwatch) - the amount of "area" you can search increases quite a bit - therefore you see more birds in total, and more rarities. But here's the catch - you only see further/distant/crappier birds! So the "rarities" one sees are not the most "enjoyable" occurrences. They were right in front of you all along.
- The "faster" you can identify birds leads to more ID's and less "missed" birds. Which equals more observations of unsuual birds. But here's the catch - it's more observations of brief half-second encounters...
- Birds fly. (Fact). In my experience you see a higher total number of birds in flight than you do on the ground. Therefore, if you spend a lot of time identifying birds in flight, you see an equal increase in rarities. But here's the catch - they're flying, and then they're gone. 90-95% of the time, they're gone. There's no point-blank Black-necked Stilt to swoon over. It flew away.
- The more you bird around heavily birded areas, the more the "point blank beauties" get spotted, reported and twitched before you ever arrive. So you end up recognizing that cryptic rarity that has been lurking around in plan sight. But here's the catch - IT'S CRYPTIC. If it were a Painted Redstart, you would have twitched it yesterday.
So what's the point of all this? Well I personally think that there is no better way to bird - than exactly how you want to bird. Looking for rarities suits my style of wanting to identify every single bird that I see, no matter what the context. It's a challenge, and it's fun!
To those of you who say 'you can't identify everything, you've got to let them go" - I say - BOO - I don't care...
But what I will also say, which has no bearing on this recent Meadowlark thing (honest - #nothonest) - is it too much to ask for a G@WD D@MN MALE PAINTED BUNTING?!