Friday, 5 July 2013

How would you recognise a ghost?

KestrelI saw the distant bird from my office window. It was behaving differently to any bird I knew in the area. I decided it could only be a buzzard, even though they were extremely rare in the area. A few weeks later I saw another bird flying in just the same fashion. But this time I had a much better view and knew for a fact it was a kestrel! I'd never seen a kestrel behave like that before. It became obvious that the first bird must have been a much commoner kestrel , too. I was still quite new to birding at the time, which explains my confusion.

But there was also another factor biassing me towards seeing a buzzard - it would have been a much rarer sight, and so, more exciting! As it happens, I've now seen buzzards in that same location as, in the intervening years, they've spread much more widely in the UK. Also, ironically, kestrels have become much rarer nationally since then making it a 'good day' when you see one!

It's not the only time I've 'seen' a bird mainly because I really wanted to, rather than because of a definitive identification. On such occasions, when the bird is not well seen, I know that what I think I'm seeing may only be wishful thinking. The only sensible thing to do in such circumstances is say 'I honestly don't know' and let the bird be 'the one that got away'. Oddly, birders tend to remember the 'ones that got away' just as keenly as their first ever sighting of a species.

So, WDTHDWP? I remembered these experiences when looking at anomalous photos. In many cases I simply cannot see what the photographers sees, whether it's a ghostly figure, face or other anomalous shape. In some cases I can't see a 'ghostly figure' because I can actually recognise it as a tree, bush or some other mundane object. Once you recognise an object, it is hard to see it any other way. I never confuse kestrels and buzzards these days, for instance. Also, I sometimes wonder if the photographer is seeing a ghostly figure because, whether consciously or not, they actually 'want' to see one. After all, a ghost is a lot more exciting than a bush!

Human perception is heavily influenced by personal experience. What is instantly recognisable to one person will mean nothing to another. It is important to realise that, when you don't recognise something, you need to be extra careful in identifying it. It is better to let it be the 'one that got away' rather than persuading yourself that a poorly-seen bush is really a ghostly figure.

Few people ever see ghosts, so how do they recognise one when they see it? In fact, in most cases they don't. It is often only when the apparently normal human figure does something weird, like vanish, that it becomes obvious they were looking at a ghost! But sometimes people will misinterpret a wisp of fog as a ghost. Why? Because they 'recognise' them from the movies! And maybe because they 'wanted' to see a ghost.

PS: I'm not going to insult anyone's intelligence by saying what bird is in the photo!

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